Tag Archives: Martha Graham

It’s All In The Name

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.

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Strange Bedfellows: Ballet and Contemporary Dance in Ireland

Ballet and contemporary dance in Ireland operate as two distinct entities, having two very different audience cohorts: the former has a loyal following of those who grew up with the established classical ballets and the latter a more curious breed, interested in broader artistic enrichment. Can these two disciplines operate and even interact? Or has the chasm between them widened to such an extent that both groups are effectively alienated and on very different paths?

Ballet has a rich history in Ireland, reaching back to the Abbey Ballet School in the 1920’s, led by Ninette de Valois, a Wicklow native who toiled her way to establishing what is now The Royal Ballet. There have been many bumps in the road which now sees two companies, the National Ballet of Ireland (formerly Ballet Ireland) and Cork City Ballet, operating in a professional, if part-time capacity. The intervening years saw companies such as Dublin City Ballet and Irish National Ballet grow and flourish, only to be met with successive funding cuts, ultimately spelling the end. At one point Irish National Ballet even graced the stage of Sadler’s Wells. The legacy of the various growth spurts in Irish ballet is a wide network of ballet schools, which produce a plethora of young talented dancers, further fostered by Arts Council-funded youth companies such as Irish National Youth Ballet and Youth Ballet West. The net effect of these various enterprises is a loyal audience for ballet in Ireland. The lack of a permanent professional ballet presence in the country means the drop off between enthusiastic hobbyist and aspiring professional is drastic.

Contemporary dance too has a long back-story, from pioneers such as Erina Brady promoting an innovative dance voice in Dublin. The movement has since been there, taking influence from imported and homegrown talent. The main voices in today’s contemporary dance scene were borne of the 1980’s obliteration of funding for the various ballet companies: John Scott, David Bolger, Michael Keegan-Dolan, Liz Roche to name but a few. In the wasteland that was the aftermath of a funding haven, these fertile young minds set in motion what is now a mature modern dance community. Ballet’s loss was contemporary’s gain.

Somewhere along this timeline ballet and modern dance in Ireland diverged. Many of the protagonists were from similar training backgrounds, but in the tumult of the late 80’s and early 90’s, these two communities drifted. While contemporary dance flourished, ballet once again floundered: between the end of the Dublin City Ballet and Irish National Ballet and the arrival of Ballet Ireland as it was at the time,  Alan Foley’s Cork City Ballet bridged the gap for part of the time. Once ballet found its footing again, the contemporary dance bandwagon was well on its way.

Both disciplines have suffered equally at the lack of vocational training offered here. Historically, any dancer with aspirations of a professional career have travelled abroad and, given the lack of opportunities, many have stayed away, career advancement being easier to achieve elsewhere. That is not to say that Irish companies must have national talent to stay afloat; the prevailing attitude among dancers is “have job, will travel”.  This is one area where the two communities could work together – the furthering of a national dance training centre: no dancer or teacher could nowadays contemplate a balanced training without voices from both classical and contemporary ends of the spectrum.

Public funding is indispensable in a situation where there’s no culture of private arts patronage; as is the case in Ireland. After the contemporary dance boom, it was very hard for ballet to attract funding because in order to guarantee audiences they had to stage productions of established, recognisable works; for funding decision makers, established and recognisable aren’t exactly buzz-words.

In the wake of such brave moves forward by our contemporary dance companies, for example Coiscéim Dance Theatre and Fabulous Beast, ballet might seem to some an anachromism, but the two will always inform and reference each other, even if it’s not deliberate. The cross-over between the disciplines isn’t much in Ireland. Look back half a century and Martha Graham and George Balanchine were collaborating on Episodes – although artistically poles apart, the pair recognised and honoured their common background: dance. This broad interest and crossover needs to be encouraged and actively promoted, the result may prove more symbiotic than the idea might suggest.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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