What are the Basic Tenets of Contemporary Dance | Barry Kerollis
Each time I engage with a new community of artists eager to understand how to dance in a more contemporary way, I pose the befuddling question, “What exactly is Contemporary Dance?” The many different types of contemporary dance styles and The responses I receive always put a smile on my face because I once shared that same confusion surrounding the lack of uniformity in contemporary training.
Over the past several years, I have been privileged to travel the country as a judge and master teacher with Youth America Grand Prix. Having danced with companies like Pacific Northwest Ballet and Houston Ballet, it may come as a surprise that I specialize in teaching contemporary dance at this international youth ballet competition. But since retiring from the stage, I have had the opportunity to examine different styles of contemporary dance and how to educate dancers of all ages and backgrounds about the art form.
There are few codified training programs world-wide that develop well-rounded contemporary dancers. Most focus on ballet and modern technique while infusing improvisation, somatics, and other dance styles into their curriculums. Outside of these programs, most contemporary dance classes are led by choreographers who warm up dancers and teach how to interpret their unique movement styles. This often leaves gaps in understanding for dancers who seek to learn how to adapt quickly to different choreography.
In my exploration of contemporary dance as both a dancer and educator, I’ve noted several styles of contemporary dance movements often seen across the board in choreography. What should dancers be looking to learn if they seek to become well-rounded in contemporary dance? Let’s explore!
Classical Ballet Technique
Many contemporary dancers are trained in classical ballet. Ballet offers a strong foundation for dancers to understand placement, control, balance, musicality, elongation and line of the spine and limbs, and general coordination of the body. It teaches dancers how to perform a specific repertoire of jumps, turns, and other elements that can be found across dance genres while educating them on how to coordinate these movements to music and retain choreography.
I have seen many parallels between modern dance and contemporary movement. Contemporary dance often incorporates grounding one’s body to develop an earthbound quality. Beyond this, the use of spiral, contraction, release, and floor work are commonly used throughout contemporary classes and choreography.
When one sees a contemporary dancer move, they are almost guaranteed to notice a boneless quality of movement. Utilizing seamless transitions between joints, moving in circular shapes, and maintaining a continuous rate of speed, dancers create textured movement that flows like water.
All dance styles require an understanding of dynamics and phrasing of musicality. But contemporary dance takes this further. Dramatic shifts in movement are commonly used (from fluid to sharp and slow to fast) to create drama and tension in this style of choreography.
Contemporary Dance Floorwork
Nearly all contemporary choreography performs releases where the body interacts with the floor. Dancers are not only required to fall quietly and smoothly, they also need to do so while protecting themselves from harm. Floorwork may be as simple as rolling down to the floor to get back up. Though, it can also be wildly complex and dangerous with acrobatics that resemble breaking, much like steps performed in street dance styles.
Where classical ballet has pantomime, contemporary dance has gesture. Developed for classical full-length story ballets, pantomime has a very specific, limited vocabulary and is limited to the iconic stories being told in this repertoire. Contemporary gesture, while resembling pantomime through the use of the hands and arms, has endless possibilities and can communicate anything a choreographer seeks to express.
Since contemporary dance often swings back and forth between classical ballet and modern dance, dancers are required to transition quickly between styles and their vocabularies. This means dancers must move seamlessly between positions that are upright and balanced to moving off-balance, grounded, and everywhere in between. This often requires dancers to learn how to shift their weight in oppositional directions to execute tricky movements.
Personal Voice and Improvisational
Improvisation is a regular activity in contemporary classes and choreography. Dancers are expected to have a general understanding of how to develop movement phrases of their own with the assistance of cues that guide them. For this reason, many contemporary choreographers create work utilizing other styles of dance that have influenced them beyond basic ballet and modern techniques. Beyond this, choreography has become such a collaborative process that many new works list the dancers performing as co-choreographers. Therefore, a strong understanding of how one’s body moves and personal development of choreography is integral to working as a contemporary dancer.
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