Why you’ve never watched contemporary dance (and why you should)

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Honestly, I’m empathetic.  

You think it’s people flouncing about, doing moves that look like they’re constipated or, as my father might say, ‘like they have lemons wedged up their whizzers’. (That may be the incorrect spelling of whizzer). To be fair, the history of contemporary dance is liberally sprinkled with exemplars that seemed designed to make you feel uncomfortable or even stupid. What am I not getting?  

But that feeling of ‘not getting it’, of sitting there and trying to figure it out...once you’ve got past the injury of not instantly understanding the narrative, that feeling of discovery can be really rewarding. And often times, I don’t unravel it, I don’t get it...but that’s okay too. Because one of the brilliant things about contemporary dance is that it can make you feel emotions without knowing exactly why you’re feeling them.  

Take a dance like Bathsheva Dance Company’s Decadance, a suite of ten works that has done the rounds of the Australian festival circuit in recent years. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what this piece means, all I know is that it makes me feel elated/excited/energised and many other adjectives beginning with e. The bodies working in unison, the driving rhythm, the feverish concentration on the dancers’ faces. In that moment of witnessing the performance, I am utterly absorbed. I’m not thinking about my exam/eczema/extraordinarily annoying neighbour...I am immersed in the moment, a witness.  

Physical prowess is certainly a key feature of the discipline...but then, this can be said of all dance forms. One of the common but lesser known features of contemporary dance is that it is also often genuinely funny. This humour, this lightness was what pulled me in. It was an outdoor show, in Trinity-Bellwoods Park in Toronto and there was a couple of ridiculously proficient dancers from Toronto Dance Theatre who began a whimsical, silly duet around a park bench. For an artform with a reputation for excessive seriousness, this was wonderfully goofy. At the time I didn’t even understand that what I was watching was contemporary dance...I just knew that I had never seen anything like it.  

Fast-forward a few years and I’m back in Perth watching Sue Peacock and Stefan Karlsson engaged in a comically deadpan sequence of pieces called Sprung.

They’re taking the piss out of the genre, out of each other, out of our ideas of art. Peacock’s work is a terrific demonstration of this lightness—giggling as it takes apart the stereotype of contemporary dance as serious. This self-reflective nature of contemporary dance is one of its great strengths—a strength it shares with perhaps only visual arts and music.  

Have I convinced you yet? You do not like it. So you say. Try it! Try it! And you may.