One of the most popular forms of dance today is Contemporary Dance. Companiesaround the world make exciting new productions and visuals every year. But where did this widely expressive, shapeshifting powerhouse come from? Here’s a quick history, from its rebellious origins in the early 20th century to its constantly reinventive state in today’s scene.
With modern dance’s departure from the rigid structure of ballet came a vast and undiscovered world of new movements as a means of expressing ideas that were–like modern music and art–more abstract and complex than their cultural beginnings. However, this cutting edge soon became dull, as some artists looked for a synergy between the “high art” world of ballet and avant-garde modern dance, motions that were more approachable, to the people, and inspired by the prevailing jazz music scene of the mid-century. Merce Cunningham, a student of the massively influential modern American dance choreographer Martha Graham, worked to forge a style that was full of new movements incorporating the entire body which could divorce itself from the music and narrative entirely to exist.
During the same time that Merce Cunningham was developing their methods, other people were working to bring to the world of dance a perspective that had previously not been allowed a place in mainstream Western culture. The African American choreographer Alvin Ailey married the Graham technique with black music, particularly gospel spirituals, to build a lyrical ambiance in his productions that expressed modern dance from a distinctly African American perspective. His groundbreaking work added to the cultural vocabulary of modern dance, which in turn further influenced the ongoing development of contemporary dance and expanded its cultural language.
Contemporary today it still continues to change and evolve, at times it seems almost impossible to define and mold into one box.
As contemporary dance is by design and definition a moving target, a near contradiction that is both constantly reinventing itself and yet still drawing from its own past. A contemporary dancer’s body use differs from that of a ballet dancer: their face conveys more expression, and their neck, shoulders, and torso move in accentuated and fluid motions.