What is ‘contemporary’ anyway?


  • 1 living or occurring at the same time: ‘the event was recorded by a contemporary historian’
    1.1 dating from the same time: ‘this series of paintings is contemporary with other works in an early style’
  • 2 belonging to or occurring in the present: ‘the tension and complexities of our contemporary society’
    2.1 following modern ideas in style or design: ‘contemporary ceramics by leading potters’

Juncture brochureAs we approach the start of Juncture 2014, we find ourselves using the phrase “a festival of contemporary movement, theatre and film work” a lot, here in the office. Really, a lot.

Some of the Yorkshire Dance staff were having lunch last week, talking about dance-jargon. You know, words like ‘platform’, and whether they mean anything to people outside the dance world.

Then we started talking about the word ‘contemporary’, and whether it means anything more than ‘happening now’ in the context of dance and other performing arts.

Does something we see today stop being contemporary in time? If so, how long might it take?

Isn’t anything, made in any era, contemporary at the time of its making? If so, what’s the point in using the word at all?

With all the different approaches to dance that it has to embrace, isn’t it a pointlessly inadequate word, at best?

Tell us. What does ‘contemporary’ mean to you?




  1. Andy Wood, 4 years ago

    …That it probably won’t be ballet. Or twerking. (Though it could include bits of both I suppose.) And that it surely won’t be new, though the accompanying performance notes will claim it is. All of which is arguably useful, despite the painful inadequacy of words.

    • Wieke, 4 years ago

      SO if ‘contemporary’ probably isn’t new – then what is? is nothing really new? (postmodern) or is there simply not much fresh thinking/making around at the moment, in Leeds? the UK? or are we getting too old?

      • Andy Wood, 4 years ago

        Yes, nothing is really ‘new’. All art generates from that which has gone before but is frequently paraded in glossy new attire. As for ‘fresh thinking/making around at the moment’.. I look forward to seeing some at Juncture this year ;)
        And I’m sure there are some dance academics out there who can correct me but I’d kinda picked up the idea that ‘contemporary’ implied a style or genre (like, say, ballet) as much as being of this historical moment.

  2. Wieke, 4 years ago

    This is such a bugbear of mine and an important conundrum. Important because if we don’t have the right words to describe what we do, how can we effectively advocate for it?

    In Dutch and German there is a word for ‘contemporary’ in dance, (hedentijds, zeitgenössisch) which translates as ‘dance of the now’ or ‘current dance’. In its definition this means that hedentijdse dance of twenty years ago is no longer hedentijds today; problem solved. So can we please start a new word? ‘Contemporary performance practice’ doesn’t really describe it either…. How about ‘current dance’? ‘Dance of the now’? Should Yorkshire Dance start a competition?

    Secondly, what does ‘dance of the now’ really mean? Are there any choreographers out there that would say their work is NOT relevant to audiences today? Or that they are NOT innovating? To me it is a matter of process: when you make dance ‘of the now’ your process allows you to fully and fundamentally question, provoke, innovate HOW you go about researching the dance; its vocabulary, territory, content or form. You don’t rely on structures, methods, approaches that either you or others have used for decades. When we were lucky enough to show Igor and Moreno’s work in December, they had researched it for 18 months before premiering it: how often do artists have a chance to do that in the UK?

    Must run now, more reflections to come no doubt!

  3. Wieke, 4 years ago

    and at risk of contradicting myself: From an audience point of view: if Strictly Come Dancing sells out in the Leeds Arena, and thousands of people feel really moved when they see non-trained celebrities swirl about, THEY obviously think it has relevance to them so surely that would make that experience ‘of the now’. Even though the dance traditions are old and there is no sense of extending the artform, the presentation of that form, including celebrities and being in a huge arena is ‘new’ and certainly ‘of our times’? Is Strictly contemporary?

    • Andy Wood, 4 years ago

      Celebrities in a huge arena? Bread and circuses is hardly a contemporary concept: the Romans were quite handy with it too.

  4. Sophie Younger, 4 years ago

    Two things: Firstly, I think that we SHOULD think of inventing a word similar to the Dutch ‘hedentijds’, which you say translates roughly as ‘current’ (dance). And then, as you also point out, it would not be hedentijds in 20 years’ time, and hey presto the problem of terminology would be solved. Which brings me to the second thing, which is that I’ve always thought that lots of confusion arises around the use of the term ‘Contemporary’ when relating to dance, because some people interpret this word as an adjective (like hedentijds), whereas others think of it as a noun. I’ve always thought of it as a noun, because I think it came into use in the early days of Cunningham, Graham, Limon and cohorts. They used the word as a noun – like Jazz or Tap – which evolved from an adjective, clearly, because the dance they were making WAS contemporary, with a small c, at that time. So the problem arises nowadays, when people think that Contemporary is an adjective. So absolutely yes, the only solution is to invent a NEW word, similar to hedentijds (only with less bonkers spelling) which IS an adjective and thus a moveable feast.


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