Of all the terms for dance styles that exist (and there are a lot) perhaps the most confusing to dancers and dance enthusiasts alike are “modern” vs. “contemporary.” After all, they both seem to refer to dance forms that are new, as opposed to more traditional forms such as “classical” ballet.
But if you think modern and contemporary both simply refer to newer forms of dance, you’re only half right. The full answer is actually a bit more complex. We’ll talk about the differences and delve into the similarities and history of these dance forms in today’s blog.
Modern vs. Contemporary in Art: Experimental to Accessible
When thinking about the difference between modern and contemporary dance, a good place to start is to begin with those terms’ roots in the world of art. Modern art refers to art that was produced between about the middle of the 19th century and the 1970s. Art produced after those dates is termed “contemporary.”
In modern art, conventions and traditions were put aside in favor of more experimental and free-form approaches. Modern art movements such as Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism pushed the boundaries of what art could be. Avant-garde artists like Matisse, Dali, Picasso and Warhol who experimented with line, color and form became synonymous with modern art through about the middle of the 20th century.
The openness to experimentation of modern art gave way to Contemporary movements such as post-modernism, minimalism, conceptual and performance art. Emphasis on expression and beauty gave way to an emphasis on the ideas behind the art. Artists no longer sought for their art to be simply appreciated by critics and patrons for its beauty, but for a wider audience to participate in that art. Contemporary art focused on making art accessible to a wider public.
The Origins of Modern Dance
A similar trajectory can be traced in the world of dance. Modern dance as a movement began towards the end of the 19th century, inspired at least in part by the modernism movements in art, architecture and literature. Like art, modernism in dance rejected traditional classical teaching regarding how dancers should move and allowed dancers to experiment with movement, choreography, music and costuming to create a new dance form.
Modern dance was pioneered by multiple individuals and schools, but two of the names most closely associated with its development are Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan. St. Denis partnered with Ted Shawn to form the Denishawn school. Denishawn was based in Los Angeles and combined multiple dance forms, including ballroom, modern and classical ballet, to develop an influential, integrated approach to dance. Duncan, a California native from the Bay Area, is referred to as the “Mother of Modern Dance.” Around the turn of the 20th century, Duncan combined American athleticism and natural movements to step beyond the traditional boundaries of classical ballet, incorporating skipping, leaping and jumping to convey emotion through movement.
Modern dance also experimented with costumes, abandoning corseted tutus, tights and pointe shoes in favor of tunics and bare feet. Other early pioneers of modern dance included Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, whose sets and costumes were designed by modern artists of the time including Picasso, Matisse and in-house designer Leon Bakst.
Diaghilev was a St. Petersburg native who produced operas and ballets in Paris, funded by the Russian Czars and featuring Russian talent. Diaghilev was inspired by watching Isadora Duncan perform in St. Petersburg to combine classical ballet with modern dance principles. The result was a break with the Imperial Russian court and its traditionalism – and a loss of its funding. Diaghilev moved his base to Paris, taking many of Russia’s best dancers – including Vaclav Nijinsky and George Balanchine – with him. The Ballets Russes toured the United States and Europe in the early 20th Century, bringing the experimentalism of modern dance to classical dance audiences around the world.
Another great pioneer of the modern dance world was Martha Graham, a Denishawn student whose namesake school and dance training style continues to carry her name today. Graham’s signature technique, called “contraction and release,” rejected classical ballet’s emphasis on the appearance of weightlessness to bring a heavier and more grounded style to modern dance. Graham’s works, such as her choreography for Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, sought to reflect everyday American life. She also introduced serious world events such as the Spanish Civil War and the Great Depression to the American stage.
Lastly, our roundup of influences on modern dance wouldn’t be complete without a mention of our namesake, Robert Joffrey. Perhaps no dancer in the second half of the 20th century did more to keep modern dance in the public eye and to introduce it to classical ballet audiences. Among his many accomplishments was a meticulous recreation of the Diaghilev-era ballets and revival of other lost modern masterworks along with the founding of the Joffrey Ballet School in 1953.
The thread running through all modern dance is the rejection of traditional forms, willingness to experiment, and an emphasis on natural movement that would set the stage for the contemporary dance forms that would follow.
“Contemporary” is defined as “‘living or occurring in the present,” and that’s a great way to think about contemporary dance. Contemporary ballet built on the foundation laid by the modern dance movement and incorporates current “vernacular” styles such as hip-hop, Latin, folk and jazz, along with classical ballet and modern dance. Like contemporary or post-modern architecture that pulls from multiple styles to design a house built for modern living, contemporary ballet can incorporate multiple styles – including classical ballet, modern, ethnic/world or street dance – to create post-modern dance forms with multiple reference points.
One of the best known pioneers of contemporary dance was Merce Cunningham, a student of Martha Graham’s who is considered by some to be the “founding father” of post-modern or contemporary dance. Two philosophies that Cunningham brought to his choreography and dance training included collaboration and chance. Cunningham collaborated with contemporary visual artists, designers and musicians – including his life partner John Cage as well as bands like Radiohead and Sonic Youth – to generate material.
Regarding collaboration, Cunningham famously said that dance and music should not directly coordinate, but should be able to share space and time. Cunningham’s philosophy of chance left final decisions for movements in the hands of individual dancers, allowing for an element of surprise during performances.
Post-modern or contemporary dance is anti-authoritarian at its heart, which means it sees neither modern dance nor classical ballet as the be-all, end-all of dance. Contemporary pulls from all forms – classical, modern and vernacular or street dance – as a means of expression. It’s about the collaboration between the artists and the audience.
Develop your Foundation in Modern and Contemporary with Joffrey!
At Joffrey, we carry on the traditions of modern dance and the forward-looking, collaborative focus of contemporary ballet by training versatile dancers with strong foundations in classical, modern and contemporary dance. Register today to learn more about our summer dance intensives and year-round trainee programs.