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What is "contemporary ballet"?


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#1 Estelle

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 07:40 PM

[quote]Originally posted by Lolly:

As far as I know, and I only take ballet so I could be way out here, in UK there is "ballet", your absolute classical stuff learned in school and seen onstage in Swan Lake etc. Then there is "modern", which has different techniques (Graham, Limon etc) with describable positions and steps. Then there is "contemporary" which is a fusion of the two.


To make it even more complicated: now about the situation in France... In French, the terms which are used the more often are "la danse classique", which means "ballet" ("le ballet" isn't used very often), and "la danse contemporaine", which is a very fuzzy term encompassing pretty much anything which isn't ballet and isn't jazz dancing. For example, now dance teachers must have an official state diploma, and the official categories are "danse classique", "danse jazz" and "danse contemporaine". I have always wondered about the content of the "danse contemporaine" exams, as there is no definite style...

"Danse moderne" is more or less an equivalent of "danse contemporaine", but it isn't used very often (at least, not by people who are interested in dance). "Modern dance" (in English), on the other hand, is used for choreographers like Graham, Limon, Humphrey...

And then there is "néo-classique", which sometimes mean choreographers like Balanchine, Ashton, Tudor... and sometimes more or less any choreographer with a vague relationship with ballet (I've seen it used about Forsythe, Duato, Ek, Maillot, Ek (!), Kylian, for example). In that second meaning, it seems quite close to "contemporary ballet" in Leigh's definition.

#2 Estelle

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 08:08 PM

[quote]Originally posted by vagansmom:
Estelle, Are there two Eks? I saw the documentary about Sylvie Guillem recently where she dances "Wet Woman" by Matts Ek. I was wondering about his bio.

Vagansmom, it's the same Ek I was talking about.
Mats Ek is a Swedish choreographer in his mid 50s. He's the son of the choreographer Birgit Cullberg (who died one or two years ago) and the actor Anders Ek. He was the director of the Cullberg Ballet for many years, and left the directorship of the company a few years ago (but still creates some works for them from time to time). (There also is another Ek: his older brother, Niklas Ek, who danced with several companies, including Merce Cunningham's company and Béjart's Ballet of the
XXth century, and more recently the Nederlands Dans Theater III (the part of the company for "senior" dancers)).

I don't know what kind of training Ek had as a dancer, but I've read that he started his career as a theater actor. As far as I know, the dancers of the Cullberg Ballet have had some ballet training, and he's created some works for ballet dancers like Guillem (besides "Wet woman", he also created a duo for her and his brother) or ballet companies like the POB, but his choreographic style seems very very far from ballet, and closer to modern dance.

[ January 02, 2002: Message edited by: Estelle ]



#3 Alexandra

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 02:07 PM

Jaana, thanks for asking this -- and thank you, Leigh, for moving it here. I was about to do the same thing smile.gif

I think it would be fascinating if everyone gave their definition of "contemporary ballet" with examples, as Leigh did -- not worrying about being "right" or "wrong" but just want the term connotes to you. (I don't think there's an official definition yet, and that the term is used very loosely, which is why I'd be interested in knowing how it's construed by people.)

I think there are country differences, too, not just between England and America, but continental Europe as well.

I'd add a question. Do you think there is a meaningful difference among these terms -- "ballet," "contemporary ballet" and "contemporary dance"?

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 05:30 PM

Thanks very much, Lolly and Calliope. More personal definitions, please! (Debates later smile.gif )

#5 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 01:42 PM

Jaana - this is a question that is of such general interest that I'm going to move it to "Aesthetic Issues" in the General Forum so it gets wider discussion. Please don't feel shy about discussing it there; this is a perfect time for the question to be asked.

One thing I will note is that the word "contemporary" has different connotations as used by American dancers and those interested in dance than those in England.

In the early 1980s I went on my first trip to London and when I arrived I wanted to take a ballet class. I called up a school and they asked "Contemporary or classical ballet?" Well, I was completely thrown. It turned out that what they called "Contemporary ballet" would have been what we called "Modern Dance" (more specifically Graham Technique)

So to echo Victoria, there is no fixed definition of "contemporary ballet" It's often easier to tell you what it isn't than what it is, and what it is will often depend on where you are!

For me, contemporary ballet is (for lack of a better trained definition) dance that uses classical ballet-trained dancers (and in most cases, some of the technique and vocabulary) but is not classical ballet. The ballets of Robert North (Entre Dos Aguas) or William Forsythe (Steptext) or Lar Lubovitch (Meadow, done recently for ABT) are all good examples. It is a very broad category and encompasses many different choreographers.

