Playlist: What is contemporary ballet?

We may have dedicated a playlist to it, but do we know what contemporary ballet actually is? If we look at the dance spectrum as a whole, contemporary ballet would fall somewhere between traditional classical ballet and post-modern. Dance historians pinpoint its emergence around the 1960s, and yet artists such as Isodora Duncan or Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe were already pushing dance to its limits as early as the nineteenth century.

Satie and Cocteau's 1917 Parade
Satie and Cocteau’s 1917 Parade

Contemporary ballet is a style that relishes its own ambiguity. It is draws inspiration from the past but draws breath in the present, still uses the classical ballet vocabulary and yet speaks a language of its own. Contemporary choreography still demands the strict physical discipline of classical ballet, but the end goal is no longer the beatific pose – rather the body in constant movement.

Perhaps a good definition of contemporary ballet would be simply any ballet choreography made today, or any contemporary dance performed on pointe – or maybe we should stop theorizing and watch it in action…

…to help us put tu and tu together…

1) Let’s begin with a ballet that made some noise at its 1917 Paris premiere…

The love-child of Satie, Cocteau, Picasso, and Massine, Parade plunges the audience into an alarming circus of Commedia dell’arte. The ballet has a distinctly contemporary quality; the grotesque rabble of street artists parade in front of the audience, cutting angular shapes, parodying classical forms, and scattering focus away from front-centre.

2) Next up: contemporary reworkings of Tchaikovsky’s great classical ballets.

The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker are  summoned into a strange new world of armless princesses and manly Sugar Plum fairies in Thierry Malandain’s choreography for the Malandain Ballet Biarritz…

A captivating moment from The Sleeping Beauty, this pas de deux innovates on a duet characteristic of classical ballet. The choreography mingles elegant classical shapes with crab-like, flex-toed scuttling, whilst the stage is cleverly set with mirrors and barres, relics of balletic tradition…

This excerpt from Swan Lake is striking for how it resists traditional balletic climaxes. The dancers’ limbs are rarely at full extension, their floorwork has an intentionally unballetic haste, and whereas the female lead in classical ballet is generally demure and feminine, Maladin’s women are far from fragile. The quite literally carry then men in this production. Also, did you notice how the stage floor ripples like the surface of a lake? Golden.

3) Now for a tibute to Nijinsky, the man partly responsible for the riot at The Rite of Spring premiere.

The contemporary ballet Nijinsky was created in 2000 by John Neumeier, a prolific American choreographer whose work is inspired by Nijinsky’s radical legacy. The piece focuses Nijinsky’s descent into madness, a moving tribute that evokes some of the greatest roles of a truly singular artist.

In this solo excerpt, we can immediately spot some of the elements which so strongly defined Nijinsky’s choreography: starting with feet turned in, the dancer moves around the stage with a demonic intensity — scuttling, jolting, and careening off balance…

4) Fourth on our voyage of discovery is Alain Platel’s C(h)œurs, a Musical Theater.

Premiered in 2012 at the Teatro Real de Madrid, this piece is quite simply breathtaking. Professional dancers from Les Ballets C de la B, a leading ballet company founded in 1984 by Platel himself, lead the cast. Platel’s utterly non-hierarchical choreography mixes ballet, theater, and circus with cornerstones of the orchestral and choral repertoire. The effect is one of savage beauty.

In this excerpt, set to music from the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Platel foregrounds the tension between the group and the individual. He manipulates the classical technique, but not beyond recognition – he explores the body’s vulnerability and psychological disorder, rather than its perfection. Notice the radically unballetic torsion of the hands and feet…  

5) And the big finish?

Maurice Béjart’s Serge Lifar-inspired choreography has earned him a reputation as one of the world’s foremost contemporary choreographers. Zubin Mehta conducts this production of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in Tokyo’s NHK Hall, featuring the dancers of Béjart’s Ballet Lausanne.

In his excerpt, the dancers’ broken articulation is as playful as it is ardent. The Lifarian body is angular and athletic, characterized by a slightly tilted head and expressive misalignments. It’s a big finish to rival that of any classical ballet.

Swan Lake by Nureyev, with music by Tchaikovsky – Agnès Letestu (Odette) and José Martinez (Siegfried) at the Opéra national de Paris
Swan Lake by Nureyev, with music by Tchaikovsky Agnès Letestu (Odette) and José Martinez (Siegfried) at the Opéra national de Paris

Contemporary ballet is constantly innovating. It is in touch with the past but is determined to speak to the present. Every choreographer brings something different and exciting to the table! If you want more, definitely check out our contemporary playlist, but if you’re already an expert, why not test yourself with our ballet quiz!

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