Contemporary dance, by its definition, should cover all new dance currently being created. This is not the case; the term has a plasticity which sees it being used to describe not only new dance, but non-classical dance that was new a century ago. There must be a point at which “contemporary” dance is no longer contemporary – or is contemporary dance much bigger than just a single genre. Perhaps it’s all in the name: it’s new and daring, and it’s staying that way.
When choreographers such as Ted Shawn and Martha Graham were creating works in a new movement language, it was called modern, or contemporary, dance. Until then, folk, social and classical dance (including ballet) were the prevailing forms practised. Dance which is innovative, using the body in a new way is still referred to as contemporary today, but in the context of this “new” contemporary dance, surely the contemporary dance which has gone before, must go by a different name. Well it doesn’t seem to be.
Back in the time of Domenico da Piacenzo, when the steps that grew up to form the ballet alphabet were in their infancy, classical steps would have been contemporary – but they aren’t any more. We seem to have become stuck in our quest to compartmentalise. Maybe in centuries to come, dance scholars will refer to what we call ballet and contemporary dance as something entirely different.
The issue may stem from the teaching. In a classical ballet class, one is taught classical ballet. In a contemporary class, one may be taught one of many different disciplines, and most likely a unique form, influenced by several. Such a seemingly banal detail can easily change how people percieve both disciplines. The broad-reaching title may seem to do a disservice to the many individual contributors in the field, but it also allows a rich fluidity between them, mirroring the open-nature of the contemporary dance artist.
While classical ballet seems to be stuck in a rut, forever fighting against the Degas archetype, contemporary dance is flourishing; branching off in myriad directions, infiltrating every wing of the arts. The work of some contemporary artists that is still influencing the dance world today may be approaching or even exceeding 100 years of age, but it is still part of the contemporary dance lineage. Perhaps ballet died the second it assumed its classical prefix, and it really is all in the name.