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What is contemporary dance these days?

By Rebecca Martin.

When I was a young dance student, contemporary dance was weird angular movement that was abstract and uncommon. As I got older, contemporary then became a fusion of the neo-classical style and was very balletic. Since then, the term “contemporary” conjures images of all different styles and genres of dance, most of which have become extremely popular to both dancers and audiences alike.

Contemporary dance is very interpretive in its choreography and often focuses on emotions and storytelling, can be performed barefoot, with pointe shoes, naked, fully clothed, and with or without music. Contemporary dance almost defies description because it can be balletic or wholly abstract, jazz-influenced or lyrical, structured or unconventional. Modern dance pioneers such as Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham paved the way for a new contemporary technique and vocabulary to flourish and influence how we dance.

Contemporary dance continues to grow in popularity due, in part, to its accessibility to dancers. The freedom of movement that contemporary allows affords dancers with less training or technique to still enjoy dance without the need for perfect turnout or nice feet. That isn’t to say that contemporary dance is in any way inferior to ballet. Contemporary dance can be challenging both physically and emotionally and it pushes the boundaries of dance and forces audiences to think and take chances.

Dance Informa spoke to some of Australia’s contemporary choreographers and teachers to discover what “contemporary” is in 2013.

Sarah Boulter, Ev & Bow Full Time Dance Training Centre

Sarah Boulter teaches contemporary dance at Ev & Bow Full Time Dance Training Centre in Sydney

Who and what influences your teaching and performing of contemporary dance?

Sarah Boulter of Ev and Bow Full Time Dance Training Centre, NSW
So many aspects influence me as a choreographer/teacher: life experience, travel, music choreographic tasks, personal relationships and of course, the dancers and a love for physical perfection.

Two directors in particular have impacted my work: Franco Dragone and Meryl Tankard.

Franco Dragone is the mastermind/director behind Cirque Du Soleil’s O, Quidam, Mysterie and A New Day, to name a few. Franco Dragone is a creative genius. I have never worked with a director that can create such a unique tone, atmosphere and soul throughout one work.

Meryl Tankard, our Australian legend, produces works that have the capability to be incredibly entertaining, staying true to the contemporary dance art form.

Louise Deleur of Lucid Dance Theatre, QLD
I have a strong classical background and my Pilates training in NY and Cynthia Lochard from the Pilates Studio in Sydney gave me a whole new understanding of body mechanics and technique, which I apply to all my training. Style-wise, my main influences have been through the many choreographers I have worked with both in Australia and overseas. My classes are structured like a classical class, however I like to develop movement sequences to both inspire and challenge students.

Freya List, choreographer and freelance teacher, VIC
My biggest inspiration is music. It’s a vital part of creating and provoking feeling when you dance. The music is what inspires us to move the way we do. 

It’s always so important to have great teachers who themselves are constantly evolving and learning. A great teacher finds the balance between encouraging individual exploration of movement and explaining how to move like they do. I try to find this in a teacher when training and I try to mimic this structure when teaching.

I’m inspired by the athleticism and strength in movement of dancers such as the Nederlands Dans Theater, who create courageous, strong, yet fluid works. It is also inspiring to see local companies and individuals around Melbourne who trust in their talent and build shows from the ground up. My peers who create movement and explore choices I never would have thought of are my motivation. Getting to watch these people grow is inspiring. 

How do you think contemporary has influenced other styles of dance?

Sarah Boulter
There is no doubt contemporary dance is extremely popular. Within the commercial dance scene at the moment there is a notable emerging essence of a more contemporary feel. I believe dancers and choreographers really warm to exploration, individuality and freedom.

Louise Deleur
Contemporary dance these days really allows you to mix a whole lot of styles and influences together and still come under the banner of “contemporary”. You see freedom of movement, floor work and off-balance moves slip into today’s classical repertoire through to circus performers cross-pollinating their routines.

Freya List
The umbrella of what covers “contemporary” is so broad, but I would say that the freedom within movement and the abandonment commonly used in contemporary dance influences other styles – when it is adopted and paired with other genres it makes for interesting dynamics. It’s also about knowing where the movement stems from, so each line in jazz can be longer or each hit in hip-hop can be harder.

Melbourne contemporary dancer Freya List

Freya List in a Broadway Dance Center photoshoot in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Dirty Sugar

How do you see contemporary dance today and how has it evolved?

Sarah Boulter
Contemporary dance is always evolving and it embodies so much! We have the traditional dance companies, physical theatre dance companies and the experimental dance companies that involve many other art forms. 

Within the dance school community there is a large trend towards a commercial contemporary/lyrical dance style. This can be very visually exciting and entertaining, but it may not necessarily be teaching the dancer the underpinning technical foundations needed for contemporary dance. It is important for young dancers to experience more traditional practices so they gain knowledge and understanding about contemporary dance technique, which I feel will bring our dancers more inline with our contemporary dance companies.

Louise Deleur
We see influences from the dynamics of jazz and gymnastic styles creeping into the umbrella of “contemporary” dance. I see companies being classically based in their approach by their use of traditional methods in their warm-up classes and then relying on the choreographers work to develop their contemporary style. Other contemporary companies use a lot more release technique, yoga and tumbling to enhance their choreographic approach. All in all, “contemporary” is a broad word these days. It disappoints me at times when I see works today that approach contemporary as an opportunity to do a series of tricks with no structure, technique, detail or artistic concern.

Freya List
Contemporary has come to encompass so many styles under the one genre title. It would be a shame to see it through a narrow mind in both its past and present forms. In my opinion, earlier contemporary styles (such as those danced by Martha Graham) were more free-flowing and relaxed, whereas now it has taken a turn towards athleticism and execution of strong shapes. Currently we sit somewhere between these styles, where shapes, technique and clear positions are executed, but overall we enjoy movement that is very musical and story driven. 

What makes a great contemporary dancer?

Sarah Boulter
So many elements make a contemporary dancer great and unique. A contemporary dancer needs to be interesting and distinctive within their performance quality, engaging, creative in the choreographic process, as well as having an understanding of the contemporary dance technique and the physical fine-tuning of the style.

Louise Deleur
When choosing dancers to work with I look for not only technical ability but also a combination of an awareness of their body and ability to understand movement, an artistic connection to movement and music, personality, reliability, honesty, passion, an ability to creatively work in a team and an artistic depth and performance quality that captures my attention. As artists we all possess different combinations of these qualities and it’s up to dancers (and teachers) to recognise our strengths and weakness to balance, nurture and develop these personal attributes.

Freya List
Someone who has a thorough understanding of how their body works and what they can do with it. This knowledge then lends itself when exploring what they are capable of and creating a unique style with what only their body can do. 

To be a good contemporary dancer you of course need fundamental technique for floor work, contraction, breath, etc. However, I believe to be a great contemporary dancer you need intention and to be able to allow that intention to drive your movement. Someone who can captivate an audience and be honest and truthful to their story – that’s a great contemporary dancer.  

Photo (top): Freya List performing 4 Letters with Melbourne contemporary dance company Collaboration The Project. Choreographed and directed by Kim Adam. Photo by Pru Wilson of Boom Media.

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