What is Contemporary Ballet?

contemporary ballet history

In the world of ballet, well the world of dance, everyone is throwing around the genre of contemporary ballet. But, what is contemporary ballet? If we look at the dance spectrum as a whole, contemporary would fall somewhere between classical ballet and post-modern. If we looked at a progressive timeline, contemporary ballet would fall somewhere in the 1920’s-1940’s between the Ballets Russes (active 1909-1929) and the birth of New York City Ballet (f. 1948).

Ballet Timeline
Partial timeline from my new book… The Illustrated Guide to Ballet

 

 

So, by definition, contemporary is defined by living or occurring at the same time, or belonging to or occurring in the present. So, by definition, contemporary ballet really can only be defined as ballets that are currently being created. That really doesn’t work for us, since dance historians are classifying the emergence of contemporary ballet somewhere in the 1960’s. This being different from neoclassical ballet. Neoclassical ballet referring to the Balanchine/Massine ballets. All the meanwhile jazz and modern dance emerged.

From the 60’s choreographers, directors and dancers started new innovative collaborations; taking the best in music, costume design, vocabulary and more. From here, a new vocabulary emerged and the idea of cross-training in all genres emerged.

In the 80’s a strong group of choreographers created a vocabulary of movement that manipulated the classical technique in such a way it became part of the standard repertoire of today. Some of these men include John Cranko, William Forsythe and Jiri Kylian.

From this group of innovators, a new group of individuals emerged: Alonzo King, Dwight Rhoden, Desmond Richardson, John Neumeier, and Matthew Bourne, just to name a few.

This created the current group of individuals leading contemporary ballet: Alexei Ratmansky, Yuri Possokhov, Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millpied, Justin Peck, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Crystal Pite, Liam Scarlett, Wayne McGregor and more.


How do you classify what is a contemporary ballet?


If we classified contemporary ballet as dances done on pointe to different music, or incorporating other dance vocabularies… then Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain wouldn’t be considered a contemporary ballet. But, if we look at contemporary ballet as a dance that uses the ballet vocabulary, then it would be a contemporary ballet.

If we said that a contemporary ballet is based on the vocabulary of classical ballet, then every genre of classical dance would be considered contemporary ballet.

Here is how I like to classify what is contemporary ballet and what is contemporary dance (by no means is this the standard rubric of classifying dance, just mine):

  • If the dance is on pointe, it is contemporary ballet.
  • If the majority of the dance is based on technique and the principals of ballet, it is contemporary ballet.
  • If the majority of the dance vocabulary derives on a feeling, gestures, or sets it is contemporary dance.
  • If the dance movement is primarily based on the principals of turnout, it is contemporary ballet.
  • If the dance is about lack of control of the body, contemporary dance while the constraint of articulation enforces it is a contemporary ballet.

One of the major differences I think between contemporary ballet and contemporary dance is the purpose why the dance is created. I think contemporary ballets are made with the intent of surviving the test of time and becoming a part of the standard ballet company repertory, where contemporary dance is made for the moment, and truly embraces the word contemporary.

So, as you are preparing for the YAGP and shows, you should ask yourself a few things.

  • What is the purpose of this work?
  • What is the intent behind each of the movements? Is it technique? It is placement? Articulation? Flexibility? Emotion?
  • Is this work going to be relevant in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?
  • What is the story behind the work?
  • Where is the vocabulary coming from? Jazz? Ballet? Hip Hop? Modern?
  • Who is this work intended for? Judges? Audience? Social Media? Yourself?
  • Why are you dancing this?

The wonderful part of the world of contemporary ballet and dance today is the ability to juxtapose anything together. Whether it is a classical costume to hip-hop music, classical music and postmodern gestures, pointe work and gender, the lack of music and classical ballet technique. The combinations are endless. Just like the world of contemporary ballet, the possibilities of combining gestures and technique, fusing articulation and constraint, breath and technique… It is quite amazing.

A problem that a lot of work is running into is that the possible combinations and dance vocabulary is running out. As dance is moving forward we are exploring the articulation in and out of the technique, timing and pushing the limits of our body, and as this is becoming the standard, classical ballets will no longer be created. We are already seeing it with the Balanchine repertory becoming more common, and the acquisition of the Forsythe, Wheeldon, Ratmansky, Peck ballets becoming a part of standard repertory around the world. While the classics will always be performed, I don’t think very many more classical ballets will ever be created. Tudor, MacMillan, and Neumeier might have been the last ones to create a “classical” ballet.


What makes good contemporary ballet?

This is a double edge sword to answer. But a good contemporary ballet, for me, is something moving. Whether or not it tells a story gives no weight into if it is good or bad. I think the manipulation of the body, control of the articulation is extremely important, but that is half the dancer half the choreographer. The use or the lack of use of the space on all levels. Musicality. Pathways. The manipulation of technique. The idea behind the piece…

Here are some of my favorite works… the list is too long to list them all… Hope you enjoy.

Wayne McGregor’s Chroma

Alonzo King’s Meyer… almost all of his works I love though…

William Forsythe’s … well most things of his as well haha. But, I think right now in the ballet world the two most accessible ballets are In the Middle Somewhat Elevated and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.

Justin Peck’s… well almost anything as well… but here is his Rodeo.


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