Contemporary Dance: From High Art to Fringe

Erin Kilmurray is a contemporary dance artist who straddles the “high” world of concert dance and the “low” world of fringe art. She is a producer, director and dance-maker who presents work throughout Chicago, as well as the creator and director of The Fly Honey Show—a femme-power cabaret. This interview is part of a series on contemporary dance.



How would you describe contemporary dance to someone without a background in dance?

My experience with contemporary dance is fundamentally rooted in concert dance aesthetics, and is a cross section between multiple forms: ballet, modern and African with a focus on sensation and expression. The generation of dancers before me generally worked in one “house,” like that of Horton, Laban, Graham, Cunningham, Limon or Dunham, to name a few. I see contemporary dance as an expansive range of movement possibilities that tend to be more malleable, embracing fusion or hybrid thinking rather than codified vocabularies.

What training is essential for contemporary dancers?

Modern dance is very important, especially release technique or any form that allows a dancer to become comfortable with inversion and getting in and out of the floor. I would add cross-training with ballet, African forms and improvisation. It helps to be well-versed in movement vocabularies that have totally differing theories in terms of verticality, practice, rhythm, beauty, grounded-ness, and what is or is not “good dancing.”

Do you see contemporary dance as an adjective for any dance form that is new, or its own genre?

I associate the word “contemporary” with what is happening right now, but I don’t think there’s a single answer to that question. Contemporary dance is a response to the framework of modern and concert dance, in perhaps the same sense that modern dance was a response to ballet.

There’s the mainstream definition, demonstrated on programs like “So You Think You Can Dance,” that has popularized contemporary dance to mean anything without shoes that is highly emotive, sharp and gestural. That representation of contemporary dance tends to be entertainment driven, maybe because they are marketing to an audience that is not familiar with dance.

In contrast, the conversation in more experimental spaces tends to treat contemporary dance as moving art with focused consideration on research and the process of creating. I see this representation consider itself elevated to high art status, perhaps because it is marketed to an audience that is well-versed in dance, or isn’t concerned with audience at all.

Are there successful funding models for contemporary dance?

I see the company model shifting to be much more project-based because of lack of funding. The companies that do have a set ensemble of dancers seem to work on more long-form projects, researching an idea for a year or more instead of constantly churning out new work. I’m noticing the long-form process be more successful because those artists continue to apply for funding or outreach opportunities to keep the work alive longer, though the downside can include presenting seemingly unfinished work. Many individual artists follow this same model, as the alternative has become unsustainable at this point. If larger established companies continue to dissolve, I wonder how it will play out over the next five to ten years, and what it will make room for.


As a dancer, I came to explore different kinds of movement beyond modern dance because of the reality of getting a job. There weren’t enough jobs for modern dancers, so I had to be flexible, which led to my own explorations and building my own menu. The idea that you work with one choreographer and excel in their work over the course of many years exists less and less. It still exists in some circles, but certainly not mine.

Most choreographers today have to create opportunities for themselves with the resources they have. For example, performance spaces outside the proscenium are being utilized more often. Additionally, my generation of dance artists are the first to benefit from social media as a means of sharing work with a wider audience base, making it more accessible. Artists have been making shows in garages, homes or underground spaces forever, though the simplicity of billing it via Facebook is a game changer. In my current community, dancers are able to be use social media and crowd funding in order to not rely solely on institutional support.

What do you perceive is your own contribution to the contemporary dance field?

My career has mainly been based in Chicago, so I can only speak confidently to that. I spend my creative life in modern/contemporary dance spaces while also practicing in nightlife venues and working in theater. These experiences are part of my larger toolbox. I believe I have carved out a space where modes of inclusiveness and community are valued, with a focus on the responsibility and relationship of the artist to their audience.

When I began to make dances and dance events, I was working in modern and contemporary dance companies, while also heavily involved with an interdisciplinary artist space called The Inconvenience. I received two drastically different experiences within the field of dance. On the one hand, I was really excited about the movement practice I explored in modern and repertory companies. On the other hand, I was attracted to the direct connection I could have with audiences in the intimate and community-based scene of The Inconvenience projects. The difference between the two caused me to ask myself: Who is this all for? Is it just for me? Is it just to serve this art-maker? Is it just to appease this audience? Is it just to check a box?

Asking those questions was how projects like The Fly Honey Show or The Salts came about, because they explore notions of community, challenge ideas between high and low art, and work to tell our stories instead of just my story.

Although I don’t define The Fly Honey Show as contemporary dance, it is a project that fuses a large menu of styles, creative processes and perspectives that consider the body to be a form of celebration. It asks those same questions from before, but flips and redefines them for the purpose of trying to level the playing field, only in this case it takes the form of a power-femme-fuck-off rock show!

What might post-contemporary dance look like? In what direction is the form evolving?

I see contemporary dance increasingly taking the form of performance art. Many contemporary dance artists are not solely looking at the body as the only means of storytelling. They pull freely from other art forms. That being said, I also see contemporary dance moving in the opposite direction and simplifying to just the practice of the body. I don’t know where it will ultimately tip, though I see artists making stark choices in one direction or the other.

I see a very exciting future with the recent popular interest in the fringe arts being valued as high art; practices like vogue, drag, burlesque, hip hop, social dancing and cabaret are all part of that. I’m seeing spaces pop up that value this new understanding of what it means to be high or fringe art.

Maybe my definition of contemporary dance is conveniently loose to fit my own agenda, though I do find that looseness occasionally positions my work in opposition to more defined forms. However, I’m never saying, “I don’t want to work in your house.” I’m actually saying, “I don’t only want to work in your house.” Really, it’s far more interesting that way.



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