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  • When Is Contemporary Dance?
  • SanSan Kwan (bio)

At a meeting in 2015, the dance faculty in my department at UC Berkeley proposed changing the title of some of our technique classes from "modern dance" to "contemporary dance." Historically, the program has been known for teaching Graham technique,1 but in the past ten to fifteen years the classes in our department have evolved and, as is increasingly true in many dance studios and dance programs across the United States, "modern dance" may no longer be an appropriate title for the technique we teach.2 At a recent faculty meeting it had been unanimously agreed that we would pursue the name change. A few days later my colleague, Lisa Wymore, announced the upcoming change to a group of leaders from the various student-run hip hop groups on campus. There was strident resistance. They said that "contemporary dance" was not an accurate term for what we teach. This response befuddled me initially, but then I recalled that there are several contexts for understanding "contemporary dance" and that the term is not fully translatable across those contexts or even within them. In the concert dance world (including our dance program), contemporary dance assumes one set of (sometimes) shared aesthetic values; in the commercial/competitive dance world (which the students were referencing), contemporary dance looks rather different. In a "world dance"3 context "contemporary," as an adjective appended to a regional form (i.e., contemporary African dance, contemporary Asian dance, contemporary Latin American dance), reminds us of the complex legacies and negotiations, distinctions and exclusions that postcolonialism and globalization have wrought on taxonomies of dance.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these contextual differences, there remains anxiety over the need to identify specific aesthetic markers under the category "contemporary." For example, the following two dance critics bemoan the indecipherability of contemporary dance. In a 2005 article in the New Yorker, dance critic Joan Acocella writes, "Right now, New York's 'downtown' dance shows no engulfing trends, as it did in the nineteen-sixties and seventies (conceptualism and politics), or in the eighties and nineties (irony and politics)" (94). In a 2011 dance review in the New York Times, Claudia La Rocco writes, "For large stretches of 'To the Ones I Love'" it is difficult to get any sense of a mind at work. The movement palette is boilerplate contemporary-international—ballet, modern, capoeira, yoga, hip-hop—with all of the various complexities and particularities [End Page 38] smoothed out to create one vague patina" (La Rocco 2011). Perhaps in order to enable a theorization of current work we want to imagine that it is part of some unifying trend, some consistent logic, or some aesthetic, political, cultural, or intellectual imperative that drives it. We aim to identify recognizable traits as a way to name something about the era in which we live. This aim reminds me that the term "contemporary" also connotes a temporal designation—it is the dance that is "together with time." Thus, we seek to align the "contemporary" with a series of aesthetic preoccupations while also reckoning with it as the dance that is happening now.4 The problem with the doubled value of the term is that it yokes that which is contemporaneous to a stylistic definition of what is contemporary. This in turn risks excluding an artist whose work does not align with what we have determined to be contemporary. Thus, she might not be regarded as coeval (Fabian 1983) with her "contemporaries." Of course, there is a racial and ethnic dimension to this problem, to this conflation of the temporal and the aesthetic. Contemporary dance is dominated by Euro-American artists. Are artists who do not fit the prescribed style then not "contemporary"?

This double bind is analogous to the much-discussed relationship between modernity, modernism, and modern dance. Danielle Robinson (2015) studies an early conception of "modern dance," which referred not to the concert dance of the mid-twentieth century in the United States, but to popular (African-American derived) social dance forms of the early twentieth century. She ties these forms directly to industrialization and to modernity's fraught relationship to black/white racial formation. Robinson...


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