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How to Understand Contemporary Dance Shows

Last year, I watched Yvonne Ng once dance a duet with Robert Glumbek at The Registry Theatre in Kitchener, Ontario. It was called “Stone Velvet,” and is a well-known piece within the contemporary dance world.

I loved it. To me, the dance was about taking care of one another. The next day, I fervently searched online for the “real meaning” of the piece. I learned instead that Tedd Robinson, the choreographer, had approached the piece more as a choreographic challenge. In other words, there wasn’t an “intended meaning.” I was disappointed that he wasn’t “trying to say” something. This month, more than a year later, I got a chance to talk to Ng about contemporary dance. As we talked, I realized I needed to adjust how I appreciated this beautiful, varied, and sometimes even controversial dance form.

Yvonne Ng and Robert Glumbek in “Stone Velvet.”

Ng is a dancer, choreographer, presenter, producer, curator, and arts educator. She is the artistic director and creative instigator behind tiger princess dance projects, which has been in operation since 1996, and founded the presentation series dance: made in canada / fait au canada, in 2001.

Contemporary Dance: A Different Kind of Show

If you’ve ever attended a musical, you likely knew the plot before you bought tickets. If you love the dance competitions on TV, each dance has a verbal introduction that shares with you the dance’s background. This is the commercial world, and it makes lots of money, in part because audiences know what to expect and how to interpret it.

Now, imagine going to a show where none of that happens, where it’s the choreographer and their dancers saying, “We have an idea we’ve chosen to explore, we’re going to show it to you, and you can decide if you like it or not. When we’re done, all we ask is that you let others know what you liked and didn’t like and encourage them to come out and see our work for themselves.”

That’s a very different approach from the commercial world, isn’t it?

Give me a few minutes of your time and let me—and Ng—explain why contemporary dance choreography typically works in a different way. With any luck, I hope to entice you to try something new and see a show.

If I Won’t Enjoy it, Why Go?

Ng understands this concern. “We make a lot of art and some people are a little bit worried when they know it’s dance.”

Despite my love of dance, I have to admit that I sometimes feel this way, too, about contemporary dance.

“Contemporary art is challenging because it’s non-linear. It’s a collection of images,” says Ng. She explains that the images do tie together, but it’s not always in a way your brain is used to. In addition, because contemporary artists come from a variety of backgrounds, it’s impossible to approach their work in a single way.

“So sometimes it has a very theatrical feel and sometimes it’s very pure movement and sometimes it’s very minimalist. Not everyone continues to work in the same vein,” she says.

Then How Do I Watch Contemporary Dance?

Ng compares a contemporary dance show with a potluck party: you don’t know what you’re going to get.

This means coming to the show with not only an open mind but also with acceptance that there will be some mystery. Because contemporary dance often revolves around the choreographer’s exploration of an idea, approach the show with a blank mind and see what you see. When Ng goes to a show, she expects to be fed something, but not a narrative.

“I try not to make too much sense of it,” she says. “I just try to absorb it and I find that sometimes a narrative might emerge. Sometimes the creator wants you to get that, but sometimes he just wants you to get that feeling and the sensation of that concept. It doesn’t have to match, word for word, your experience [of it] with the concept.”

Delete Those English Lit Classes from Your Mind

Two men in a contemporary dance piece called Dancers of Parts + Labour_Danse.
Dancers of Parts + Labour_Danse in ​La vie attend.​ Photo by Guzzo Desforges. Yvonne Ng curated this as part of the 2019 festival dance: made in canada/fait au canada.

You may remember high school English class, where you thought you had to figure out what the author was trying to say in order to “understand” the book. Because you obviously couldn’t figure that out, you felt like you failed as an English student. The good news is you can let go of that feeling of failure. When you read, just focus on what you see, not what you think the author wants you to see.

It’s the same with dance. Ng believes that the fear many have with contemporary choreography is that they believe there’s one message or intent they’re supposed to understand.

“But I believe for a lot of choreographers and great creators, we’re not wanting you to have the same identical experience,” she explains.

Let’s look at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. If you’ve seen it, did you sit there and ask yourself what Lloyd Webber was trying to say? I imagine not. When I was 14 and saw it for the first time, I was amazed by all of it. Now, in my 40s, I step back and wonder why I love a musical about a narcissistic murderer who stalks a naive woman half his age while terrorizing those who love her, including committing arson. It’s the kind of thriller that would give me nightmares, and yet it never does, because I’m so focused on the love story.

But with women’s voices becoming louder by the day, suddenly a classic musical like Phantom takes on a whole new meaning. And still no one asks: What was Andrew Lloyd Webber actually trying to say with this creation?

So why do we think we have to figure out what a contemporary dance choreographer is “trying to say”?

Contemporary Dance Needs You to Have Your Own Experience

It’s a bit funny when you think about it: We expect so many services and messages to be individualized just to us, yet we still crave entertainment that millions of others have approved.

Contemporary dance creators want you to have your own reaction,  they want you to talk about their work, the good and the bad of it. Whereas commercial dance emphasizes the group, contemporary dance emphasizes the individual. After all, how much can you say when you think the same thing as the person next to you?

(That happened to me in a reading group once. We all loved the book so much that we found it difficult to start a discussion.)

“An audience member should feel there is no obligation that your experience is going to match the person sitting next to you.” 

Yvonne Ng

That comment opened up my eyes. Just like when I was watching “Stone Velvet,” anytime I’ve seen a contemporary dance piece, I have truly wondered if I was missing something that everyone else was getting.

What I was missing was my own thoughts on the show.

“When you bring yourself to the theatre, you are going to bring your previous history. So that informs how you experienced the work that you see,” says Ng.

In other words, contemporary dance wants you to be you, see you, and feel you. It doesn’t expect you to be someone you’re not. You can actually let yourself go, leave your expectations behind, and just experience.

Quite frankly, that sounds refreshing.

Give Contemporary Dance a Few Tries

Contemporary dance choreographers are as unique as your own fingerprints. If you try one and don’t like them, first ask yourself if you entered the theatre with the same expectations you would have of a commercial piece. Then try another contemporary dance choreographer and see how you do or don’t like their work.

However, if you’re still too nervous to take the plunge and pay for a ticket to a show you may not enjoy, check out dance publications, like The Dance Current*, and read reviews and stories about different choreographers. You may find yourself discovering a new form of art that leads you to discover something about yourself.

*Full disclosure: I’ve written for The Dance Current before. However, it’s the only remaining dance magazine that’s about the dance scene in Canada.

dance: made in canada/fait au canada runs August 14-18, 2019. For more information, visit the festival’s website.

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