Contemporary Dance – always changing

People in the arts regularly bandy about the phrase ‘contemporary dance,’ but what exactly do they mean?

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People in the arts regularly bandy about the phrase ‘contemporary dance,’ but what exactly do they mean? It’s a blanket term stretching all the way back to such early 20th-century modern dance pioneers as Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, names many have heard of, even if they know little or nothing about their owners, and reaching forward to, say, the hugely pleasurable, music-led choreography of Mark Morris, the smartly populist and innovative spectacles concocted by Brazil’s Deborah Colker or the latest, hottest street styles of the hip hop phenomenon. That’s a pretty big blanket, and it covers the entire globe.

Look at contemporary dance as you would a painting or sculpture, or as you might listen to a piece of music. Let go of the self-imposed pressure of your need to ‘get it.’ Now, what’s your response?

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Dance Consortium, the perpetrators of this website, couldn’t help but recognise just how international the context for contemporary dance has become especially in the UK. Since 2000 the 18 venues that are members of the Consortium have presented work by dance companies from North and South America, France and the Netherlands, and the net keeps widening.

Aside from its world-wide scope, one of the major points of contemporary dance as a whole is how relevant it is to the way we live now, or at least it ought to be. Ideally, it is a very present-tense experience that speaks of and to the time in which it is being made. To risk stating the obvious, that’s why it carries the label ‘contemporary.’

It used to be known as modern dance. If, in some quarters, this particular adjective seems so yesterday, that’s not to discredit those trailblazers whose dance-making changed the direction of an art form. Imposing figures like Graham, commonly dubbed the mother of modern dance, or one of her first male company members, Merce Cunningham, who left the nest and in the process became just as influential an artistic giant.

It could be said that what keeps choreographers like Cunningham, Morris, Colker and other masters or mavericks such as Paul Taylor and Bill T Jones (to drop a few more names whose work the Consortium has championed) going strong and at the top of their game is a shared hunger for the untried and the new. They all delight in making discoveries about movement, themselves and life through their work. It’s this fresh perspective on moving and being alive that all contemporary dance potentially offers any open-minded, open-hearted audience member regardless of his or her familiarity with the art form.

To reduce it to its essence, contemporary dance developed in a rebellion against the hierarchy and restrictions of 19th-century classical ballet. It was conceived as a heightened, kinetic form of self-expression in which each artist was at liberty to determine his or her own creative path. This may sound like the perfect excuse for an anything-goes free-for-all. The truth is that most artists, at their best, are dedicated to harnessing the discipline necessary to realise even their most daring, far-out ideas.

Some apply their training and skills to craft the most sophisticated, refined example of an already established dance form as they can. Others throw away the rule book entirely, experimenting with and fusing genres, styles and influences as a means of finding and developing their own voice, or are spurred on to test and transcend their limitations via collaborations with composers and musicians, writers, visual artists, designers and architects. No matter what the source, examples of bold and distinctive choices in dance abound. (article continues after the image gallery)

  • Twyla Tharp using the Billy Joel songbook to fuel her dance-driven Broadway-to-West End show Movin’Out
  • Matthew Bourne’s savvy reworkings of classical ballet (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker) and film-to-stage adaptations (Edward Scissorhands)
  • Shobana Jeyasingh fracturing the vocabulary of her classical Indian dance heritage by aligning it to the speed of contemporary life and setting the results to commissioned scores from such Western composers as Michael Nyman, Kevin Volans and Orlando Gough.
  • Rafael Bonachela bouncing between razor-sharp choreographic commissions for Rambert Dance Company and devising the moves for pop star Kylie Minogue’s stadium-sized tours.
  • Wayne McGregor deriving inspiration for full-length dances from medical conditions (Marfan’s syndrome, ataxia) as well as cutting-edge digital technology.
  • Lloyd Newson grounding his provocative productions for DV8 Physical Theatre in sexual politics and human behaviour.
  • Rodrigo Pederneiras of Brazil’s Grupo Corpo exploring every facet of the human body subject to the seductive forces of rhythm.
  • Jonathan Burrows basing an entire (and entirely engaging) dance on two men sitting in chairs gesturing to an unheard musical score by a dead American composer.

It has been said, disparagingly, that contemporary dance is anything you can’t readily understand. The fact is that some work asks us to work a little harder in order to reap greater rewards. Accessibility in any branch of the arts can be a tricky business. It’s kind of like finding a key and inserting it into the right lock. Sometimes the door opens and bingo, you’re in with the ‘in’ crowd. At other times even experienced dance-goers are unable to find not just the key that opens the door, but the door itself.

Good advice for those who find contemporary dance intimidating: Look at it as you would a painting or sculpture, or as you might listen to a piece of music. Let go of the self-imposed pressure of your need to ‘get it.’ Now, what’s your response?

Here’s another helpful tip. The American critic Edwin Denby once wrote that seeing dance is about getting drunk on a performance, then being able to talk about it rationally afterwards. This could be reduced to the ‘drink, then think’ method. Try it. And once you do, you’ll learn just how wonderfully wild and wide the contemporary dance universe can be.