MUSINGS Contemporary dance is a ‘radical break’ from classicism
There is a whole lot of confusion, particularly in India, about what ‘contemporary dance’ is. Perhaps, the reason is that the definition of contemporary dance is not static, but rather inclusive and malleable. It adapts itself over and over again to include new discoveries and experiments in dance. Having said that, the definition of contemporary dance is not all inclusive. If it were, one might argue that all dance falls into that category, including classical and modern dance, as well as commercial dance forms. For the purpose of this article, I refer primarily to western contemporary dance. For Indian contemporary dance is a somewhat different story.
Many young dancers, as well as dance companies in India, claim to practice, teach and perform contemporary dance, but actually teach other forms distinct in their own right, such as salsa, ballroom and different variants of jazz. This is inaccurate. But this may be because we aren’t entirely clear what contemporary dance is, and so we cannot possibly be clear on the matter of what contemporary dance is not.
It is not an easy question to answer. Many contemporary dancers themselves are stumped when they are asked exactly what contemporary dance is. Well, I don’t have the answers. But Philippe Noisette, author of Let’s Talk About Contemporary Dance , says one of the ways to recognise contemporary dance is to realise that it’s not about uniformity of dancers or of costumes; or formations such as the corps de ballet. While he states that contemporary dance has no boundaries, he also insists that it is not synonymous with chaos. While a minimalist solo is as acceptable as a choral dance for hundreds of dancers, and while dancers are allowed to be bare feet or with high heels on; thanks to the training of the dancers, choreographers are able to create harmony amidst apparent chaos.
Another thing that defines contemporary dance, is a ‘radical break’ from classicism. Because contemporary dance is relatively nascent, it is unequivocally up-to-date and doesn’t hesitate to meld art, music, imagery and fashion into it, says Noisette. In countries where ballet has traditionally originated and flourished, choreographers have tried to reconceptualise the form and content of it, thereby radically breaking from tradition and the classical way of looking at the forms. Some examples of contemporary dancers who have done this are Merce Cunningham in America, Pina Bausch in Germany and Maurice Bejart in France. In the 1970s, French dancers “declared war” on Bejart’s ‘modern’ methods, and that became a further radical break.
Contemporary dance is also defined by its beginning. According to Noisette, it’s not possible to determine the exact time when contemporary dance began, but it is definitely a twentieth century phenomenon. It is during this century, he says, that dance underwent “successive cultural revolutions spanning several continents”. Free from the rules and regulations of ballet, choreographers sought to invent new forms, as yet nameless, which later came to be grouped under the term ‘contemporary dance’.
In short, Noisette contends that contemporary dance was and is different from ballet, it reflects our times, cultivates variety, and combines several kinds of art. It takes a discerning eye to determine what is contemporary dance and what is not. Read ‘Let’s talk about contemporary dance’ by Philippe Noisette, Flammarion, S.A., France, 2011 for information in more detail.