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From "Hmm…" to "Ah ha!": contemporary dance demystified

6 tips for appreciating contemporary dance, with videos featuring T.H.E Dance Company.

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Published: 27 Sep 2018


Time taken : >15mins

The purpose of this article is to demystify contemporary dance by providing various access points for you, the audience. These are by no means exhaustive and are only a few ways of appreciating a form of dance that is as diverse as it is exciting.

1. Trust yourself

You are more intuitive and creative than you give yourself credit for. Your initial responses and impressions when you view a dance are probably correct. Over and over, I hear people say, "I don't understand contemporary dance" but equally often I hear choreographers respond to the question "what does your dance mean?" with "what did you get from it?”.

Appreciating dance, as with most art, is not about understanding it, but about experiencing it and taking a certain amount of pleasure from the experience. Sometimes this comes in the form of emotional catharsis, a visual pleasure, visceral responses or mental stimulation. So do not judge your own responses to a performance. Take what your body and mind tell you and enjoy it.

2. Multiple interpretations exist

Ever since the literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote The Death of the Author and third generation modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham started using chance techniques to create dances, we have realised that the singular vision of the choreographer being understood by all the audience is a fantasy.

Meaning is made in the mind of the audience and there will be as many interpretations of the dance as there are audience members. So most contemporary dance choreographers are not only prepared for that, they are counting on it. The audience is invited to take references from their own life experiences, cultural backgrounds and training to draw connections to make the experience meaningful for themselves.

However, I cannot discount the fact that having some understanding of the choreographer’s/dancer’s cultural context, personal history and traditions will add an additional layer of meaning that provides access to a deeper appreciation of the performance. If you do a little reading up on Javanese traditions and the cross-gender dance lengger, you will find this is the case with Javanese dancer-choreographer Rianto's Medium.

 

3. Use your senses

Sensory processing is how we receive information from and interact with our environment. You have seven senses; sight, taste, smell, touch, hearing, vestibular system (this is how, even in a closed elevator, you know you are moving) and proprioception (this is how you can touch your nose with your eyes closed).

It is important to make use of them when experiencing dance. We can use the memory of various sensations to identify with the movement that we see. For instance, this is how you would see dancers' muscles straining and realise that they are exerting great effort or when you watch a jump and feel the sensation of soaring.

The performance has been carefully created from the costume, sound, lights and movement to direct your attention to certain stimuli to evoke a variety of sensations. Sometimes you do not need to understand dance, you just need to feel it.

4. Awkward is beautiful

When ballet first began in the 17th century, it was based on the French court dances. These had beautiful geometric patterns that were mostly symmetrical and formed the basis of the symmetry that was exhibited in ballet subsequently.

However, as early as the 18th century, choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre wrote in Letters on Dance (1760) a treatise on ballet choreography, "I have said, Sir, that dancing was too complicated, and the symmetrical movement of the arms too uniform, for the picture to have variety, expression and simplicity; therefore, if we desire to approach our art in the light of truth, let us give less attention to the legs and more to the arms."

Noverre was already trying to break away from the rigid symmetry and robotic perfection in technique to allow for the movement and form to support emotions and intention. By the early 20th century, modern dance pioneers took off their pointe shoes and descended from the heights to wallow on the ground in their bare feet, thumbing their noses at balletic conventions. They explored how the body could express deep-set emotions and human stories that were more easily related to than watching fairies and nymphs.

Post-modern dance questioned the notion of performance itself and started to break down the barrier between audience and performer. With this ancestry, contemporary dance is a very eclectic form that draws from a variety of cultures and movement languages that often celebrates the uniqueness of the dancers and their individual bodies.

Many (but not all) contemporary dance works are presented in an intimate setting such as a black box theatre. Being this close to the dancers, you might feel the heat rolling off the bodies and see the sweat dripping off their brows. Being this close, flaws are revealed. Their humanity is revealed.

In classical dance forms such as ballet, Chinese classical dance and most court dances, the aim is to make the movement appear effortless. Magic is woven through the ability to look ethereal, and this supports the romantic themes of the ballets and would not offend the delicate sensibilities of royal patrons. However, to a contemporary audience that revels in its own humanity and finds a hard-fought battle more appealing than an easy victory, flaws are beautiful.

5. Virtuosity of the simple

We are easily impressed by watching dancers execute multiple turns in a single flourish, lift their legs up to their ears or jump and appear to float endlessly. This is because we could never see ourselves doing that. We understand that it takes years of training to be able to sustain such positions and fine-tune the body with such precision.

Yet we do not recognise the level of difficulty involved in walking a straight line at a constant pace and energy level while staying connected to the audience and to the space. We do not recognise the level of focus required to imbue a repeated everyday act with a multiplicity of intentions.

We think, "They might as well pay me to walk across the stage, I can do it too, and I'd be cheaper". We fail to understand that the virtuosity is not in the act itself—we have all learned to walk from a young age and most of us do it every day—but the artistry is in how the movement/task is performed. Sometimes, only a trained performer can stand still like that and get you to think and feel all that you could if you would stop judging the action and just respond to the performance.

6. Not knowing is a good thing

Contemporary dance choreography can make us question. With movement or with stillness, with technology or the body, with a beautiful image or an ugly one, it can challenge us out of our comfort zones. We can take pleasure in facing that challenge as they metaphorically and artistically flip the finger at theatrical conventions. By trying to push the boundaries of what dance is, what form it takes and where it is encountered, contemporary dance can question not only societal norms but artistic norms as well. Sometimes that state of questioning and not knowing is more fruitful than having the answers because when you think you have the answers, you stop searching.

Feeling confident about catching your first contemporary dance performance?

Contemporary dance choreography can make us question. With movement or with stillness, with technology or the body, with a beautiful image or an ugly one, it can challenge us out of our comfort zones. We can take pleasure in facing that challenge as they metaphorically and artistically flip the finger at theatrical conventions. By trying to push the boundaries of what dance is, what form it takes and where it is encountered, contemporary dance can question not only societal norms but artistic norms as well. Sometimes that state of questioning and not knowing is more fruitful than having the answers because when you think you have the answers, you stop searching.


Contributed by:

Melissa Quek

Melissa Quek is a choreographer, performer and educator who has been working professionally in dance since she was 18. She is currently Head of the School of Dance & Theatre and is leading the Diploma in Dance and BA (Hons) Dance Programmes at LASALLE College of the Arts.


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