What is Contemporary Dance? An Approach

from Johannes Odenthal


Today, we can look back on 120 years of dance history. New forms of movement have constantly emerged and the human body has been explored as a unique storehouse of knowledge. Dance, a medium of learning and transformation, is a place of self-determination and identity.
We can speak of a century of dance. Terms such as free dance, new dance, modern dance, postmodern dance, expressionist dance and dance theater, Butoh or Nouvelle dance and many more as part of modernity.

Modernity is often equated with the contemporary. “Contemporary” is a vague term because what is considered to be “contemporary” is in a constant state of change. Contemporary is openly structured and can be redefined again and again for every social and cultural-political situation. Despite this formal openness, there are certain principles which differ the contemporary from modernism.

The postcolonial perspective on modernity is helpful here. This postcolonial perspective, which can clearly be read as a project of the West, belongs exclusively to European and North American identity and philosophy. The linearity of modernity and its hegemonic power structure accepted yet stigmatized the dances of Asia, Africa or Latin America as traditional forms, resulting in their exclusion from art. This power structure has become obsolete through the emancipation of artists worldwide.

The very late departure from colonial disenfranchisement that began with the liberation movements in the 1960s has since reorganized the art scenes worldwide. Okwui Enwezor exemplified this awakening in the exhibition „The Short Century“ in 2001 and then in documenta 11. Since this exhibition, art scenes around the world have changed in this enlightened and emancipatory sense.

The French writer and philosopher Edouard Glissant (1928 – 2011) rejected the linearity of Western modernity more than almost anyone else. Glissant developed the alternative concept of simultaneity, in which different forms of knowledge can interact with each other on an equal footing.

William Forsythe’s encouraging students to study as many techniques and body languages as possible in order to realize the potential of decisions for the future mirrors exactly what Glissant demands for a sustainable culture. It is the call to achieve the greatest possible freedom of choice, to get involved in new things and thus to assume personal responsibility.

Forsythe is quoted in the volume Tanztechniken 2010, edited by Ingo Diehl and Friederike Lampert for Tanzplan Deutschland (page 18). All the dance teachers interviewed in that publication describe the techniques of contemporary dance as constantly changing. The guidelines for the analysis of the comprehensive research include questions of location, socio-political contexts, biographical background, relevant theoretical discourses, understanding of the body, gender, space, aesthetic intention, other artistic practices, quality, didactics and methodology. This selection of questions alone shows the complex integration of the contemporary dance scene into social and cultural-political contexts, leading inevitably to ever new constellations.

In this respect, contemporary dance is diverse, not limited to one technique or aesthetic.

The openness of contemporary dance techniques is significantly expanded by somatic and perceptually oriented techniques: release, Alexander technique, eutony, the Feldenkrais method and body-mind centering, to name but a few. The concept of embodied knowledge, the potential of body experience and transformation has grown exponentially over the last 100 years.

Embodied research has opened up new horizons of knowledge that have unique potential for contemporary dance. At the beginning of the 20th century, the body was charged as the medium for self-determination by reform pedagogy, the philosophy of life and new aesthetic possibilities in dance. Today, dancers move into new areas of knowledge production and critical practice based on physical research.

At the same time, the concept of dance as an event between the performer and the passively receptive audience has changed. The key word is participation, When viewed through the idea of participation, dance is a shared experience that gives rise to new ritual practices. New formats are constantly developing in public space, interventions are being transferred from demonstrations to the context of art. Formats of participation and inclusion break the exclusive concept of modernity.

The changes I have described here – a postcolonial redefinition of art and culture, the body as a field of research and the opening up of traditional event

concepts – are criteria for what I understand contemporary dance to be. When asked about the burning challenges facing dance today, there is no single answer. Nevertheless, I would venture to name at least two topics that contemporary art and dance currently deal with. One topic is how the dance scene can assert its own space in parallel with advancing digitalization and AI. I see the contemporary dance scene as an important response to the lack of ritualized community building, the combination of individual exposure and social power. Every dance performance, every workshop and every dance practice is a response to digitalization. Dance as a body-based art form takes on a great responsibility here like no other discipline. Dance possesses infinite potential as resistance, as liberation and as a dialog partner. Just as photography as an art form has to reposition itself against the flood of images from mobile devices, so too will contemporary dance in real space.

As a body-based art form, dance takes on
a great responsibility like no other discipline.

I see a similarly great opportunity in relation to the present environmental destruction and climate crisis. The return to the human body as the basis of our existence and as part of nature becomes the sounding board for a different perception and a different way of acting. This is where the traditional knowledge of pre-Christian cultures and contemporary dance scenes come together. Contemporary dance has its own rich tradition of knowledge, based on the migration movements of recent decades and expressed in the cultural variety and diversity of our present. The destruction of the environment is existentially linked to people. The overexploitation of the environment is reflected in the exploitation of the individual, of minorities or of collective endeavors such as in war or terror.
Even though I previously described contemporary dance as a response to the hegemonic structure of modernism, modern dance is also the historical foundation of the contemporary dance scene.

If we compare the basic impulses, principles, and intentions of expressive dance or modern dance with those of contemporary dance, the continuities become visible. The driving forces of development were and are emancipation from social confinement and restriction, the fight against injustice, the assertion of difference, whether in relation to one’s own body, sexual orientation, ethnic, linguistic or class-specific. Contemporary dance always becomes a field of resistance, of difference, of emancipation.

Contemporary dance is a forum (and form) of self-empowerment.

This can be seen most clearly in the countless solo productions: the assertion of one’s own space, one’s own visibility. The individual dancers assert their difference and diversity, their identity beyond national definitions and restrictions. At the same time, contemporary dance is a forum for self- empowerment. The presence on a stage in front of people is the radical delivery beyond all disguises of identity. Young people are accepting this challenge more and more in order to find their way. Here it becomes clear that adherence to formal aesthetic categories is not conducive to the development of contemporary dance.

It is important that the term „contemporary“ is not used as a concept of value that determines artistic quality. I would like to give an example of this: Contemporary African dance was very much defined by the platforms to which festival representatives, especially from Europe, regularly made pilgrimages to develop their programs. For many African artists, this was the only way to finance their artistic work in the short term. These platforms were decisively shaped by the European intermediary organizations. The question remains as to how neo-colonial structures are once again shaping the definition of belonging. This is why I advocate a concept of simultaneity in the sense of Edouard Glissant, for an „“archipelic“ “ way of thinking and acting beyond exclusive positions, a concept of self-questioning and openness without hierarchies.