What is Contemporary Ballet?

Written by Robyn Jutsum

As we make our way into May, we are thrilled to introduce new events and features here at The Ballet Spot. One of our many exciting announcements this Spring is the start of our Stars of Ballet Series which kicked off in April with a Le Corsaire-inspired class led by ABT Soloist, Luciana Paris. Over the next few weeks, Larissa Gerszke of Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Adji Cissoko of Lines Ballet, and formerly of National Ballet of Canada, will each be teaching their own class for the series, lending their perspectives as members of contemporary ballet companies.

Join Larissa on Friday, May 14th at 5:30 pm ET / 2:30 pm PT on Zoom and then mark your calendars for Adji’s class on Sunday, June 6th at 4:30 pm ET / 1:30 pm PT on Zoom. All levels are welcome to join!

But what is Contemporary Ballet? And how does it differ from Classical Ballet? From Neoclassical Ballet? What sets each of these styles of ballet technique and performance apart?

As defined by Ballet Arizona, Contemporary Ballet “is a genre of dance that incorporates elements of both classical ballet and modern dance. Often confused with modern dance (which is a separate style of dance all its own), contemporary ballet represents a departure from the restraints of traditional classical ballet technique and traditional rules of composition.  Contemporary ballet has roots in the classical technique and vocabulary, but uses those roots as a place to explore, experiment, and challenge tradition.”

Contemporary ballet maintains the roots of the traditional formula of ballet but in production, contemporary ballet works do not follow the same structure as Classical ballets such as The Nutcracker or Swan Lake.

Classical ballets have a set of rules that define them:

  • It must tell a story that has a conflict and resolution.
  • The production must have sets and costumes with music that matches the plot.
  • There must be a folk or character dance (i.e. the visiting princesses in Act III of Swan Lake or the villagers in Giselle).
  • And, women are en pointe and in tutus.

Something important to remember is that just like in visual art or music, there are eras of traditional ballet throughout history, most notably the Classical Era and Romantic Era. For example, Swan Lake is a Classical Ballet whereas La Sylphide is a Romantic Ballet.

Act II Pas de Deux from The Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake featuring Francesca Hayward, Cesar Corrales (Example of Classical Era): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=077BgT3h6As

Act II Pas de Deux from English National Ballet’s La Sylphide featuring Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae (Example of Romantic Era): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Mz7G4TNg6g

***For the sake of this blog post, our reference to “Classical” is synonymous with traditional ballet technique and vocabulary, what you first think of when you hear the term “ballet.”

Neoclassical Ballet, like Contemporary Ballet, is rooted in the classical. It takes on the role of the abstract with music to match. For instance, Igor Stravinsky’s compositions have been used in many Neoclassical works. The first noted Neoclassical Ballet is George Balanchine’s Apollo (1928) with music by Stravinsky. Neoclassical movement is abstract, athletic, and angular, sort of like, say, one of Pablo Picasso’s paintings. It does not have any strict rules when it comes to plot, costumes, etc., but it still holds an aesthetic that resembles Classical Ballet. Balanchine is attributed with establishing the Neoclassical style, and this style can arguably be seen as the bridge between Classical and Contemporary ballet.

George Balanchine’s Who Cares? is another example of Neoclassical elements in play.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhFWOPfgab0&t=1440s

Compared to a Contemporary Ballet like Dwight Rhoden’s Love Rocks, for Complexions Contemporary Ballet (featuring Larissa Gerszke)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVmFAi1Cr_0

Contemporary Ballet, though it shares many qualities with Neoclassical, involves more floorwork, more inversions (turning in of the legs, contractions), and the inclusion of acting, of moving, in the context of a plot. The plots, unlike a fairytale, are reimagined or entirely deconstructed.

The lines of a dancer’s body are stretched to its limits, with more extreme arabesques, dynamics of the port de bras, and further contortions of the body as a whole.

