An affectionate poke at contemporary dance: Contemporary?

ZOO Southside, Edinburgh
August 15, 2016

Róisín O’Brien

Contemporary? features three contemporary dancers from Lithuania (Agnė Ramanauskaitė, Paulius Tamolė and Mantas Stabačinskas) who parody contemporary dance. If you don’t like the sound of it, you won’t like the piece. It is what it is. It’s silly, it’s playful, its critique doesn’t come from a negative place. Contemporary dance as art form is so easy to make fun of, it’s not hard to see where they got the idea.

Contemporary dance absorbs so much from other forms that its diversity becomes its trademark. Its very title, and relationship to ‘modern’ dance, is a happy historical and semiotic muddle. While Martha Graham is the mother of modern dance, her modernism was very different to the literary modernism of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. Postmodern dance in the ‘60s was of its era, critical of the (dance) canon, but Cunningham’s movement, also in the same era, was closer to abstract visual art of the time. The contemporary dance of Wayne McGregor is worlds away from the contemporary dance of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker.

Contemporary? juggles, parodies, and ironically re-enacts all of these practices and more, both their on-stage incarnations and backstage processes. Beginning on stage in crouched positions, Ramanauskaitė, Tamolė and Stabačinskas twitch and writhe before one of them cuts the music and states the audience are getting bored. ‘But I was being a seed, I was growing!’ another dancer replies. This elicits giggles from both dancers (how many of us have struggled in an improvisation class) and audience members, who have no doubt witnessed numerous performances where the performers apparently do very little. Such a beginning also gestures to the prioritised contemporary dance body of ‘experience’ and intuition, rather than to the classical body of discipline and technique.

Paulius Tamole, Agne Ramanauskaite and Mantas Stabacinskas in Contemporary?Photo D Matvejevas
Paulius Tamolė, Agnė Ramanauskaitė and Mantas Stabačinskas in Contemporary?
Photo D Matvejevas

The dancers make fun of the very process of interpretation itself (a particularly fraught exercise in modern or contemporary art). Messing around with props they ‘randomly’ find in the venue, including a bucket, a stick and some feathers, the performers ask themselves and the audience ‘what it all means’. This particularly resonated with me as a critic; art is a dynamic conversation, and often the impulse to define exactly what something means overrides any acceptance of nuance, and other experiential responses that are not necessarily cognitive. Questions also about what movement itself can say are thrown to the audience, when the dancers suddenly and joyfully break into seemingly random moves just because they ‘look good’, and not because they connect thematically.

The performers bounce off each other and have a playful, intimate chemistry. Their sketches of the conversations that go on in the creative process felt like lived experiences, which allowed the audience to feel a certain familiarity with the performers. They are all also technically accomplished contemporary dancers: I often wanted them to indulge their own pastiche and just continue dancing.

Towards the end, one of the dancers points out how much they crave evaluation. This really strikes a chord: contemporary dance is ripe for parody, but as a performer in it, you lay yourself out on a stage night after night, and often nothing bounces back. While Contemporary? functions mostly on a superficial level, such honest moments save it from collapsing into mere clichés spoken from a disinterested distance. An affectionate poke at the art form.

Contemporary? is at ZOO Southside to August 19.