Modern vs. Contemporary

November 30, 2012

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

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

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

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.”

Jean 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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”