Artistic director Pat Debenham says contemporary dance is all about reaching out to the audience

Although contemporary dance, by definition, combines the elements of jazz, lyrical and classical ballet, it still defies categorisation. To Pat Debenham, artistic director of Contemporary Dance Theatre, modern dance cannot strictly be considered avant-garde. “We ride the scale of entertainment and art in our productions, making them artistic as well as enjoyable to watch.”

Contemporary Dance Theatre, produced by the Department of Dance in the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Brigham Young University, had performed The Rhythm Of Life, comprising 10 choreographed pieces of modern dance, last week in the city.

The 15-member troupe — comprising 10 women and five men, through wonderfully synchronised movements — put in an enthralling performance. The Rhythm Of Life, on the whole was an artistic rendition of life, as we understand and experience it.

Plenty of thought went into the production. Although the performances primarily stemmed from the African-American dance tradition, they were adapted to depict contemporary society. Each performance had a story. Pat explains some of the more unique ones.

“The performance Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law is a tribute to our childhood. In America mattresses and pillows have the tag ‘do not remove under penalty of law’, so the dancers jump up and down on mattresses and do everything our mom and dad forbade us. Adding a humorous spin to it, we performed this to the very serious music of the Hungarian composer Drovak.”

In another production Chakra, choreographed by Delhi-based Ivan Pulinkala, the dancers explored the “energy centres of the body” and by so doing, reflected the imbalance that characterises modern society. “The dance was not only unique in its theme but also visually engaging for the eight-foot tarpaulin prop that was used,” says Pat.

Harmony between the mind and body is a key element in dance. This seems to be tough to master due to shrinking spaces. “We are in a virtual world where we live in our heads and the only thing that moves is our fingers over a keyboard. Our dancers connect the inside to the outside and also allow the outside to affect the inside. This they do among each other and the audience.”

Space defines dance too. “We use a lot of space for our dance. A lot of our gestures are grand. They are not merely little gestures confined to oneself. A lot of modern dancing is not very interesting for not reaching out; it’s just about me and my space. Dance is about engaging the full body.”

Unlike classical ballet that has specified movements for men and women, contemporary dance, often, has no such distinction. “Modern dance, a lot of times, tends to be androgynous. One of our performances Dance of Remembrance, from Woman, The Pioneer is women-centric. A mother loses her child when she moves from the east to the west coast in the plains, but she bravely continues on her journey. Women will be able to connect to this maybe more than men, because men don’t express such emotions easily.” Pat learnt music first before he pursued dance. “I played the piano as a child, which gave me a sense of musicality.

“I learnt dance only when I was 18 or 19, and then learnt folk, Russian, Israeli and other world dance forms. I later pursued Broadway dance.”