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Modern vs. Contemporary
What is it about the words “contemporary" and “modern" that has dancers, choreographers, and artistic directors talking these days? Is it a question of semantics, training, or technique? What about style?
Perhaps modern and contemporary genres have taken on new meanings because the global village has created a melting pot of moves, a stew of blurred forms that not only break down conventions and challenge definitions, but, in the process, create something wholly new, but as yet unnamed.
To further muddy the waters, we've got Fox's hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance, where seemingly every barefoot number is dubbed “contemporary." In seeking answers, Dance Magazine spoke to 10 professionals in their respective fields—jazz, hip-hop, modern, and, yes, contemporary—about their thoughts on this intriguing topic.
Glenn Edgerton Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy HSDC.
Artistic director, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
“There's no clear distinction between the two. My thoughts are that it's all an extension of classical ballet. Though there have been connotations with the term 'contemporary,' I think of it as having more shapes and lines of classicism, whereas modern would be more grounded, more earthy.
“The use of the body, the use of weight, also defines the piece. If you have a classical piece on pointe, the moment they lean off pointe and take their weight off balance, it would be considered contemporary classical. Somewhere along the line these words got to be nouns rather than a description of the movement."
Janet Eilber Photo by John Deane, Courtesy MGDC.
Artistic director, Martha Graham Dance Company, New York City
“There's no way to nail these terms down. They're constantly morphing through usage, though the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance has always been called 'contemporary,' and not modern dance. When I was dancing, modern dance was modern dance; it was what we did.
“Now that we have perspective, you can compare it with modern art and the modernism movement. Graham was a modernist in the style of her dancing—the stripped-away, geometric force that you can relate to in the era's contemporary art. Every generation throws out the work of the generation before them, meaning the titles keep changing. Is there going to be a post-contemporary dance? I heard a new label recently: The post-post-postmoderns are calling themselves the Independents. In terms of Graham's legacy [and works], we're now calling them 'classics of modern dance.' "
Benoit-Swan Pouffer Photo by François Rousseau, Courtesy Cedar Lake.
Artistic director, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, New York City
“For me, 'contemporary' means what's happening today, now. That's why we put 'contemporary' in our name, since most of our repertory is new work created on Cedar Lake. Because I'm from Europe, when we hear the word 'modern'—we think about a major technique coming from America—Limón, Horton, Graham, the dancemakers that shaped what we are today.
Maybe for another person it's a style, but when you say contemporary ballet, I hear the word ballet, and I'm thinking this person will use some aspect of ballet, either the technique or the aesthetic, though not necessarily ballet slippers or pointe shoes."
Cedar Lake performs Grace Engine by Crystal Pite. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy Cedar Lake.
Jean Freebury Photo by Mike Lawley, Courtesy Freebury.
Reconstructor and former member, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, New York City
“I think Cunningham is the beginning of post-modern dance, as it came out of modern—and he came out of Graham. His technique also has ballet aspects in it. But I think modern is something older that comes from a certain time and speaks about getting away from classical dance, as opposed to integrating it. Contemporary is more a term you would use for something current, but it has a more integrated aspect, so you'd use a mixture of things—ballet and modern. Different generations also have different styles."
Brenda Way Photo by Steve Maller, Courtesy ODC.
Founder, artistic director, ODC/Dance, San Francisco
“Modern dance concerned itself with theatrical presentation and the invention of expressive vocabulary in the first half of the 20th century. It took a stance in opposition to the aesthetic beauty upon which classical ballet was based, but still embraced the fundamental abstraction—the referential image. There are certainly choreographers who continue to work within these variables, but it might be compared to working within the constraints of a novel or sonnet form.
“Contemporary suggests a more pluralistic aesthetic and resonates with the grounded authenticity of a regional dialect—real people, really moving. It seems a broader, more inclusive term, making room for everything from conceptual explorations to site-specific forays to highly technical displays of athleticism."
Alex Ketley Photo by Aline Wachsmuth, Courtesy Ketley.
Choreographer and co-founder, The Foundry, San Francisco
“My work is contemporary—it's dance interested in translating the current-day culture. Art moves in cycles—Graham, Cunningham, Taylor, Forsythe, Bausch—and has moments so bright they crystallize in a way that somebody takes it in a new direction. We're in the infancy of seeing how this flashy athletic form seen on TV infuses into fine art dance."
Patrick Corbin Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy Corbin.
Artistic director, CorbinDances, New York City
“For me, modern dance is anything that came out of the Denishawn School. Contemporary movement is whatever is influencing art, architecture, and how you process, read, and develop movement at any given time. But these labels usually come in hindsight, or after establishing a style or a technique. There's no real school of contemporary technique; nobody's emerging as a leader who's developing a technique that you could further and say, 'This is contemporary dance,' to go on for generations and generations."
