Why is ‘Contemporary Dance’ so hard to read?

This is an exert from a recent essay titled “Dancing for Dancers and the Alienation of Generation X” written by Rachel Palmer:

My husband, Chris, once said to me how amazing it is that contemporary dance survives. Defensive and a little puzzled I questioned his statement to which he further explained his stance. He feels that the audiences who attend the dance I make or indeed the work I have taken him to are the same old faces: coerced friends and family coupled with the arts and dance community, it is a micro-dance-climate, ‘dance for dancers’ as he puts it and an environment he feels alienated from.

Myself being a dance maker, Chris’s opinion really struck a chord with me, for he is a part of my audience and if he feels like that, who else does?  I aim for my work to speak with people, to challenge them to think about the world in which they exist and the people whom they exist with; communication with an audience is key to this aim……..

It is important to contextualise Chris to try and understand where this blockage to dance is located, he is part of Generation X who grew up on MTV – Michael Jackson and NWA.  He is the music video generation whose access to social dance culture was infiltrating from the United States of America.  As a child he wanted to push down on his friend’s shoulders and ‘po-go’ as high as he could to House of Pain’s, ‘Jump Around,’ yet he was being invited to skip around a maypole or hold hands with a girl and country dance.  This is not a rant at traditional English folk dance forms, I personally enjoy barn-dancing but for Chris and his peers this was probably as appealing as walking on hot coals.  I would argue that hear begins the alienation and the feeling of a disconnection to dance.  I interviewed Chris to try and delve deeper into his frustrations with contemporary dance:

Chris Palmer:  “I never seem to understand what is happening.  There doesn’t seem to be any clear linear structure or narrative to most of it, which for me, is important when being entertained by choice.  When there is linear structure or narrative (either in programme notes or I having spoken to the choreographer/producer) I never seem to be able to connect this narrative/concept with the dance – I just see people moving around.  I cannot see how this is ‘telling a story’ and cannot seem to see any ‘themes’ in most of the performances I have watched.  I don’t feel that it entertains me, I am left feeling slightly confused and wondering what I have been watching.”

Chris’s response is evocative of someone who is willing to try and understand dance but has absolutely no way into it.   He desperately tries to communicate with it but just doesn’t understand the language.  Having witnessed my husband’s behaviour towards social dancing at weddings there are strong parallels in his inability to engage with dance as an audience member and as participant.  We are at two ends of the spectrum, there am I throwing shapes to all manner of music genres, feeling happy to express myself, there is Chris on the fringes of the dance floor, beer in hand – tipsy, with an awkward finger poking forwards and backwards within the space.  It should also be noted that the finger only points when the music is by a band of whom he approves, something he culturally identifies with.  I would adamantly link his behaviour to his early years experience of dance.  Is it any wonder then that he struggles to read something that he has such limited experience of?

I respect my husband greatly, he continuously perseveres with contemporary dance, despite feeling alienated from it; it is his perseverance that drives me to make coherent and accessible dance works – the challenge is of course to create a dance that does not compromise my integrity in order for a non-dance audience member to understand.  I am currently undertaking my MA at Chichester University and my research lies within engaging alienated – dance audiences.  I am asking the question:  Why do some people feel alienated from contemporary dance and how as a choreographer might I develop my communication skills to have a coherent conversation with them?

To read more contact rachel@thedancemovement.co.uk

Originally written and posted October 14th, 2014