You’ve heard what Desmond Richardson, Jillian Meyers, Nicholas Leichter, William Wingfield, and other big names think about the nature and characteristics of contemporary dance. But we wanted to find out what teachers and choreographers in the Dance Studio Life circle had to say. Read on for their thoughts (in alphabetical order) on how they define contemporary dance.
Mignon Furman, director, American Academy of Ballet, New York, NY:
Contemporary dance is best defined by isolating it from other readily defined dance: classical ballet (adherence to technique and style), folk/national dance (traditional music and steps), and tap/theater dance/jazz (popular music and happy themes). If it’s none of the above, the dance is contemporary. To complicate the definition, contemporary dance is characterized by the style of many artists—Martha Graham, Ted Shawn, Alvin Ailey, and their predecessors, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss, and Isadora Duncan—who revolted against the then-rigid style of classical ballet to form the freer “modern” dance. Ultimately, a definition is not important as long as the dance is theatrically sincere and artistically satisfying—even to those who think classical ballet is the supreme art of dance.
Helen Hayes, Youth Dance Ensemble director, Joy of Motion Dance Center, Washington, DC:
Contemporary dance is difficult to define because it is a genre, not a technique. It incorporates a collection of methods and techniques found in ballet, modern dance, postmodern dance, and others, giving it a unique look. Contemporary dance tends to be intricate and physical, and the dancers change levels and directions quickly and seamlessly. Contemporary dance may deal with abstract concepts, images, or emotional extremes. It has a rawness that sets it apart from plot-driven ballets or Broadway jazz. Contemporary dance is present!
Charlotte Klein, director, Charlotte Klein Dance Centers, Worchester and Westboro, MA:
What amazes me about contemporary dance is how the same moves can appear in routines from both the East and West Coasts, even without a defined technique. Bent knees and flexed feet are acceptable in this genre. Some contemporary choreography tells a story based on the words of a song, but other pieces have story lines known only to the dancers and their choreographer. It is most enjoyable to watch a contemporary dance on dancers who have very strong ballet, jazz, and modern technique.
Nina Koch, owner/director, East County Performing Arts Center, Brentwood and Antioch, CA:
Sometimes a dance is labeled “contemporary” because the teacher, student, or parent wants something different or trendy. Since the term came from contemporary ballet, I’m surprised it has morphed into a genre that covers so many styles. Now we see pieces that are a cross between jazz, modern, and/or hip-hop, and it’s all called contemporary. At competition I have seen lyrical, jazz, and character dances all classified as contemporary. I think it’s great—dance is dance and does not need a label. But it does bother me that the term “contemporary” is thrown around so often simply because it’s trendy.
Alice Korsick, ballet mistress, Spisak Dance Academy, Glendale, AZ:
Over the years, as a teacher, choreographer, and competition judge, I have seen trends in dance presentation that are new, yet emphasize traditional techniques. Lyric was based in ballet and emphasized balance, control of movement, and storytelling. Jazz evolved from modern and ballet with movements that were into the floor and fluid, like Matt Mattox’s and Luigi’s styles. Now jazz encompasses sharper and stronger moves and can be almost anything that the choreographer envisions.
To me, contemporary dance is based on modern technique but the movements are smaller, faster, and angular in appearance and are executed with many, many movements to fewer counts of music. The use of space is sparse. The movement is more internal, showing the dancers’ strength, control, and quickness of movements. Costuming is minimal—usually booty shorts, no tights, and a simple top. There is a serious intent to interpret the music or words that accompany the dancer.
Brian McCormick, career mentor, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, New York, NY: Contemporary dance taps ballet, modern, postmodern, jazz, ethnic, folk, and break dancing, as well as theater, performance art, and media. It’s a blending of styles, from simple hybrids to complex stews. As represented by So You Think You Can Dance, it’s been reduced for quick sale as a kind of trick-filled, “power” modern. In reality, contemporary dance stretches to fit the process-oriented works of Miguel Gutierrez and Ralph Lemon, the multidisciplinary oeuvres of Pina Bausch and William Forsythe, and the choreographed dances of John Jasperse, Kate Weare, and Angelin Preljocaj. Also, unique installations by artists like Yanira Castro that challenge the conventions of audience spectatorship and participation.