Ray Leeper Photo courtesy Break the Floor Productions.
Director, NUVO Dance Convention, choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance and many others, Los Angeles
“Contemporary is anything current. It's more of a style, but rooted in technique, because it's a fusion of several techniques—ballet, jazz, modern. But I wouldn't want to be labeled a strictly contemporary jazz choreographer. I'm inspired by music or a concept I want to have realized through movement. If people really knew where contemporary came from, we wouldn't be so quick to label it contemporary, when it might be contemporary jazz or contemporary ballet."
Jennifer Archibald Photo by Alastair Christopher, Courtesy Archibald.
Founder/director, Arch Dance, New York City
“Contemporary is a collection of methods that have been developed from modern and postmodern dance. It's also a cycle of shedding techniques we've learned in favor of personal expression of movement. Where modern dance moved against the grain of ballet, contemporary moves against the grain of classical modern techniques.
“Contemporary is not a technique, it's a genre associated with a philosophy and exploration of different natural energies and emotions. There's a physicality that's appealing today, but there's a spirituality of the contemporary movement that has been lost with the new generation in this free-for-all of different methods."
Mia Michaels Photo courtesy Fox.
Choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance and various pop stars and dance companies, Los Angeles
“I'm a little responsible for So You Think You Can Dance co-opting the term 'contemporary.' When we first started the show, Nigel [Lythgoe] was calling it lyrical. I said, 'It's not lyrical, it's contemporary.' We've created a monster. Contemporary is an easy way out—it's when you don't know what to call it, you call it contemporary. I feel like dance is fusing all the forms and that the uniqueness of each genre is starting to be muddled. It feels regurgitated and I want it to change desperately. I'm wanting to see where these new legends and voices—like Fosse, Robbins, Graham—are going to pop up."
Whether playing a saucy soubrette or an imperious swan, Irina Dvorovenko was always a formidable presence on the American Ballet Theatre stage. Since her 2013 retirement at 39, after 16 seasons, she's been bringing that intensity to an acting career in roles ranging from, well, Russian ballerinas to the Soviet-era newcomer she plays in the FX spy series "The Americans."
We caught up with her after tech rehearsal for the Encores! presentation of the musical Grand Hotel, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes and running March 21–25 at New York City Center. It's another tempestuous ballerina role for Dvorovenko—Elizaveta Grushinskaya, on her seventh farewell tour, resentfully checks into the Berlin hostelry of the title with her entourage, only to fall for a handsome young baron and sing "Bonjour, Amour."
When Andrew Montgomery first saw the Las Vegas hit Le Rêve - The Dream 10 years ago, he knew he had to be a part of the show one day. Eight years later, he auditioned, and made it to the last round of cuts. On his way home, still waiting to hear whether he'd been cast, he was in a motorcycle accident that ended up costing him half his leg.
But Montgomery's story doesn't end the way you might think. Today, he's a cast member of Le Rêve, where he does acrobatics and aerial work, swims (yes, the show takes places in and around a large pool) and dances, all with his prosthetic leg.
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
A flock of polyamorous princes, a chorus of queer dying swans, a dominatrix witch: These are a few of the characters that populate the works of Katy Pyle, who, with her Brooklyn-based company Ballez, has been uprooting ballet's gender conventions since 2011.
Historically, ballet has not allowed for the expression of lesbian, transgender or gender-nonconforming identities. With Ballez, Pyle is reinventing the classical canon on more inclusive terms. Her work stems from a deep love of ballet and, at the same time, a frustration with its limits on acceptable body types and on the stories it traditionally tells.
The latest fitness fad has us literally buzzing. Vibrating tools—and exercise classes—promise added benefits to your typical workout and recovery routine, and they're only growing more popular.
Warning: These good vibrations don't come cheap.
My life is in complete chaos since my dance company disbanded. I have a day job, so money isn't the issue. It's the loss of my world that stings the most. What can I do?
—Lost Career, Washington, DC
Dance Theatre of Harlem is busy preparing for the company's Vision Gala on April 4. The works on the program, which takes place on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reflect on the legacy of Dr. King and his impact on company founder Arthur Mitchell. Among them is the much-anticipated revival of legendary choreographer Geoffrey Holder's Dougla, which will include live music and dancers from Collage Dance Collective.
We stepped into the studio with Holder's wife Carmen de Lavallade and son Leo Holder to hear what it feels like to keep Holder's legacy alive and what de Lavallade thinks of the recent rise in kids standing up against the government—as she did not too long ago.
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.