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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You know you trained Balanchine Part 3…

In today’s world of ballet, you have to be living under a rock not to know who Balanchine is. The opposite of that would be living in 1930 and thinking ballet has not changed. These days, the technique has been refined with the help of physics and anatomy. We have mastered our bodies through kinesiology. But musically, we owe Balanchine our understanding of music, and how a dancer approaches music. While classical ballet focuses on the movement first, or the role- the Balanchine aesthetic makes the music first. Everyone has their cup of tea; mine just happens to be vintage Mr. B, with a splash of milk and agave. Every time I take class somewhere else, or somewhere new the first thing that is usually said is, “Oh, your Balanchine trained.” I don’t know if it is supposed to be condescending, but I take it as a compliment. Then I realized every time I take a class that isn’t Balanchine based, my quads die, and I have never danced so slow in my life…

 

 

Serenade_Mear

 

So, while this Thanksgiving Morning I started off with a nice ballet class, I had time to reflect and think, “Thank God for the Balanchine Aesthetic.” In my thankfulness for Balanchine and the Balanchine Trust here are FIVE more You Know You Trained Balanchine if you are taking a technique class other than a Balanchine class and…

1. You are in a class other than a Balanchine class, and you are thinking, “Dear God, could you move any slower.”
2. You are surrounded by non-Balanchine dancers that don’t travel, so you are stuck falling over yourself because the girl in the sloppy bun won’t travel.
3. You are the only male in white ballet shoes.
4. When the teacher gives the frappé or petit allegro combo, and you are like… yes. Then you year the tempo and you are like… no.
5. When you are traveling and killing it in those long fourth positions for pirouettes, and the person you are going with across the floor gives you side eye.

And one more because it is Thanksgiving: You know you trained Balanchine when you are in a non Balanchine class and you think, “These combinations don’t even make sense with the music, and who makes up a combo like that? -____- Only a Russian teacher would give arms like that.”

a ballet education balanchine

George Balanchine

Let the boy dance

His face was pressed against in the glass,
Fingers spread wide, tapping to the muffled sound of the music.
His mind was racing back and forth between reality, and fantasy.
Finally, the door opened and the teacher asked, “Do you want to come in?”
Looking for his mom’s approval, she nodded.
He rushed in.
And that was that.

I always wondered why my mom didn’t put me into dance earlier? From age 3-7 I would religiously watch the Baryshnikov/Kirkland Nutcracker every day, a copy that my grandma gave me. When PBS aired PNB’s Nutcracker, my Grandma recorded it, via VHS and gave it to me as well. I was addicted. I hadn’t even started dance classes yet. There are pictures of me religiously watching it. After preschool, lunch and reading, my mom would try to make me take a nap with her as I would normally get into trouble somewhere in the early afternoon. When these naps came about I would purposefully would toss and turn, and this would lead my mom to let me go to the living room and watch the Nutcracker. Somewhere between Snow and Prologue she would come out, and insist I turn it off and do something educational. I would beg, because the real dancing hadn’t started yet and the clowns hadn’t even danced. Little did I know, that one of those clowns would become a coach later on. Then in PNB’s Nutcracker, I would become obsessed with flowers and snow. Then my life happened, the Nutcracker was going to be in theaters, the NYCB version with Darci Kistler. And that is when I knew that is how I wanted to dance… The problem was, I hadn’t even started dancing yet… My sister and cousins were all in dance… But I wasn’t. Despite the fact that I had to go watch my sisters take class all the time… I hadn’t been enrolled.

My grandma giving me the Nutcracker.
My grandma giving me the Nutcracker.
Me super turned in watching the Nutcracker ... in suspenders, stripes and shoes...
Me super turned in watching the Nutcracker … in suspenders, stripes and cute shoes…

Finally, when it came to be… I wasn’t allowed to do ballet. I did boys class which included jazz and tap.
Then, finally, I knew I wanted to do ballet and I finally got my wish.  It was so late. So late. After an excellent elementary school, I went to a performing arts middle school with the condition that I keep a GPA over 3.5, stayed in the GATE program, and did other extra curricular activities. Needless to say, I wasn’t getting the training I needed. Then Center Stage came out, and I knew that I wanted that life. With the condition that I kept up all my responsibilities, I was able to quite the dance program at the middle school and go to a pre professional school. Then high school came about, and I knew I had to dance more. So, I doubled up on classes, by my freshman year of high school, I enrolled at a junior college so I could accumulate more credits.  By the age of fifteen I had finished high school, differed from colleges to make my parents happy, but I did this so I could focus on ballet.

