How should contemporary dance be watched?

Balletristic starts a new “Alternative” column, in which we will talk about modern trends and practices in dancing. What is contemporary dance? How should it be watched and, most importantly, understood? Why does contemporary dance have little in common with ballet and why is it still not “anything” at all? Viktor Ruban, the choreographer, performer and contemporary dance researcher answered these questions in our introduction.

On the origins and meanings of contemporary dance

The origins of contemporary dance are a very broad topic, and it is important to specify what we are talking about. Are we talking about the occurrence of the phenomenon or the name itself? Contemporary dance has no date of birth or founder. The process of its occurrence took place in the second half of the 19th century and it was developing simultaneously with contemporary visual art for 40-50 years. The concepts of “contemporary dance”, “free dance” emerged only at the beginning of the 20th century – Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan were the first who used them, and certain practices were fixed in 30-40 years. The same happened to classical dance: the tradition was fixed much later than the ballet itself appeared.

It is important that even in English, the phrases contemporary dance and modern dance are not always the same. In the USA, for example, these concepts are considered to be synonymous, and in Europe they denote different periods of contemporary dance development. Modern dance is used in case of the repertoire, techniques and approaches up to 1970s-1980s, which mainly belong to the ballet school (for example, the school of Martha Graham, Leslie Horton, etc.). Contemporary dance is used to denote experimental eclectic practices, forms and approaches, which didn’t belong to the classical heritage that much. It belonged much more to contemporary art, contemporary philosophy andcontemporary scientific research. This trend began to develop since late 60s and early 70s.

On the interaction with ballet

We can’t say that contemporary dance had conflict with ballet. It was rather breaking free from it. Modern ballet appeared as a new tradition in ballet – but in the field of contemporary dance. Modern dance always looked for its place beyond the established canons. It strived to form its own context, its audience and be recognized at the same time as a dance form, artistic practice, stage phenomenon and, finally, art – no less than ballet did. It began to say that the dance and the movement may be different, there doesn’t have to be only one tradition – there may be many of them, and each of them deserves to be legitimate.

So what is contemporary dance?

Due to the diversity of practices, it can’t be specifically defined, and this often confuses the viewer. In general, contemporary dance is about comprehending the movement, about breaking the rules, about experimenting. And at the same time, it is not anything. Turning to history, the period of “anything” took place in late 1970s-1980s. Practices arose on the back of radical denial of past experience: the main argument of artists was “we are not… (something).” The concept of dance was challengedon the whole, at the same time a “non-dance” movement emerged – artists studied the movement outside of the choreography and combined it with other visual and performing arts.

But after the experiments (what if I dance, stand, spend all the whole time motionless, in the dark, on the street, in the well?), the period of their comprehension came. The established practices acquired their own specificity, classification, and now they are not “anything” again.

What is contemporary dance about?

Contemporary dance largely appeals to a deep inner response that will make the audience rethink what is happening today, rather than to images and impressions. And if contemporary dance is a search for the new, then its viewer is a person who is interested in everything new in general and strives for knowing and understanding. The same can be said about contemporary visual art. Perhaps, it will sound meager, but danceartists and visual artists have cognitive work in common – they turn a study of new ideas and approaches into a separate science. And their audience can be interested in modern theater, modern philosophy, self-knowledge and self-development, new technologies, etc.

On the audience and criticism of contemporary dance

Certainly, the viewer is the one to choose what, where and when to watch. But the audience of traditional and established forms of choreography and the admirers of contemporary dance are in different “weight classes”.

For example, classical ballet has a huge audience without any doubt, as this art has long been firmly integrated into the information space – there are literature, videos, broadcasts on TV, printed materials and even a certain image of a “fine dancer”. Moreover, there is a variety of works that can be easily watched live at theaters, and there is even the opportunity to barre exercise. Accordingly, the viewer is more informed and even brought up, it is easier for them to perceive familiar information. New trends that are constantly expanding need time to formulate the experiment into practice, methodology, approach and repertoire – so that one could say about the artist as follows: “He works with this and that, he has a repertoire, fixed materials.” Accordingly, it takes some time to find the audience.

Criticism needs a proper basis, and in order to analyze contemporary dance, one must understand contemporary culture as a whole, since it affects various aspects of it. The specifics of contemporary dance are huge and at the same time very field-specific: physical theater, non-dance, site-specific, butoh dance, BMC, release techniques, flying low, etc. Each direction may have a different viewer, and it’s rather difficult to criticize contemporary dance profoundly in general. While ballet is evaluated by understandable criteria like technicality, performing skills, composition, direction, musicality, contemporary dance exists in the parallel universe. Accordingly, the ballet critic can’t always become a contemporary dance critic.

Practice defines the viewer, as well as the artist, the performer. Any person who is ready to immergeinto the subject and develop the depth of understanding of what the body, movement, music, space and timeare, can become an experienced viewer, and a critic, consequently. It’s necessary to realize the intricacies of relationships with the body and the viewer: after all, while ballet is oriented to a front presentation, contemporary dance have no rules.

On professionalism

In contemporary dance, it is difficult to say unequivocally who a professional is. In my opinion, it all depends on the way the artist understands his/her role, how much attention is paid to physical training, work on the crystallization of ideas, artistic gesture, communication with the viewer. His/her research may be based on classical ballet. At the same time,it maybe not related to a particular school at all and be based on near theatrical, circus, therapeutic, psychological, corporal and other practices of perception and representation. A new direction of contemporary dance may arise on their basis – the schoolitself doesn’t matter. The ability to search for the new, exploring the possibilities of the human body, movement, action and interactionconsciously and methodically – this is what really important.