Classical, Modern and Contemporary Ballet

Classical Ballet, which is my first love in the dance world, is the most formal of the three ballet styles, because it follows a traditional “set of rules” or technique. It is said that when the French king Henri II married the Florentine Catherine de Medici in 1533, French and Italian culture came into close and formal relationship, and here is when the history of ballet begins. Ceremonies from then on were “choreographed” with lavish costuming and theatrical presentation. Including golden veils and Venetian masks.

Today there are several classical ballet methods. From the Italians is the Cecchetti method, named after Enrico Cecchetti. The Russians gave us the Vaganova method, named after Agrippina Vaganova, and from France, the Bournonville method, named after Auguste Bournonville is based on the teaching methods of the Frenchman Auguste Vestris, and was developed in Copenhagen

Classical ballet is best known for its exactness of technique. It features pointe work and turn out, high extentions and gracefulness.

Modern dance was not created until the early 20th century. It is a dance form that emerged as expression of rebellion against classical ballet. The foremost originating dancer of this period is Isadora Duncan , who thought classical ballet was ugly and meaningless. Isadora Duncan was the forerunner of modern dance and she is most noted for her free-flowing costumes, bare feet, loose hair, and using the upper body as the center of all movements. Isadora was born in San Francisco in 1877. During her career, she traveled and performed throughout Europe. Her movements were poetic and she incorporated humor into her expression of dance. Her dance movements were very natural and inspired by classical Greek art and nature. Isadora also liked to use common movements such as, running, jumping, leaping, and tossing.

Martha Graham is however regarded as the “mother of modern dance” Martha became a student at the Denishawn School in 1916. (In 1915, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn founded the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in. It was located in a Spanish mansion in Los Angeles. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn wanted to liberate dance technique from the constraints of classical ballet. They studied world dance, variations of traditional ballroom technique, and yoga to incorporate into their choreography. Ted Shawn was the first choreographer to introduce carefully researched interpretations of traditional American Indian dances.)

Martha moved to New York City in 1923, where she performed in musicals and worked on her own choreography Martha developed her own dance technique that depended upon the concepts of contraction and release. Her principle contributions to dance are the focus of the ‘center’ of the body, coordination between breathing and movement and a dancer’s relationship with the floor, using the floor for choreography.

Contemporary Ballet is a form of dance which incorporates elements of both classical ballet and modern dance. It takes its technique and use of pointe work from classical ballet, however, it allows a greater range of movement that does not support the strict body lines that are traditional in any of the methods of classical ballet technique. Many of its concepts come from the ideas of modern dance, including floor choreography and turning in of the legs.

George Balanchine is often considered to have been the first pioneer of Contemporary Ballet. Today, the style he developed is known as neoclassical ballet, which is a technique that is between classical ballet and today’s contemporary ballet. Balanchine used flexed hands and sometimes flexed feet, turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes, namely, leotards and tunics instead of tutus, to get away from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. Balanchine also brought modern dancers in to dance with his company, which was the New York City Ballet.

One dancer that Balanchine brought in was Paul Taylor, who in 1959 performed in Balanchine’s piece Episodes. Balanchine also worked with Martha Graham.

Another dancer who trained with Balanchine in much of this neo-classical style was Mikhail Baryshinkov, who also worked with various modern choreographers, namely Twyla Tharp. Twyla choreographed several pieces for ABT and Baryshnikov in 1976, and in 1986 she created a piece called, In The Upper Room for her own company. Those pieces were considered innovative for their use of modern movements joined with the use of pointe shoes and classically-trained dancers, which brings us to the term “Contemporary Ballet”.

Twyla also worked with the Joffery Ballet and used pop music and a blend of modern and ballet techniques. The Joffrey Ballet continued to perform numerous contemporary pieces, after those Twyla Tharp pieces.

Today there are many contemporary ballet companies and choreographers. Some of these include Alonzo King and his company, Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet; Nacho Duato and Compañia Nacional de Danza, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, who are co-founders of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, who I had the pleasure of seeing this past weekend.. Traditionally “classical” companies, such as the Kirov Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet, also regularly perform contemporary dance pieces.

I hope that this post will help you to distinguish between these three different ballet styles and how they are also similar.

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