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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."
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.
"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit:
When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.
For 17 years, James Samson has been the model Paul Taylor dancer. There is something fundamentally decent about his stage persona. He's a tall dancer—six feet—but never imposes himself. He's muscular, but gentle. And when he moves, it is his humanity that shines through, even more than his technique.
But all dancing careers come to an end, and James Samson's is no exception; now 43, he'll be retiring in August, after a final performance at the Teatro Romano in Verona, where he'll be dancing in Cloven Kingdom, Piazzolla Caldera and Promethean Fire.