The Contemporary Conundrum

October 14, 2010

On “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 7, Ashley Galvan and All-Star Mark Kanemura navigated the sensuous choreography of Travis Wall’s so-called jazz number with convincing abandon. Set to Annie Lennox’s soaring anthem “Wonderful,” the dance’s risky lifts, natural gestures and emotional honesty made the performance come alive. Nigel Lythgoe liked Wall’s routine, but thought it belonged in the contemporary category instead of jazz. True, the piece was free of any Fosse or other telltale jazz moves. If performed in a competition setting, Wall’s dance might have been called “lyrical.” The whole issue begged the question, “What exactly is contemporary dance?”

Dance style labels are slippery things, and “contemporary” gets the “Most Murky” award. If you’ve only seen it on “SYTYCD,” you probably think contemporary is synonymous with steamy duets set to pop songs, using a dance vocabulary combining ballet, jazz and modern and most often performed in bare feet. Chances are there are leaps and some eye-popping acrobatic tricks. The dancers are usually trained in ballet and jazz technique and able to lift their legs super high. The woman is generally wearing a short, empire waist dress and the man often forgets his shirt. Wall’s piece could easily be a poster dance for contemporary. Yet that’s just one way of thinking about the term, which means many different things. So what is this hybrid dance style? Dance Spirit set out to investigate “Planet Contemporary Dance.”

Identifying Contemporary Dance

It’s easier to define contemporary by what it’s not: You won’t see tap or character shoes, costumes made of grass or bells strapped to ankles. But contemporary is still a bit abstract.

After talking to a handful of ballet, modern and competition veterans, it became clear that contemporary isn’t a technique. In modern, there are specific techniques, like those created by legends Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham. In ballet, there’s Vaganova, Cecchetti and Balanchine technique, to name a few. According to the dictionary, contemporary means “of a time” and could be a relationship between people or things. For example: Travis Wall is a contemporary of Mia Michaels. But when we talk about contemporary dance, we’re using the word in a different way. Its meaning changes depending on where you fall on the dance spectrum.

Contemporary on the Competition Circuit

Mandy Moore, a contemporary choreographer who’s popular on the convention scene, considers the term wide-open. “Contemporary has become the catch-all word used to define movement that doesn’t fit into traditional categories,” she says. “The style was created and defined by artists who don’t like to ‘color inside the lines.’ Contemporary seems to be this place where different styles can collide and create a new, different look and feel for both the dancer and the audience.”

At competitions and conventions, lyrical may be contemporary’s first cousin. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between the styles is the use of acrobatics in contemporary routines but not in lyrical. Both can use pop music—Sarah McLachlan, Jason Mraz, Imogen Heap and Adele are current favorites—and both usually have ballet or jazz as a base in the choreography.

Contemporary in the Ballet World

In the ballet world, “contemporary” refers to works like George Balanchine’s famous plotless ballets—known as leotard ballets—and the dances of other ballet deconstructors like William Forsythe and Christopher Wheeldon. These choreographers have taken traditional ballet movements and dramatized them. In their pieces, the dancers’ arms are more extreme, fourth position is wider and performers are pushed off balance instead of staying directly on top of their legs. Whether it’s a retelling of classics like The Sleeping Beauty and Afternoon of a Faun or a pure movement ballet focused on intense athleticism, it’s all considered contemporary.

Take Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, an up-and-coming Houston-based boutique ballet company with an international reputation. Though you won’t hear any pop songs at Walsh’s performances, there are plenty of steamy duets. Sometimes there are pointe shoes, sometimes not. Today there are many companies, like Walsh’s, devoted solely to presenting contemporary ballets, including Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

Contemporary vs. Modern

You might think contemporary is interchangeable with modern—the words are similar—and you would be wrong. According to Walsh, contemporary is even more modern than modern. “I think of contemporary as having derived from some classical backing, but evolving into a richer, more intricate vocabulary of movement,” Walsh says. “Contemporary, for me, represents current, up-to-date ideas. Modern, to me, refers to a particular time and feels a bit dated.”

Plenty of contemporary choreographers who work in ballet and commercial dance arenas have no background in traditional forms of modern dance at all, and usually they don’t come from the college track, where they’d have taken Lester Horton or Paul Taylor classes. If you come from a competition studio, your class schedule may read only jazz, ballet, lyrical and tap. In a ballet academy, you might get an occasional dose of modern, but not on a regular basis.

That being said, some choreographers who did train in modern, like rising choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, describe their work as “contemporary,” too. Barnes, who studied Martha Graham and Cunningham technique at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, often makes hilarious dances that examine the intricacies of performance itself and look nothing like Wall’s or Walsh’s. “I used to say postmodern, but people would ask, ‘What is that?’ Postmodern can be a real conversation killer. It sounds pretentious,” says Barnes. “I bounce all over the map. I studied modern dance, but I don’t intend to continue a particular technique, nor did I dance in a modern company.” She uses the term “contemporary” more by default.

Contemporary in College

The Juilliard School in NYC promises an education in contemporary dance, but faculty member Linda Kent says the word contemporary is still a bit cloudy in her circle. “We had modern, then postmodern, but not another word for what came after that,” says Kent, who danced with Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Karen Kohn Bradley, associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, finds her faculty is in constant discussion about what to call their classes. “Contemporary has a variety of meanings,” she says. “Words are defined by their use. Right now, contemporary casts a broader net.”

A Contemporary Conclusion?

Labels, misleading as they are, give us a ballpark definition. They help us talk about dance. How many times have you gone to see a supposed ballet company performance and not seen a single dance on pointe? Is it still ballet? Probably, yes. If Travis Wall decides to make an abstract dance set to Ravel’s “Bolero” with Bollywood-style moves, is it still contemporary? It could be. Maybe we just need to know that dance is an ever-evolving art form. Labels do their best to define it, and just as soon as they do, something changes. Contemporary may just be an umbrella to encompass much of what we see on stage and television today. It’s confusing for certain, but for now it’s what we have. So go with it. Labels should be as fluid as dance itself.

Bradley sums up the opacity well: “I don’t care what we call it—we don’t have a good word for it yet. How about we just call it dance?”