Does that help at all?

#6 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 02:26 PM

The other problem is that contemporary ballet is almost a dustbin; things that aren't other forms of dance get swept in there. In a sense, my definition of contemporary ballet is "what isn't classical ballet, yet isn't modern dance." And then one needs to define classical ballet and modern dance to define contemporary ballet. . .

Would anyone like to come up with a positive definition for contemporary ballet, where the definition rests on what it is, rather than on what it is not?

#7 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 02:34 PM

Lolly and I were posting at the same time, I'll add there is also the distinction of "Neo-Classical" which may describe the greater portion of Balanchine's work better than "contemporary" if only because the work is more firmly rooted in classical principles (turn out, pointe work and most importantly the "architecture" of the ballet)

For instance, one thing that makes Agon or The Four Temperaments neo-classical rather than "contemporary" is the fact that they mirror the structure of classical ballet. The Sanguinic movement in 4t's is a Grand Pas de Deux, with entrees, variations and a coda. Ballets by Balanchine that might be considered more "contemporary" include Variations for a Door and a Sigh, Ivesiana, Opus 34 (from what I've heard - it's lost) and sections of Episodes. But given the bulk of his canon, I think you could make a strong argument for even calling Balanchine's "contemporary" work "neoclassical"

On the other hand, if you called Agon "contemporary", everyone would still get what you meant.

#8 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 11:47 AM

Jaana, it's really not that simple to explain, because there are a lot of uses for the word contemporary and it gets used for practically anything that is not a 19th century classic like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, etc. But it is also used to describe works that are ballet, but not exactly "classical", like works by Forsythe or Tharp and lots of other "contemporary choreographers". I'm sure someone else can do a much better job of explaining this, and I don't have time to go into anything further right now, so will leave it for others to continue. Just wanted to give you a quick response this morning smile.gif

#9 Calliope

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 02:37 PM

Taking full advantage of not being "right or wrong"

I always thought contemporary was leotard ballets (Agon, 4 T's, Hermann Schermann) dance that used the ballet vocabularly, but didn't have a tutu.

Then I heard neo-classical and got really confused.
I guess all the definitions depend on where you stand in the dance pool. If you're someone who only goes to see The Nutcracker, anything not storybook is contemporary. And without pointe shoes, modern. That was how I got my start. It wasn't until I started going often and to different companies that I understood.

I think there are meaningful differences between the terms, I'm just not all that sure what they are or how to articulate it properly.

#10 vagansmom

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 07:52 PM

Estelle, Are there two Eks? I saw the documentary about Sylvie Guillem recently where she dances "Wet Woman" by Matts Ek. I was wondering about his bio.

I thought I'd have classified that particular dance of his as contemporary ballet except when I thought about it, I realized it didn't necessarily require ballet training to dance it. In my opinion, it just wouldn't have looked as good though without the ballet-trained body.

[ January 02, 2002: Message edited by: vagansmom ]



#11 Jaana Heino

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 09:07 AM

Ms. Leigh, or some one else who knows, could you please explain me what is meant by "contemporary ballet" as opposed to classical? I know the word contemporary/modern dance, but I think this is different? I tried the web, but didn't get any wiser... Thank you.

#12 Lolly

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 02:24 PM

What an great question! I'm really interested about the different perception of ballet and dance here and in the States (and anywhere else, for that matter!) I had never thought it might be different.

As far as I know, and I only take ballet so I could be way out here, in UK there is "ballet", your absolute classical stuff learned in school and seen onstage in Swan Lake etc. Then there is "modern", which has different techniques (Graham, Limon etc) with describable positions and steps. Then there is "contemporary" which is a fusion of the two.

To perform modern, you would not need to know ballet (of course it would always be useful). But for contemporary, it is a must. Contemporary would have steps which are classical, but performed in a different way. This could be without turnout, without pointed feet etc. The structure of the piece might be different too, it might not have pas de deux, or it might have pas de deux for two men, might have no plot, it might not even have music... just noise.

As far as I know, a lot of Balanchine could be considered contemporary, eg the pirouettes on bent knee. Matthew Bourne's work is contemporary, with his male swans, for example.

As I said, I could be wrong here, but from what I have read and seen here in UK, that is how I see dance. I'm interested to hear from anyone else who has different views! smile.gif


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