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Shades of contemporary dance

Published : Aug 7, 2018, 12:47 am IST
Updated : Aug 7, 2018, 12:47 am IST

“Contemporary dance”, as used generally, covers non-classical genres of performance art ranging from tacky to sublime.

Yvonne Rainer’s Chair-pillow.
 Yvonne Rainer’s Chair-pillow.

I recently heard someone say, nostrils flaring, “I hate contemporary dance!” An interesting statement, as everything we do in performance in the here and now is actually, by definition, contemporary. Classical genres of India and other world traditions are continuously re-envisioned and organically developed, motivated by the creativity of living artistes in dialogue with their audiences.

“Contemporary dance”, as used generally, covers non-classical genres of performance art ranging from tacky to sublime. So what are the actual sources of this umbrella term?

It was a direct result of the post 1970s post-modern dance concert form. Whereas the mid-century modern dancers worked to create new movement vocabularies to communicate their ideas and compositions, post-modern dance was a reaction against recognisable dance language. It used everyday movement as valid performance art and innovated new methods of dance composition.

Much of this exploration was highly intellectual and often demanded an engaged audience ready to be surprised, disturbed, even confused, rather than entertained.

The founders of post-modern dance include Merce Cunningham (before postmodern dance per se but used a postmodern choreographic process) and Robert Dunn (who taught composition at the Cunningham school), had studied with music composer John Cage and believed that the process of art was more significant than the end product. Merce Cunningham created choreography that was unrelated to the music it was accompanied by as well as using chance methods of choreography.

Dancers who studied under these choreographers revolutionised dance by creating The Judson Dance Theatre at New York’s Old Judson Church, the home of post-modern dance in the 1960s to the 1970s. This collective of dancers, composers, and visual artists rejected the confines of Modern dance practice and theory. They produced nearly two hundred dances, meeting weekly to perform, discuss, critique and erase the limits on what is Dance.

Postmodern dance believed that anyone could be a dancer as no formal training was required and it would even inhibit the individual’s unique kinetic perspective. Everyday movement performed anywhere if placed in the right context. Walking and running were used a lot and the contemporary wall and aerial dances of today are direct products of postmodern dance.

Trisha Brown, a Judson Dance Theatre founder, used harnesses to make dancers "fly" and walk down walls in the late 60’ and today we have all seen aerial dance based on her work. She also used alternative spaces for performances, including Roof Piece spread over 12 different rooftops in a ten-block area in NYC's SoHo, with each dancer transmitting the movements to a dancer on the nearest roof. Her work was one example of the tongue-in-cheek humor and intellectual sensibility that challenged the mainstream "modern dance" mindset of this period. The Judson dancers also focused on combining dance movement with film, photography, painting, voice, sound and, of course, music that did not have to be in time with the rhythm or beat. Developments in dance practice such as contact improvisation, dance improvisation, dance for camera can be traced back to the Judson Dance Theatre. Chance was a key method used in the structuring of post-modern dance. The idea to leave the form of a dance to chance was created by Merce Cunningham. In the mid 1970s I had created a computer generated Chance Dance for a Delhi conference at the request of Utpal Banerjee. I made a special grid of locations on the stage which were randomly matched with movements in space and place with random timing and kinds of energy to be used. The dancers followed their individual "dance scores" to perform. Sindu Misra joined performed as one of my dancers for this fun postmodern dance share a computer technology audience. Shoba Deepak Singh videoed this for her archives as the Bharatiya Kala Kendra Ballet troupe performed after us. Contemporary dance has the postmodern dance as part of it building blocks just as contemporary Indian classical dance have temple traditions as part of their foundations.

When Yvonne Rainer wrote in 1965, No Manifesto, a deconstruction to demystify dance and to break away from historical clichés things including: No to spectacle, No to virtuosity, No to transformations and magic and make-believe, No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image, No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer, she contributed to further freeing the future scope of dance expressions.

Outside of the Judson Dance Theatre group, Murray Louis, Alwin Nikolais and Twyla Tharp were also major post modern choreographers. Their legacy informs contemporary dance which blends of modernism and post-modernism. Contemporary dance offers a blend of classical, modern, ballet, flamenco, jazz, street dancing and non-western dance elements.

The Indian modern dancers who have paved the way and segue into the performance art strand of contemporary dance include the Shankars- Uday, Mamata and Tanushree, Daksha Sheth and children Isha Sharvani and Tao, Astad Deboo, Bharat Sharma and Tripura Kashyap , Ashley Lobo,  Anita Ratnam,  Aditi Mangaldas,  Jayachandran P, Sudarshan Chakravorty and Navtej Singh Johar. Surjit Nongmeikapam from Manipur is a rising international luminary as a contemporary concert dancer.

An amazing contemporary dance troupe from Manipur performed in Delhi last year in festival and transformed our hearts and minds with the danced images of the ongoing tragedy of Manipur’s problems.  Gati, Natya Ballet Centre and Bhoomika in Delhi give great support to train and support contemporary dancers as does Attakkalari in Bangalore and others around the country.

Miming to pop music for television competitions is one strand of contemporary dance eye candy that can certainly demand highly developed physical skills.  Contemporary dance has full freedom to use any kind of movement, but the dancer and choreographer's motivation, abilities and imagination determine whether the results are mundane or profound in creating an aesthetic and/or emotional experience.

There is certainly nothing wrong with pure entertainment, whether classical or contemporary, but the performance art contemporary dance evolved out of postmodernism set its aim higher as many Indian classical dancers also still do.

Sharon Lowen is a respected exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau whose four-decade career in India was preceded by 17 years of modern dance and ballet in the US and an MA in dance from the University of Michigan. She can be contacted at

Tags: contemporary dance, judson dance theatre