Barefoot Dancers, Reaching, Emoting

The Relevé of Contemporary Dance

… but what is it?

SS-Mosh_ for emoting
Shaping Sound was co-founded by dancers seen on So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars.

The meteoric rise of the hit television show So You Think You Can Dance created a new generation of dance fans, young and old alike, bringing a surge of attention to the many genres of the art form. Ballet, recognizable. Hip-hop, easy to spot. Ballroom dance, simple to define.

Yet it seems as if every other number falls into the ‘contemporary’ category … but what is contemporary dance? Where did it come from? Is it the same as modern dance even though it kind of looks like ballet and jazz had a love child?

Why are there so many barefoot dancers reaching and emoting?

Members of Parsons Dance, coming to Tampa on January 14. Photo by Lois Greenfield.

Dance, like all art forms, flows and evolves, shaped by dancers and choreographers, ideas and social, cultural and political trends. Usually, labels for types of dance styles emerge – such as “court dances,” “Lindy Hop,” “line dancing,” “popping,” etc. Oftentimes, historical eras of transition or definition end up with labels as well, which is how we ended up with modern dance, postmodern dance and this strange term, “contemporary dance.” Humans like to invent neat categories for things to keep up the illusion of order, so visual art may have Impressionistic periods, Classical or Baroque eras. When dance changed radically at the end of the 19th century with American modern dance, the trajectory that would lead to the style we know as contemporary dance began.

limon dance company
Limón Dance Company in José Limón’s “Mazurkas” from 1958.

Wild-hearted dancers such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (founders of Denishawn, the famed modern dance company), José Limón and Lester Horton rebelled against classical technique and strict forms of ballet, forging a new way of moving that wasn’t known as modern dance until after the fact. When Graham dancers like Paul Taylor and the great pioneers like Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Alvin Ailey created new works expanding on the foundations of modern dance, then the word “post-modern” netted these styles into an easy-to-recognize form that clearly created something new from the influences of Graham, Limón, Horton and Denishawn.

In a sense, a fusion of dance languages occurred in the mid-20th century. Phrases of jazz, ballet, modern, postmodern, lyrical, spectacle and tribal/folkloric melded into a commercially viable dance style that also had the dancers communicating emotions of the dance or song: this thing called contemporary happened. Add to that the street dance dialect that blew up with breakdancing in the ‘80s, hip-hop in the ‘90s, and the “music video” dance slang of MTV and “contemporary dance” eventually became a term used to describe any sort of dancing happening now, in the times in which we live.

On the Edge_soho
Dancers training at the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory performing in On The Edge dance showcase. Photo by Soho Images.

To muddy matters a bit more, contemporary dance has several faces. The commercial side – a popular form exemplified by the kind of extend-emote gymnasium choreography characteristic of So You Think You Can Dance – works best for television and the competition circuit. The concert side, a more modern-rooted, high-art dance form is embodied by fusion dance companies like Kibbutz Contemporary Dance or Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. If you like the contemporary style on SYTYCD, you may be confused by what you see at a concert of Miami Contemporary Dance Company or any of these companies using movement to challenge ideas of what dance can communicate and how it is supposed to look. Other angles on the face of this dance form include contemporary ballet and contemporary jazz, both influences that find their way into the other types of contemporary dance.

Travis Fly Rob Daly
Travis Wall, co-creator and artistic director of Shaping Sound, was the 2015 Emmy Award winner for Outstanding Choreography. Photo by Rob Daly.

Travis Wall, perhaps one of the hottest young contemporary dancer/choreographers to sprout from the wellspring of SYTYCD, brings his company, Shaping Sound, to Morsani Hall on November 18 in a thrilling exhibition of the popular contemporary form. Shaping Sound, an extra-physical troupe of dancers with multiple dance backgrounds, spends up to nine hours a day in rehearsals setting a new show. These dancers are lean, limber, daring and examples par excellence of Wall’s ingenious ability to craft crowd-pleasing contemporary movement.

In truth, as of now there exists no codified contemporary technique as there does for modern styles (contract/release, suspend/fall), ballet or jazz. The form continues to shape-shift as it encounters other influences and new dancemakers bring their individual flavor to the infinite pot of contemporary gumbo. For many reasons, defining contemporary dance remains difficult but, like other things, you usually know it when you see it.

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