It is no wonder there is widespread confusion. The word “contemporary” is used in a multitude of unrelated ways in dance today.
- If you go to see a contemporary dance company like Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, it will in no way resemble the contemporary dance category on television shows like SYTYCD where they actually present contemporary jazz.
- The very “modern” Martha Graham Dance Company runs a school called the Martha Graham Center of “Contemporary” Dance.
- Ballet companies that exclusively apply modern era principles to ballet choreography (such as pyrotechnical proficiency and the supremacy of individual achievement) appropriate the word contemporary for their own use: Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
So how do we break this down?
First, a time line. Contemporary dance refers to concert dance that comes after modern dance. Think of modern dance as the concert dance form generated from concepts and choreographers from the 1900s through the 1950s or what is known as the modern era. Examples include Martha Graham, José Limón, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Lester Horton, Doris Humphrey, Ruth St. Dennis, Erick Hawkins, and Merce Cunningham*.
Contemporary dance derives from the compositional and process-oriented concepts from the 1960s to today, or what is known as the contemporary (postmodern/transmodern) era. Examples include companies and concepts such as Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Pilobolus, Contact Improvisation, Site-specific performance, and Judson Dance Theater.
This use of the terms modern and contemporary is in sync with art, literature and intellectual movements. However, there is another use of “contemporary” that has gripped (and misled) the popular culture’s understanding and is at the heart of why so many are contemporarily confused.
In the popularist sense, “contemporary” is used to designate “today” as opposed to “yesterday.” Or, that which is more modern than modern. And by extension (and coincidence), since today’s popular dance trends include increased mixing of styles, a fusion of dance techniques has become popular criteria for being called contemporary. For example, ballet mixed with modern is called contemporary ballet and jazz mixed with ballet, modern, and/or hip-hop is called contemporary jazz.
It is no wonder most people are confused. However, if you look at the art world, a modern art museum and a contemporary art museum have no trouble delineating between the two. I am lucky enough to live in a town that is home to the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. I also live a short one-hour train ride from the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. My students and I have the privilege to go to both and see the stark differences. But most people aren’t so lucky.
So how would I answer the essential questions from above in a nutshell...
What is contemporary dance?
Contemporary dance is a genre of concert dance derived from artistic developments from the 1960s on with priority toward employing compositional and process-oriented approaches over that of modern and classical ballet techniques (while also remaining open to engaging modern, classical, folk, tribal, and other traditions).
What is the difference between contemporary dance and the commercial form of dance called "contemporary" on television variety shows and in the competition circuit?
The commercial version on shows like SYTYCD are just the current trend in jazz dance; they are a contemporary style of jazz dance. However, contemporary dance is its own form which looks completely different than the commercial/competition/convention form. If you go to a contemporary dance concert in New York City expecting to see contemporary jazz, you will likely be surprised and disappointed.
What is the difference between modern dance and contemporary dance?
Both are concert dance forms. Modern dance comes from the modern era (1900s to 1950s). Contemporary dance comes from the contemporary era (postmodern/transmodern: 1960s to present).
What is the difference between ballet and contemporary ballet?
Classical ballet appreciates the superiority of form, a hierarchy of positions within the ballet company, and the unquestioned command of the choreographer. Examples are alive today in the companies performing popular story ballets: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty.
Modern ballet adapted the modern era concepts of individual achievement, technical proficiency, and rational (rather than fantastical) thinking. Examples include the Ballet Russe companies, George Balanchine’s abstract ballets, and the virtuosity in many of today’s companies.
Contemporary ballet adapted improvisational, collaborative, and conceptual processes from postmodern art toward the creation of new choreography. Examples include William Forsythe and his Improvisation Technologies, Jiri Kylian, Nacho Duato, and Ohad Naharin.
I hope, with all my heart, that I have not added to the confusion. Ultimately, dancers are usually more involved with the activity of dance than we are with defining it verbally. But, I do believe having a deep understanding helps us to be knowledgable, thinking artists rather than physically gifted automatons and that is why I felt it was important to share this in writing. Plus, it helps me clear my own head from all this contemporary confusion as I face the impending questions at the start of fall enrollment.
*Possible exceptions: Merce Cunningham (in dance) and the Dadaists (in art) were modern era artists working with concepts that were engaged later in the postmodern era. In many ways, they can be seen as predecessors to contemporary art.