The Next Verbal Challenge: Describing Contemporary Dance

I am relatively new to Twitter but I have already enjoyed the relationships I have started to cultivate and the dialogue they have inspired.

One of the threads we’ve created is the comparison of contemporary dance to modern (look for #comodance).  I have biases.  Know this.  But also know that while I consider myself a modern dance artist, my roots are firm in the jazz idiom.  Allow me to clarify:  Jazz created by people that were investigating the possibilities of the body with applied theory and clear purpose.  Jazz dance that actually related to jazz music and shared rhythms and the percussive qualities that resulted in those rhythms.  Jazz that sculpted space as well as the body.  Jazz choreography that was new each time based on the music, the lines, the feel for the piece.  Jazz artists branded their styles yet offered unique perspectives with new works and demonstrated a development of an idea, a motif, and strong movement selection. In these ways, artists working in jazz were working as deeply and as intellectually, I think, as many modern dance artists- which were then often using the term “contemporary”.  Yet, the “contemporary dance” of Martha Graham is nothing like the “contemporary dance” being presented current day on shows such as Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance.

I will be the first to admit that modern dance, like jazz, has suffered an immense departure from its origins that so clearly identified its belonging in the dance world; like it or not.  I will also be the first to propose that we need a revision ( a RE- VISION) in order to perpetuate this idiom into the future.  But the same goes for all dance idioms, wouldn’t you say?  Wasn’t there huge discussion about six months ago about whether or not ballet is dead?  The same could be debated about modern (also touched on in the #comodance thread).  I have some theories as to HOW this might be done but they need some refinement before I share. I also have some theories as to how all of this should relate to dance education but I am also not ready to show those cards.  For now, I will keep them close to my jazz vest (of which I wore A LOT in my jazz days. 😉 )

Okay, so here goes.  My attempt to fairly explain contemporary dance to the non-dancer.  Gulp.

  • Contemporary dance is a category of dance which borrows movement from the disciplines of ballet, modern, and jazz dance and places an emphasis on virtuosic athleticism.
  • Contemporary choreography often demonstrates one of two themes:  direct/indirect narrative or movement for movement sake yet both approaches are usually dependent upon musical selection and often rooted in popular culture references.
  • As in everything, there is good and bad.  Contemporary dance aspires to be aesthetically beautiful or aesthetically ugly, relying on body rather than embodiment to make the concept clear.

What do you think?  I chose my words carefully…..

Here is a brief list of contrasting ideas that may provoke further thought regarding the differences between modern dance and contemporary. This is not to say these concepts don’t exist in both classifications, these are just general comments to the trends I see in them separately.

Modern                                                                                   Contemporary

Expressionist                                                                                  Impressionist

Organic                                                                                              Assembled

Internal                                                                                             External

Re-Creation of Mvt (embodiment )                                           Imitation of Mvt (line/shape)

Again, what do you think?

If you are interested in joining the conversations about dance online, check out Jordon Cloud’s recent post here and “like” the Terpsichore: Movement as Muse on FB here. Also check out this article by Nancy Wozny on this very topic!!

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5 thoughts on “The Next Verbal Challenge: Describing Contemporary Dance

  1. Hi Heather,

    I studied what I always understood as contemporary dance, but reading your wonderful descriptions it makes me wonder and question myself if it really was contemporary dance.

    Thinking of you as a based Jazz dancer and reading the deep feelings of a dancer’s heart…now I’m just not sure of what I studied, as I feel the same as you, I kind of think that the new way of dancing can be any kind of technique with a difference of movement and body language but having a core union in the depth of the feelings and interpretation that come with oneself.

    1. Ingrid, Thank you for such a thoughtful response. It spurred me to add a couple sentences at the end of my description of jazz. I find it likely you were studying contemporary dance. I have always felt modern (formerly referred to as contemporary dance) to be the most emotional yet I do think jazz (and sometimes ballet) can be charismatic enough to leave the dancers feeling emotionally connected. It is a fine and complex line, but I do feel there are some distinctions. Perhaps they are purely personal but I think the difference does lay in the embodiment….modern dancers using emotions as intent and the newly phrased contemporary dancers using movement as a release of emotions.
      Thanks again for reading. I’d be interested in hearing more of what you think!
      hvs

  2. Heather, I really appreciate your description of jazz. I am going to “steal” it for sure. As for contemporary vs. modern, I think you are have some very thoughtful and clear descriptions, especially in the contrasting of each.
    I think contempory dance has slowly spawned from competition dance which in essence is all about the physical form and does not allow much if any room for emotional investment or interpretation.The unique world of competition dance is geared directly toward children who do not possess the capacity to develop the deep and often intense meanings behind movements (yet). Now, slowly this style of dance has emerged in the public eye and is now taking hold of adults too as they see it in ads, on TV, and at events/shows- it is as pop is to music – contemporary is the “pop music” of dance. It is simple to watch, it leaves you with what you expected, it is a show-off form, and it is friendly to most eyes! I think it has its place but balance is the key from here forward and heck if I know how that will look!
    This conversation reminds me of one that has become a bit of an epidemic of altercations between Seattle artists, maybe you guys could expand on it..how do you define “dance” as an art? Does it have to be full bodied movement, where is the line and for what reason is it drawn? Just thoughts!
    Love your writing, glad to be a part of the conversation.
    -Marlo

    1. Marlo, Fantastic response! Wow…the challenges continue to get harder and harder. And all the more important. 😉
      I think this epidemic of altercations is happening everywhere. Which is why I think there needs to be a re-posturing of technique/Technique as well as the application and implications on choreography. My immediate response is that art is reflected by the process and less so by the product. But we’ll see where this goes after more consideration. Thanks for reading, writing, and provoking even further thought!!
      hvs

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