BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY TRACEY TURNER
For the past two months, I have been publishing interviews with contemporary dance artists, trying to address (for both myself and my faithful readers) what exactly contemporary dance entails. Because, to be honest, I’ve always been a bit dubious about contemporary dance. It has seemed to me to be an umbrella term without any real delineations. But, through conducting several interviews with self-identified contemporary dance artists across the country, I think I’ve finally begun to wrap my head around the term.
For those of you who want the cliff notes, these are some themes from the past two months of interviews that have stood out to me:
- There seems to be two divergent strands of contemporary dance. The first is the performance art strand, wherein it might not even resemble dance. It might resemble sculpture or theater, incorporate elements from several genres of art, and may or may not be presented in a proscenium theater. The second strand is the music-video “So You Think You Can Dance” strand, which usually involves highly emotive gestures to pop music. How on earth these two radically different modes of dance came to wear the same moniker is something I think we, as a dance community, should seriously address. These two strands seem to be the antithesis of each other.
- Many of the dance artists interviewed said the ideal training for a contemporary dancer should include in-depth study of several different dance forms. However, the recommended dance forms were all Western and based in a classical orientation. Only one interviewee suggested African as a counterpoint to ballet, and otherwise the suggested courses of study were always along the lines of: ballet, modern dance, jazz, contact improvisation, floor work, and something slightly obscure like Countertechnique, Gaga or Forsythe’s improvisational modalities. This signified to me a lack of worldliness as to what a truly in-depth study of several different dance forms might look like. Flamenco anyone? Tai Chi? Capoeira? Irish step dancing? Any of the many forms of Indian dance? Even tap? The contemporary dance world seems a bit myopic when it comes to truly cross-genre study.
- From a funding perspective, the outlook is dismal. Companies are closing, grants are drying up, people are getting tired of crowdfunding, and the likelihood of a contemporary dancer enjoying an actual salaried career is nil. That being said, there are tons of DIY initiatives. The best advice, which came repeatedly, was to find another job that allows for flexibility, in essence funding your own work. This is what I personally do and what 90 percent of the dancers I know do. However, if this is the contemporary funding model for contemporary dance, it seems strangely regressive.
- The best part about contemporary dance, as far as I can tell, is its willingness to shun labels. Like a true millennial, I don’t care much for labels myself. Categorizing oneself as a ballet dancer, modern dancer or hip hop dancer seems just as limiting as being a Balanchine dancer, Horton dancer or Cunningham dancer. Unlike dancers of previous generations, contemporary dancers wear the label of whatever dance form best defines the project they’re currently involved with. And while I worry that dancers are expected to be jacks of all trades, I also like the idea of throwing out these old stereotypes that ballet dancers can’t boogey, or modern dancers can’t point their feet, or flamenco dancers can’t jump. I like the idea of a whole generation of polymath dancers, seamlessly embracing the strengths and weaknesses of different techniques and orientations.
When I first began putting together this series, I sent a few emails to friends asking for input and ideas. My favorite response came from my dear friend and colleague Emily Jones, who currently dances in Portland, Oregon. I asked her: “What does the future of contemporary dance look like?” She responded:
Post contemporary dance! Are we there yet? I hope this next era is all about dance as practice, dance as a form of community building, dance as expression, dance as healing, and dance that is more open to various socioeconomic platforms. Of course, there is something great about classical training and its rigor, as well as the study of dance in historical context and acknowledging what has been done and how it effects the codified forms we see now, but I hope the post contemporary era allows dance to continue to disperse throughout communities and be something people can engage with as a physical practice. I believe this will bring renewed interest into viewing as well!
I love this sentiment. I love the idea of moving past codification by expanding rigor (and vigor) to community building. I love the idea of truly throwing the socioeconomic gates open, instead of keeping dance as something only people of privilege can study and enjoy. Lastly, if dance isn’t getting funded, then perhaps a renewed interest in viewership by creating more bridges between communities might be the antidote we need to make dance socially and financially relevant again. Post contemporary dance, here we come!