You know, there was once a time when Martha Graham was a household name. She commanded the dance scene spotlight, and bled into popular culture during her heyday in the 50’s (though her career spanned several decades). In fact, there is an entire scene in the 1954 movie White Christmas that parodies her work. Nowadays, however, those who have heard of her know little of her legacy.
Most people have never heard of her at all.
She’s not the only one. Isadora Duncan, Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown...many big-names in the dance world seem to hold little significance in American everyday life. Isadora Duncan is credited as the founder of modern dance, forming a new genre of dance and adopting feminist qualities into the dance perspective. Yet, she seems to only pop up occasionally due to the rather macabre sensation surrounding her death.
The same could be said for Graham, who revolutionized the way modern was looked at by society. She was one of the first to truly popularize an original technique, a technique that is still taught today in some schools, and built upon by the strong feminist qualities Isadora Duncan had introduced to this new genre. She started doing modern ‘ballets’, in that much of her work had a strong storytelling element to it, adding a more literal take on the art form.
To a certain extent, modern dance has always been more ‘on the fringe’ of society than other forms of dance, but there seemed to be a general sense of understanding, however vague, as to what it was. Up until the late 80’s/early 90’s, you could find modern dance companies on PBS. Now it’s hard to find. So what happened? How did modern dance go from being revolutionary and parodied in big-budget Hollywood films to being all but forgotten in mainstream media?
Disproportionate funding between large and old-school modern dance companies and their contemporary counterparts could be partially to blame. Big names like Alvin Ailey have a history; they are prestigious institutions filled with an amazing amount of talent. Because of their size and history, they garner more funding, public support, and attention...similar to established ballet companies. Smaller contemporary companies, most of them project-based due to low funding, get much less attention. Part of this is due to the newer nature of contemporary dance; patrons are less likely to fund what they don’t know.
Tied to this is the difference between contemporary dance and modern dance, which is something that is commonly misconstrued. Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey fall into a modern category, whereas contemporary dance is the form of dance that follows postmodernism. Because of this, contemporary contains elements from that postmodern era, making it quite different than its modern grandparent. As large modern companies get more public spotlight, people tend to assume that is the only form of ‘modernesque’ dance. This ambiguity makes modern and contemporary hard to define to the average person and, in all actuality, to many dancers.
Misleading titles and ambiguity don’t just stop there. The biggest cause of mislabeling the arts being represented are shows like So You Think You Can Dance. Most of the dance seen on your television falls into more of a lyrical/jazz spectrum, but is oftentimes referred to as ‘contemporary’. This is reinforced with the rise of dance competitions. As a result, many dancers, myself included, add the signifier ‘modern’ along with contemporary when describing what they do (i.e. “I study modern-contemporary dance”).
Feeding into this, dance that blends genre, or seems to not fall into any particular genre, tends to get dumped into the category ‘contemporary’ simply because people don’t know where else to put it. Non-dancers and young dancers only know the information they are given or what they seek out, and by being exposed to mislabels, they start to form opinions and profiles that may not be accurate.
Since this is what the public knows as contemporary dance, this is all the media will continue to propagate. And if people don’t know what contemporary is, no one is going to buy tickets to see a contemporary show. True contemporary dance remains non-mainstream, as dance that is more commercial in nature gets airtime on popular television shows under an incorrect label.
Modern dance, contemporary dance, and commercial dance forms such as lyrical and jazz all bring something unique to the table, but the ambiguity surrounding their definitions makes it difficult to understand. Until the artistic communities--both commercial and concert--make an effort to correctly categorize the dance they are presenting, confusion will continue to run rampant in the American dance scene and how it is presented in mainstream media.
As disheartening as this may seem, we should keep our chin up. Contemporary and modern dance forms are dynamic and flexible, and so long as we continue to enjoy and appreciate the work being done with these forms, they’ll continue to grow and evolve. And, maybe someday, they’ll rise to the mainstream once again.