So I am about to start beginners lessons in contemporary dance next week - I am very excited and will try and blog about the experience as often as I can. To start with, I thought I'd take a look at the different techniques used in contemporary dance: after all, I only picked my class because a friend said 'You should do release!' - whatever that meant...
So not all contemporary dance is exactly the same. Dancers train in different techniques, which influence how they move and the choreography they create. There are four main techniques: Cunnigham, Graham, Limon and Release - what is what?
The original! Martha Graham broke the mould of classical ballet with this new technique she developed in the 1920s-30s. The foundation of the technique is called 'contraction' and is based on the principles of tensions, relaxation and breathing, with a focus on the abs and pelvis and the use of the back.
There is a very good description of contraction, release and spiral (a fundamental Graham movement) here and video of a class here, with some really useful explanation (in Spanish though!). The Graham style is very grounded and involves lots of floorwork in class.
Created by American choreographer Merce Cunningham (who used to dance with Martha Graham, see above), this technique is quite balletic, very upright and linear, with the core of stability being the pelvis (rather than the whole spine), which frees the spine and torso and allows a broader range of movement.
It 'places emphasis on acquiring strength, clarity and precision' and 'makes demands not only in physical terms, but also in terms of developing mental resilience' says the Merce Cunningham Dance Company website.
I've checked out videos, and saw former Cunningham Company dancer Cedric Andrieux demonstrate a class and examples of choreography (in Jerome Bel's work titled 'Cedric Andrieux'), and boy, it looks hard!
Jose Limon was a Mexican-born choreographer who was based in New York. After starting dancing in his 20s, he developed his own technique of modern dance. That was the 1940s, and the Limon technique still has a big influence on contemporary dance.
It 'emphasizes the natural rhythms of fall and recovery and the interplay between weight and weightlessness' says his website. I am not quite sure what that means: I find the description that the entire body moves 'like a wave of water travelling through the spine' rather more descriptive! It looks to me less upright and restrictive than the Cunningham movement.
This seems to be the most relaxing of the four. While the others force the dancer into certain positions, release focuses on the body's natural alignment and movement. The idea behind it is to release any unnecessary tension in the body, focus on the breath and use momentum to make the movement easier. It is also used as a relaxation technique.
There are more techniques being taught and used, but these four are pretty much the basis for everything else.