So you think you can…tell me what contemporary dance is?

Who can give me the exact definition of contemporary dance? Anybody? No? Because these days the whole of the UK seems to think, ‘contemporary dance is all about telling a story’, thanks to Arlene Phillip on So You Think You Can Dance and all the other talent shows on tv. Isn’t the answer to ‘what is contemporary dance?’, ever changing, re invented and next to a general historical meaning, quite personal? A question still unanswered or still discussed by the individuals of the contemporary dance world itself, all over the globe? Back to Arlene’s weekly comment on the contemporary duets on So You Think You Can Dance. I am not saying that contemporary dance can’t tell a story, but it’s not the definition of contemporary, is it?

As a contemporary dancer, trained in Graham, Cunningham, Limon techniques I almost feel like I need to defend the authenticity of the definition of contemporary dance but to be really honest (and in the danger of contradicting myself) I am not sure why. These days the dance techniques seem to have found their way onto commercial tv programs and they seem to generalise a lot of the very intricate styles within the dance. I am very interested in the mix of popular dance styles known to the bigger public and the maybe lesser known contemporary dance. Not to say that as an old school trained contemporary dancer there isn’t still that pinch whenever people tell me they, “loved the new dance film Step Up, it must be great for your profession to get such interest in dance”…..hmmm. It’s hard to hear a comment like that when you see the dance world crumbling around you, disappearing in a fight for money. But maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on those people for whom Step Up in 3D is the definition of the evolution of dance.

Mix it up a little. It’s interesting to dance on a commercial track that normally has break dancers, hip hoppers or clubbers do their thing and do something completely different with it. I love fashion, love clothes  and a bit of GOK. Put that in the mix and the world of contemporary dance becomes much more easy for un educated dance audience to get interested. (A whole other discussion to get into….some other time). The definition of contemporary in the dictionary is ‘belonging to or occurring in the present’ or ‘following modern ideas or fashion in style or design : contemporary art’. Maybe I shouldn’t try to pin it down so much and just let contemporary be what it is…why can’t I let it go?

Contemporary is following the modern ideas in the present time. So contemporary absorbs the evolution in all dance, music and art forms and keeps evolving, right? In some cases I think the answer is yes. But with programs like So You Think You Can dance (in my opinion giving too strong a statement on what contemporary dance is or should be) people who don’t go to the theatre to see modern dance and have never heard of Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch or Isadora Duncan (to name a few) are too easily ‘tricked’ into believing that what they show on tv is contemporary dance. Again, I am not saying it is not. But you have to remember that within this style of dance I there is a whole range of things going on that make it hard to define what it is, really. You just can’t generalise it. And it is hard to say who really holds the final answer to this one or if there even is one. I think we will never be able to put our finger on it. It is a mix of life and constantly changing, is it not? Keep an open mind.

Together with Nuno Campos (ex- rehearsal director/dancer of the Henri Oguike Dance Company) I assisted choreographer Henri Oguike making a contemporary duet for 2010 BBC’s So You Think You Can Dance competitors Mandy Montanez and Mark Calape in week3 of the program. I had never watched the program before, knew of it’s exitence, but it wasn’t my kind of tv. Though after meeting and working Mandy and Mark I quickly got hooked.

Stuck in front of my tv every week to see who was going to be ‘Britain’s Best Dancer’. Not sure if I agree with that expression and luckily they have changed it and now are looking for ‘Britain’s Favourite Dancer’, which I can get on board with. The BBC now had contemporary in the mix of dance styles, inviting choreographers such as Mark Baldwin, Rafael Bonachela and Henri Oguike to choreograph duets for the show. The first thing that confused me when we started working with them in the studio was the music. Surely Henri did not pick this very cheesy track himself, or did he? No, he didn’t. He had been given a selection of (very cheesy) songs by the BBC to choose from and ‘Show me heaven’ it was. Now that is not the problem because contemporary dance can be done on any kind of music. But in the context of a program like this you have to be very aware that the choice of music is a big influence on how the tv audience will receive the dance form. This is the second thing that confused me. By using these mainstream tracks for both contemporary and lyrical dance, it was misleading and confusing for an audience that has never seen those styles before. Then occurs the question, what is the difference between contemporary and lyrical dance? You got me, from watching the program I would not be able to tell you. And I very often found myself ‘enjoying’ and connecting much stronger to the lyrical choreographies then the contemporary. It almost was as if the dancers themselves were confused. They passionately gave their all to lyrical and slightly held back in the contemporary.

Which leaves me with that everlasting question to you. What do you think contemporary dance is?

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One Response to So you think you can…tell me what contemporary dance is?

  1. Thanks for posting this. I spent a while this morning online trying to research what contemporary dance is an isn’t. I’m making a contemporary dance montage/animation at the moment (I’m a photographer), and being a bit of a newbie to working with dance also trying to understand the fundamental elements of contemporary dance. Alongside the the choreographers you mention and their associated forms/techniques, I’m trying to look at contemporary dance similarly to conceptual art. I don’t need to understand what I’m seeing and feeling to appreciate contemporary dance.

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