Keep in mind, just as defined by Ballet Arizona, Contemporary Ballet is different from Modern Dance. It’s a type of movement that has been evolving since it emerged. While Neoclassical was a product of the early 20th-Century, Contemporary Ballet is still being developed and explored in the 21st Century. William Forsythe’s 1987 In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is an early example of a Contemporary Ballet. Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room would be another one and was our theme for March’s Cardio Ballet Classes! More recent examples, in the 21st Century, would be Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing or Lines Ballet’s Shostakovich shown here (featuring Adji Cissoko who will be teaching her Stars of Ballet Class on June 6th!).

Choreographers and companies have emerged through the exploration of what Contemporary Ballet means for ballet and for the field of dance as a whole. Complexions Contemporary Ballet, which was founded in 1994, for instance, shares “The company’s foremost innovation is that dance should be about removing boundaries, not reinforcing them. Whether it be the limiting traditions of a single style, period, venue, or culture, Complexions transcends them all, creating an open, continually evolving form of dance that reflects the movement of our world—and all its constituent cultures—as an interrelated whole.”

Because it is an evolving concept, it’s difficult to nail down a one-size-fits-all definition for Contemporary Ballet. Dance Magazine has a fantastic article that includes interviews with several choreographers who offer their insight. I highly recommend reading the full article here, but I wanted to share a couple tidbits:

“There’s a quandary about the definition of contemporary ballet that hovers over the ballet world. The term at times seems deliberately ambiguous, almost as though we don’t want to define this era, to stay loose about it so it doesn’t get fixed…Here’s a definition: Work where the dancer has an incredible sense of complex coordination, where the full body is contributing to the movement and not the pose. It’s that overt sense of épaulement. In Forsythe’s company, where I danced for 12 years, it was about the fully investigated body, absolute physical prowess, going to the end of a movement and asking, How does that take you to the next place?” (from Helen Pickett)

“Classical ballet was very much directed toward the audience. Neoclassical started to change the shapes but was still toward the audience. With contemporary ballet, you turn the room. The audience is asked to look at what is happening between the dancers. But it still uses the classical vocabulary and the aesthetic of a beautiful line.” (from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa)

To better understand the overarching evolution of Ballet from its roots in the Italian courts of the Renaissance to the choreography emerging today, it is sometimes easiest to look at specific elements including pointe shoes, tutus, and the line of the dancer’s body. We could dive into each of these elements but for now, I wanted to include this short list of links to direct you to the many rabbit holes of ballet.

https://www.dancespirit.com/balanchine-head-how-to-2645384335.html

Needless to say, the journey of dance, ballet technique, and the ballerina has shifted greatly! And the world of Contemporary Ballet is expansive, continuing to grow in real time. Experience fun Contemporary Ballet movement in our upcoming Stars of Ballet classes with Larissa and Adji!

Sign up for Larissa and Adji’s upcoming Contemporary Ballet Workshops here.

Sources:

https://balletaz.org/contemporary-ballet/

https://www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk/different-types-ballet#:~:text=Taking%20inspiration%20from%20classical%20ballet,turn%2Din%20of%20the%20legs.

https://www.dancemagazine.com/what_exactly_is_contemporary_ballet-2306944842.html

https://www.zarely.co/blogs/dancers-blog/classical-ballet-vs-contemporary-ballet

https://www.balletmet.org/contemporary-vs-classical-ballet/

http://www.dancefacts.net/dance-types/types-of-ballet/

https://www.pbt.org/learn-and-engage/resources-audience-members/ballet-101/brief-history-ballet/

https://www.balanchine.com/Ballet/Apollo

https://www.abt.org/ballet/in-the-upper-room/

http://www.artversed.com/5-contemporary-ballet-choreographers-to-know/

https://www.dancespirit.com/balanchine-head-how-to-2645384335.html

https://reneenicolegray.medium.com/the-history-of-the-ballet-tutu-5886801ae785
https://www.pbt.org/learn-and-engage/resources-audience-members/ballet-101/brief-history-ballet/

https://allaboutpointe.weebly.com/history-of-pointe.htm

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