For the first time, our Festival Artists answer your most burning questions about watching contemporary dance.
“If I could say it, I wouldn’t dance it.”
-Jan Möllmer (Germany)
Because we’ve received so many questions at the Festival from our audience over the last ten years…
We’ve realised many of you – especially non-dancers and first-time festival-goers – share similar experiences and questions about watching contemporary dance.
That’s why this year, together with our Festival artists from around the world, we’ve put together a post that explains some of the most common questions you might have – from the mindset when watching a performance, to making sense of what you have just watched in the theatre.
It’ll help you discover what you like, and perhaps inspire you to appreciate a contemporary dance performance with greater enjoyment.
For contemporary dance choreographers, ideas are inspired by their life experiences, culture, biography, or existential themes. Inspiration can be found through reading, travelling, observing life and critical social and political events. A choreographer is also influenced by his or her dance training, which can be as diverse as hip hop, classical dance, theatre, tap dancing, and jazz.
Many dance artists are also driven by their creative muse. For Italian choreographer Isabella Giustina, the creative process is akin to “falling in love”: “I see a picture; I hear music; I smell a perfume; I read a book that creates a spark and that gives me the desire to represent a subject.”
For dance artists, the body is simply the most natural medium for them to communicate.
“If I could say it, I wouldn’t dance it,” says German choreographer Jan Möllmer.
Canadian choreographer Josh Martin agrees, “I don’t think of ideas or topics to turn into a dance. I just think of dance – complex proposals around organising body, time and space.”
Turning these ideas into a contemporary dance is a means of sharing these inner thoughts and emotions with a wider public. “I believe I have something to say which may be of value to another person. Value can be as simple as entertaining, helping someone see the lighter side of life, or inspiring others to explore an idea for themselves,” says Malaysian Hwa Wei-An, who has been based in Singapore for most of his dance career.
”Dance can be an inefficient or incoherent way to express something that you already know how to say with words, but it can be a very powerful medium to approach something that you have no words for.”Josh Martin
Choreographers create in different ways, but some of the more common methods include improvisation or creating movement to express a specific concept.
In improvisation, movements are created spontaneously and through an organic process. Möllmer works by creating an environment which allows his dancers to “react in the most honest way possible” so that they “create” movement from within themselves.
Some choreographers may use specific exercises, images or text as a starting point.
For instance, when Israeli choreographer Nimrod Freed developed his work Tennis – Now or Never, he started the process by watching tennis games and investigating a tennis player’s inner world with his dancers. Then, Freed records their improvised movements, reviews them and selects movements for the final dance.
Tennis – Now or Never by Nimrod Freed.
Photo by Dana Karuchi. M1 Open Stage Programme A
Photo by Eyal Landsman
Choreographers may also draw on a range of specific improvisation techniques and movement practices to create their work – some of the more common ones include Gaga and contact improvisation.
As a practitioner of contact improvisation, Japanese choreographer Shintaro Oue describes his creation process as “a human-to-human discussion between a choreographer and his dancers about what to do and what issues to explore”.
Other choreographers use a conceptual framework to frame and define what movements should be included. Danish choreographer Kitt Johnson elaborates, “I submit myself to the concept and am very strict with the choice of movements. The concept is the master. The bodily movements are the servant.”
Giustina adds, “The subject, theme, and character that I want to represent suggests to me which movements are appropriate. All the elements of the show must contribute to telling the story of what I intend to put on stage.”
Though contemporary dance can be seen as abstract, it is rarely a choreographer’s intention to deliberately be obscure or inaccessible.
“For myself and most of my peers, we’re not trying to confuse people. We’re not trying to communicate a secret message or meaning in an abstract puzzle to be solved,” explains Martin.
Most choreographers don’t expect the audience to “understand” a performance exactly the way they intended. As Singaporean choreographer Bernice Lee suggests, “There are always many meanings in a performance, and for me, that’s part of the joy of dance.” Even for choreographers like Giustina, who creates every single movement with a specific meaning, she believes in allowing the audience their own interpretation and to create their own story.
For some choreographers, a more meaningful benchmark of whether their performance was successful is whether the audience “felt”, rather than “understood” something. This could be a sense of excitement, any emotion, thought, or association that comes to one’s mind and heart, says Freed.
Through the act of watching a contemporary dance performance, some dance artists, like Oue, hope to encourage a different mindset towards viewing life – “I think we are living in a society which is all about knowing and understanding. I am trying to offer a space where it’s acceptable to not understand, control or categorise, and to accept the unknown.”
”You might feel, ‘Oh my god, I’ve spent time and money watching this, and I didn't like it!’ but I think that’s a plus. You’ve just learned more about your taste in the performing arts.”Shintaro Oue
Not liking a work is also a strong – and valid – emotional response. As Singaporean choreographers Edwin Wee and Rachel Lum suggest, a negative response may lead an audience member thinking more about a performance, sparking conversations and building awareness.
Shintaro Oue believes that one benefit of not liking a performance is discovering what you actually like. Discovering art that appeals to you (and what doesn’t) is a healthy part of the process.
If you do dislike a performance, Hwa suggests it’s important to ask why.
“If it’s a stylistic issue, then the viewer perhaps learns he shouldn’t watch a certain type of dance because he doesn’t enjoy it. But if the reasons go deeper than that, then the viewer begins to question the value of different works.” Such awareness helps audiences to reflect on the kind of art and artists they want to support, he adds.
While an audience member might not agree with what he sees, it helps to acknowledge and respect the choreographer’s motivations as being valid for the work they created. “The creator must have liked it for some reason. I try to reason why the choreographer would choose to present these ideas in a particular way,” says Australian choreographer Natalie Allen.
Lee believes it’s important to cultivate one’s journey as an audience, as your tastes may change and grow over time, “Please keep watching things! There is a whole world of performance which is worth the search. There are works which I hated in the past, but then when I saw them again, my mind was changed. Our tastes and preferences can evolve.”
Simply put: be open, lean back, and enjoy what interests you most.
As Martin puts it, “Recognise that you are about to witness a live experiment, which is one of a kind, never to be repeated or exist in the same way again. This is a special and rare experience!”
Written by Adeline Loh
Adeline Loh is a content creator and freelance journalist who has covered design, the arts, business, and lifestyle.
She currently writes for the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival and the Singapore International Festival of Arts.