Defining dance and locating its roots is never simple and never complete, but the attempt is always enlightening. All summer I have been thinking about Contemporary dance: Historically, how did Contemporary dance evolve? What are its major influences and artistic motivations? What are its distinguishing features? How does one train to become a Contemporary dancer? In my quest for answers I’ve searched the web, asked local dancers, and listened carefully to the judges on SYTYCD who often comment on the subject. (In fact, I never even heard of Contemporary before SYTYCD arrived on the air six years ago. Hence my curiosity.) Here are some beginning speculations on the subject.
Part 1: Historical Influences
I found one description on www.wisegeek.com. How well it expresses the opinion of the Contemporary dance community, I do not know, but it’s a good starting point.
“Contemporary dance is a style of dance which emerged in the 20th century as an outgrowth of modern dance and other 20th century dance techniques. Defining this style of dance can be difficult, as contemporary dance is an extremely fluid and very nebulous style of dance. Unlike traditions such as ballet, contemporary dance is not associated with specific dance techniques, but rather with a dance philosophy. In contemporary dance, people attempt to explore the natural energy and emotions of their bodies to produce dances which are often very personal.”
Everyone in my research agrees that Contemporary evolved from modern dance but no one can really say when the term “Contemporary” first replaced “Modern” and “Post-modern.” Often, Contemporary and Modern histories are conflated with both histories beginning with Isadora Duncan and ending with José Limon who died in 1972. Santa Cruz Contemporary Vernacular dancer Zari Le’on suggests that Deborah Hay and Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company are links between Modern and Contemporary. Batsheva was founded by Martha Graham in 1964, though as the current director, Naharin has created an entirely new technique called “Gaga.” In Gaga, Naharin provides an approach to movement more than a vocabulary such as Graham’s or Dunham’s.
While Modern dancers were devoted to singular approaches to dance, Contemporary dancers apparently borrow freely from many approaches. Nichelle Strzepek at DanceAdvantage agrees with this general history and suggests that “Modern” is a 20th century term while “Contemporary” refers to 21st century developments within the same genre:
“contemporary dance…is not a technique but a collection of principles regarding movement and the choreographic/performance process which are closely related to the goals of the original modern dancers and their techniques.”
Mia Michaels places the origins of Contemporary in Ballet and in doing so establishes technical ability as a primary element:
“There’s a difference between pedestrian contemporary and actually, like, real trained Contemporary…(Pedestrian) is more human gestures, it comes from a human place as opposed from a technical place. Contemporary came from Ballet, Contemporary Ballet, that’s where it all stems from.” (SYTYCD, Season 7)
I actually wonder if Twyla Tharp could be one of the progenitors of Contemporary. Tharp moved away from her roots in the democratic and pedestrian explorations of the Cunningham-Judson crowd finding them limiting. She began to use the rigors of ballet to bring technical virtuosity and drama to her choreography and added vernacular moves to create its character. Her collaborations with the Joffrey Ballet may mark the beginnings of Contemporary Ballet, a fusion of Classical and Modern dance.
Contemporary choreographers are perhaps drawing from the whole gamut of American dance history: from the structured techniques of Ballet and Graham to the ethnic innovations of Katherine Dunham to the pure movement explorations of the Post-modernists. In many ways, this is in keeping with the primary drive of American Modern dance to innovate, to invent rather than maintain continuity with past traditions. But Contemporary artists now live in a world that is rapidly hybridizing and rather than reject any forms of dance, they seem to be adopting them and including them whenever it serves the choreography.
As my research develops, I will address the distinguishing features of Contemporary choreographies through their content and vocabularies. I hope you will contribute your own thots or experiences with Contemporary dance thus increasing our understanding of its history and place in the current dance culture.