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A short introduction to European Contemporary Dance

Contemporary dance is basically a catch-all term for the melange of modern and post-modern dance forms that developed during the 20th century as a reaction to the strict stylings of classical ballet.

Out went the pointe shoes and tutus, the fairies and princesses, and in came a new world of endless possibility in movement.

The ideas of American pioneers like Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham soon spread to Europe where seminal figures such as Rudolf von Laban soon caught on. As well as giving his name to Laban Centre (now housed in Deptford), Laban developed a revolutionary theory of movement, virtually invented dance analysis and created a new system for notating dance. The London Contemporary Dance School was founded in the 60s with Robert Cohan (an American who danced with Graham) at the helm, and the first generation of British choreographers who trained there, Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies, continue to produce vital work.

While there are schools and systems and techniques and well-established training institutions, contemporary dance remains hugely diverse and ever evolving. It can be narrative or abstract, earthbound or flighty, elegant or verging on ugly, deeply emotional or coolly detached, a feast of multimedia or just pure dance. Certain countries have a reputation for particular styles – like the Belgians being seriously intellectual while the Brits don’t like to get too conceptual – but there’s so much cross-fertilisation going on that it’s impossible to draw borders.

Big names on the continent include Nederlands Dans Theater, until recently under the direction of choreographer Jirí Kylián, who has developed his slick style on the company over the last 30 years. In Belgium, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker reigns supreme with her group Rosas, creating rigorous movement, which whether repetitively minimalist or emotionally expressive is always tied innately to her choice of music.

Some British choreographers have moved into contemporary work from ballet, like Russell Maliphant (who seems to have persuaded ballerina Sylvie Guillem to switch sides too), while others come up through the contemporary scene only to find themselves commissioned by ballet companies, such as Wayne McGregor, now resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet.

Dancer/choreographer Akram Khan reflects modern Britain in his fusion of contemporary dance with north Indian kathak dance, as does Shobana Jeyasingh with her use of bharatanatyam. And in true cross-cultural style, London is now a magnet for some of Europe and the world’s most talented dance-makers, like Rafael Bonachela, from Spain (who choreographs for Kylie as well as his own company) and Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter.

by Lyndsey Winship