What is Contemporary Dance?

..Honestly, it sounds like a fairly simple question. We have watched and experienced contemporary dance enough times to form a visual of it. It is loosely used all around us and has been given a rather permanent face thanks to the reality shows – jumps, tricks, turns, pointed feet and sorrow. The moment a sad/romantic song comes on, you know its going to be contemporary dance. But what exactly is the form about?

The Green Table - C

(The Green Table: Kurt Jooss)

It developed during the mid to late 20th century as a natural evolution of modern dance and the need to incorporate elements from different dance styles across the world. Because it employs aspects of technique from jazz, modern and ballet – it is often seen as being limited to only that. However, contemporary is not actually a fixed or structured form of dance, its boundaries are far reaching and malleable. It allows current influences and cultural developments to become a part of it’s expression. Its doors are open to the influence of all dance styles across the world.

People often confuse modern dance with contemporary. Afterall, both advocate that the origin of movement should be organic and real, and less about aesthetic quality or showcasing of technical prowess (like ballet). The difference between the two lies in the history. Modern dance originated in the early 1900s with Isadora Duncan, who wanted to rebel against the strict structures and irrelevance of ballet. Other iconic figures like Martha Graham joined in with their fierce stand against the form and fueled their performances with raw energy and passion. Over the years, modern dance grew as more and more dancers subscribed to the freedom it offered.

Modern dance, however, is an amalgamation of different schools of choreography and style, each with it’s own set of principles. Graham, Cunningham, Dunham, Horton etc – all developed their own unique style. Contemporary dance, while owing it’s roots to modern dance, isn’t really that definitive. In my opinion, ‘contemporary’ isn’t really a dance style but rather a never-ending wave of evolution and transformation that allows dance to change, grow and remain relevant.

This doesn’t, ofcourse, mean that any dance form can be termed as contemporary. One cannot mix hip hop with salsa and call it contemporary. As mentioned before, it does owe its roots to ballet and modern. Certain concepts like contact-release, floor work, fall-recovery and improvisation are employed by contemporary dancers all over the world. Lets just say it may not be definitive, but it does have a frame of reference.

It is still new in the Indian conscience, and not surprisingly, most people are confused about what it means. We have come to associate it with something like this:

While this is entertaining to watch and can be considered a part of contemporary dance, that is not just what it is. We have come to associate contemporary with tricks and flexibility, which is closer to gymnastics than the dance form. Thanks to it’s imperfect and elastic nature, contemporary dance is a sponge for the current happenings, cultural and political developments and social changes. It reflects the state of the “now”. Basically, it is a very relevant form of dance.

In the end, though, the beauty of contemporary dance lies in the freedom it offers to each individual to be interpreted differently. Every contemporary dancer has a different definition and experience of the dance form, and best part is that not a single one of them is wrong.

 

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Choreographic fables

My very first creation as a choreographer was titled “Earthworm”. I am not sure why I decided to call it that – maybe I was just trying to stand out. But it was the first name that popped up in my head. Earthworm is the only choreography through which I have not tried to say anything in particular. It is simply a collection of movements and arrangement of movements that I found fascinating. At that time, I was deeply inspired by Ohad Naharin’s “Virus” and his choice of music. I considered that piece as my bible for the project and asked all my dancers to watch it repeatedly.

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I was also influenced a lot by Sharon Eyal’s “Killer pig” and her use of canon, repetition and different directions to create an impact. Her movements were small, subtle and very powerful. We had learnt a part of her repertoire when I was in Italy in 2015 and Killer Pig was one of them. I don’t ever remember being so confused in a dance class before. Even though the movement wasn’t very difficult, their arrangement was. The combination was so primitive and internalized, and it was repeated by the dancers many times throughout the choreography. Every time I start to get too overwhelmed by the process of choreography, I watch this piece and remind myself to keep it simple. It works best.

I tried to incorporate tools such as repetition and reverse as an experiment. At that time I was unsure of what would work. I also didn’t give much thought to the message that I was trying to put across. Later during one of the performances, I was asked – “What were you trying to say?” and I honestly didn’t know what to say. Now, I feel like the piece was just a physical representation of the chaos that exists within my head.

As a choreographer, I like to approach my pieces with a lot of clarity. I know what I want from A-Z. If I start with an open ended approach, I often get confused and am left feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of ideas. Improvisation, though a widely used method to create movement, has never really yielded good ideas for me. At least so far, movement comes to me first as a thought and then gets translated physically. Perhaps this approach comes from me being a control freak, but it has worked for me so far. I once tried to initiate a piece without any clarity; I led the dancers into a space of structured improvisation to see if it generated some fitting ideas. There were some workable things that came out of it but mostly I discarded it all.

Choreography is a strange process. It simply cannot be forced. There are people who say creativity is a craft and becomes better with practice. While I agree with the argument, I also think that it applies more to the process of movement creation rather than the ‘getting the idea’ bit. That still is a mystery. Sometimes an idea is so explosive that you just know what needs to be done in order to materialize it, and sometimes it is just a feeling that needs to be explored as much as possible. There is one, fixed way to approach it. There is no one way that works for everyone or even all ideas. For me, it seems like I am constantly inventing and re-inventing my methods.

As a choreographer, I will always be a learner.

Granted l Dance Film

I had been toying with the idea of this piece for a while, ever since I saw a poster of a short dance film contest. Inspiration to create something always hits me like a running train. Then I just have to do something about it. I’m so happy to have managed to finish this film in 15 days and for it to have come out the way it did. I truly believe dance films is a virtually limitless form of expression. You can reach out globally and present your work to n number of people.