In order to define what contemporary dance is, we will have to make use of some ambiguities: it is an alternative and different genre from ballet or classical dance. We have been talking about contemporary dance since the second half of the 20th century (specifically, since the 1960s), but these six decades have given rise to a multitude of styles, techniques and disciplines.
Broadly speaking, we can say that contemporary dance is constantly looking for specialisation and innovation; both in the form of the movements, as well as in the stories it wants to tell, in its style of music or in the distribution in space. The main characteristic is the eclecticism, besides that each author has his individual style.
Contemporary dance speciality, brief history
To understand what contemporary dance is and where it comes from, we have to go back to the United States in the late nineteenth century. There, in the hands of Isadora Duncan, free dance emerged: the classical forms of ballet were rejected, and natural and simple movements, improvisation and contact with nature were sought.
The development of modern dance is boosted and the first national school is founded: the Denishawn School, whose artistic director is Ruth Saint Denis. From there, a new generation of dancers emerged, who would change the course of dance history forever.
Among them, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey stand out; they laid the foundations of what we consider today to be contemporary dance. Both were looking for a new language in accordance with all the changes (social, political, historical…), which were taking place at the beginning of the 20th century; and both agreed that ballet techniques did not help them to express the new forms they wanted to develop.
The principle of the Graham technique is the binomial contraction-relaxation; and in the Humphrey technique, the fall and recovery.
The concepts of American modern dance came to Europe through France. Nureyev, the artistic director of the Paris Opera (and a classical dancer par excellence), begins to organize modern dance workshops for his dancers with Carolyn Carlson and Alvin Nikolais, among others.
Carlson introduces a new world and discovers new possibilities for the French, who added a touch of intellectuality to the American teachings. Thus the French nouvelle danse was born, which sought to stimulate thought, to propose a reflection through dance. Maguy Marin and Dominique Bagouet are the main promoters of this movement.
The research of the body expression started to spread through Europe. Rudolf Laban established his system of mathematical notation of movement, which gave tools to Kurt Jooss, considered the founder of the dance-theatre speciality. This current, added to the German expressionist theories, was developed by Mary Wigman.
Dance-theatre reached its peak with Pina Bausch, one of the most important creators of the end of the 20th century and who has influenced most of the current dance productions. Pina experiments with movement in a more radical way than her predecessors. In her own words: “I am not interested in how people move, but what moves them”.
In the 1960s, postmodernism (which does not refer to the modernist movement but to modern dance) emerged. Among its figures, the work of choreographer Merce Cunnigham is particularly important, who even questioned the role of the choreographer and his control over the finished work. With the advent of postmodernism, experimentation became radical in all the arts, with the motto “anything goes”.
These postmodernist principles contributed to the explosion of a new current of dance in the Netherlands, the Dutch school, which culminated in the creation of the Nederlands Dans Theatre.
Its director, Hans Van Manen, created the first steps in pairs for male dancers, thus questioning the gender and other established forms of classical ballet. Van Manen and Jirí Kylián led the new Dutch dance, incorporating elements of modern and classical dance into their choreography.
Anne Teresa de Keersmaker is another leading figure in understanding contemporary dance. A student at Mudra (the school founded by Maurice Béjart), Anne thought that choreographers can be created, if given the right tools.
That’s why she founded the P.A.R.T.S. school in Belgium, which accepted not only students from the world of dance, but also psychologists, actors… Her students created a new, uncontaminated language, which reactivated the European dance scene.
Similarly, the London theatre Sadler’s Wells served to promote contemporary dance in the United Kingdom. In 1998 it became a centre dedicated to dance, offering artistic residencies for those with a choreographic project, as well as working to encourage dance among young people and the interest of institutions. Artists such as Akram Khan, Matthew Bourne or DV8 often appear on its stages.
Contemporary dance in Spain
In Spain, contemporary dance had a late development, partly due to the Civil War. During the 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship Spain was isolated. Meanwhile, in the United States Martha Graham and Merce Cunnigham were triumphing, and in Germany expressionist theories were developing.
With Franco’s death came change and modernity. Among others, Sol Picó, Marina Mascarell, Marcos Morau (La Veronal), La Ribot, Carmen Werner’s dance company, Daniel Abreu, Teresa Nieto and Sharon Fridman are essential names in contemporary dance in Spain.
How to distinguish what is contemporary dance
If contemporary dance integrates a multitude of techniques, then how do I distinguish a show? We’ll give you some clues.
If the show is classical ballet, the stories and choreography are established, as well as the costumes. The girls wear tutus and the men stockings; they dance on tips and sometimes they hold them in their arms while they do pirouettes.
Contemporary dance, on the other hand, does not have to have a story, it can try to express a concept, a feeling, or simply investigate movement, to escape from the known. While classical ballet is associated with stylisation and the Apollonian, contemporary dance would be related to chaos and the Dionysian. Another small hint: often in contemporary dance the dancers go barefoot.
And in 1995, British choreographer Matthew Bourne premiered his version, with the same music and plot, but with contemporary dance. A curiosity?
If the show is a neoclassical dance, you will also see ballet steps and points, but the scenery is no longer so evident, the costumes are not codified either, and the movements are much less rigid. As its name suggests, neoclassical dance reinvents classical ballet.
Why isn’t it contemporary dance, then? In contemporary dance, movement comes from within, is much more visceral, and needs to flow freely.
It seems easier to know what contemporary dance is when we compare it with the Spanish dance or the flamenco specialty, right? If they dance to a beat and with heels, it’s not contemporary dance…
But what if the music is the dancer’s own body? In contemporary dance, the use of music is optional.
It’s difficult to define what contemporary dance is because its techniques and choreographies are constantly evolving. But we can give you some advice: the best way to become an expert is to be an avid spectator.