Then while at this pre professional school, a former principal from National Ballet of Canada told me I would never be a dancer. So, it shattered my world, and I was like, “Fuck. I gave up Uni for this…”
While at the junior college, I found out they offered ballet classes late at night. And I thought, this is perfect! I can double up on my ballet training. I juggled the two back and forth and by January, I had auditions. As rejection letters and acceptance letters came, I was really confused. I had done everything right… I did everything my parents asked me, and everything my teachers asked me but I didn’t get in anywhere that I really wanted. This being SAB.

audition photo
audition photo

Then, while under the advisement of the junior college professor, she told me to consider going to a university and majoring in dance. I knew this isn’t want I wanted, but what if the world didn’t have a ballet plan for me? I was taking class at a college here in soCal and as I finished adagio at center I was walking to the side when a man tapped his finger on the glass and told me to come over. I kind of shook my head, but then the music in class stopped and the professor told me I should go out there and talk to him. I didn’t know who he was. He basically asked me a couple questions and asked if I wanted to come to his school for the summer. I had no clue who he was… It was Alonzo King of LINES Ballet. This was before LINES was everywhere. Deadlines were coming up and my parents told me I had to make decisions… So, while eating my favorite chinese food reading about all these programs, I opened my fortune cookie and it said: You will dance to a different beat.

Fortune cookies are the best.
Fortune cookies are the best.

Being the crazy that I am, I was like THIS IS A SIGN. So, I went to LINES. And as beautiful as it was, and as glorious as it was… I knew that this isn’t how I wanted to dance. I didn’t care about what muscles moved what, I didn’t care about finesse and I didn’t care about how a plié made me feel. I knew I wanted to have long lines, and deep fourths. I wanted over crossed everything and I wanted to move fast… Every modern teacher said I was too Balanchine. Every ballet teacher said I didn’t have the body for ballet. It was really discouraging. Despite all of my kicking and dragging on at LINES I had met beautiful dancers who I still catch up with to this day. I came home discouraged, but my Grandma showed me this article about SoCal girls doing it up big. It was referring to Ashley Ellis and Misty Copeland, just coming off their spotlight awards, coca cola scholars and acceptances to ABT Studio company… So, I moved in with my grandma to train at their studio… The caliber of training was amazeballs… It was intense training… But, it was SOOOOOOO classical. Anything remotely unclassical was frowned upon, and the Balanchine was driven out. Then I went to CPYB, thinking okay, if all of the principals of NYCB have gone here… I must go, and they had a University in the same city, so I could keep going on with my education. The training was beyond exceptional, but this time… life handed me a different set of cards… I never thought I would experience racism in a ballet classroom, I never thought I would be the only asian male for miles, I never thought a lot of things would ever happen to me… and they did.  I grew up in Southern California, my parents are white, and my brothers and sisters are all from different countries. Growing up my best friend was half french half black, and my other best friend was half German half mexican. Racism was the furthest thing from my mind… So, when comments by teachers were made about me being oriental, or that I had to open my eyes bigger… I was like wtf. This was the first time race became utterly important, but it also crushed me. So, despite CPYB’s advice, I decided to go audition for companies and got in. I begged the school the company was associated with to let me come early and just be in the school so I could get out of CPYB. Dance ended but brought teaching… Teaching brought back hope for ballet for me. Watching students leave this summer to join companies, go to SAB, and other summer programs, go off to university to dance on scholarship… Makes me feel like I can really do this… which basically caused this retrospective…

Ten years later, here I am sitting down filling out company contracts, school curriculum and emailing theaters. Crazy. Right? Starting a ballet company where poverty is seen in 30 miles every direction, the average high school drop out rate is over 30%, and the only major theatre is for comedians. Insane right? No, because now I know how important it is to let someone dance. And as I start this crazy journey of starting a company I am loving it. Mostly because the dancers I have hired are beautiful people with beautiful stories and that makes them beautiful to watch.
Kelly is tall. Like really tall. And after having a pre pro scholarship at PNB, and dancing at numerous companies around the US- she was never really pushed into roles because she was so tall. Now, inspired to dance again after having kids, she is beyond gorgeous and has this ferocious tenacity, ridiculous dedication and now that she is pushing for herself she taking on roles with fire and having experienced everything she has gone through as a mom, as a tall dancer, and as a teacher she brings something extra to her dancing. Then there is Carlos, who was a student of mine, coming from the same area. Training him to get scholarship at the Rock School then continuing his education at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, he is back. After fighting his family to let him dance, he comes back gorgeous, strong and long. Jaquie was told she was never going to dance. The studio owner would tell her to her face that she would never dance. Then I came to her studio as a teacher. After pushing and stretching, and challenging her, she got into summer programs and attended. She then got a scholarship to go to University. She is going to commute back and forth to dance. Amanda did everything right in ballet. Went year round at the Rock School, spent every summer at SAB, but ballet life got to her, and she decided to become an RN. Now at a top ranked hospital in the US, she decided she missed dancing, and wanted to start again. These are just short abbreviated versions of their stories, but their stories are also just beginning. It is really that spectacular.
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Angel… go home…

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a ballet fail…. #angel go home… your company did not work out…. Don’t ruin PA Ballet.. you obviously are another AD who needs to be replaced.  Goodbye. What makes American Ballet great is that we aren’t super classical. Leave that to France and Russia… Let us be dynamic, stylized, and musical. You just need to stop. Anyways… most female dancers classical or not have over-crossed tight arms when turning. I’m over it.