Christopher K. Morgan, rehearsal director and choreographer in residence, CityDance Ensemble, Washington, DC:
Contemporary dance is the work currently being made by choreographers who are pushing the field by drawing on existing dance forms, theater traditions, and other artistic mediums. It also embraces the pursuit of innovation, artistry, and self-expression. Recently, the presence of So You Think You Can Dance seems to have defined the genre as a lyrical jazz/modern/ballet movement vocabulary tied to narrative story lines. Though wonderful and valid, it worries me that this new definition might limit the creative possibilities for artists and diminish the interpretive faculties of our audiences.
Tom Ralabate, professor and chair, Department of Theatre and Dance, SUNY at Buffalo, NY:
Contemporary dance provokes, expresses, and reflects through movement the point of view of the dancer and/or choreographer. It capitalizes on the universal language of dance by using all types of movements, from stylized to pedestrian. Some “thread elements” visible in contemporary dance include modern, ballet, jazz, gymnastics, and world dance forms. Movement images, ideas, and emotions are set to a variety of sounds, from music to spoken word to the richness of silence. It is dance that crosses frontiers on many levels.
Kerry Ring, adjunct professor, Department of Theatre and Dance, SUNY at Buffalo, NY:
It is difficult to define contemporary dance because the essence of contemporary is to break new ground. I teach my students to look for trends when trying to define contemporary dance, such as a focus on athleticism, upper-body strength, and abdominal strength. Smaller, more revealing costumes highlight the range of motion and the line of the foot and leg. Choreography, showcasing the dancer as athlete, will often make use of intricate or extreme partnering or a dynamic use of levels. (The dramatic “knee drop” that is rippling through studios is an example of a contemporary level change.)
Often there is no plot, yet the audience sees the piece as highly emotional. Dancers must be able to move freely from idiosyncratic gesture and gymnastic-like tricks to combinations using ballet, jazz, and modern vocabularies. All of these trends are being pushed to new limits, distorted, and then redefined by contemporary choreographers.
Gregg Russell, president, 3D Dance Network, Inc., Los Angeles, CA:
Contemporary dance starts with a base of traditional modern. A grab bag of elements such as lyrical, ballet, martial arts, hip-hop, and everyday pedestrian movement then gets mixed in, creating a new style with a “contemporary” feel. As a judge for Co. Dance conventions, [I think] the biggest mistake [contemporary choreographers] can make is to just emulate what is popular. A true contemporary artist always strives to create something new that stands out from the others.
Aysha Upchurch, faculty, Joy of Motion Dance Center, Washington, DC:
When someone does something slightly different from the norm, eventually it’s given a name. Contemporary dance is the same. It’s not modern, it’s not jazz, it’s not hip-hop. When I see a dance piece labeled “contemporary,” I usually see something that has elements of technique from the classical genres, but with a twist. If it’s done well, I applaud it, just as I do with any dance that is done well. I appreciate accessible creative art, no matter the label. I don’t know who officially started “contemporary,” but I appreciate his/her/their contribution to the dance world.
Maida Withers, professor, George Washington University, Washington, DC:
The term “contemporary dance” has never appealed to me as a viable description. We used that in 1965 and it felt dated then. “Dance” is the best term, of course, but it seems we are always modifying with terms such as “modern” dance, “postmodern” dance, and so on. The most appropriate term might be “new media dance” since the most current work is taking place in cyberspace over electronic systems. This provides a more democratic access to dancing since you can do it instantly, even while walking down the street. In Washington, DC, there is a preponderance of “dead” dance—dances by choreographers who are no longer living. In that context, contemporary dance might be dance by anyone who is alive and well and still kicking—artists making dances of relevance in today’s world.