Genres and styles
2018 - Director : Plasson, Fabien
Choreographer(s) : Mudgal, Madhavi (India) Valli, Alarmel (India) Petipa, Marius (France) Ek, Mats (Sweden) Carlson, Carolyn (France) Rizzo, Christian (France) Brown, Trisha (United States) Merzouki, Mourad (France) Marin, Andrés (Spain)
Author : Anne Décoret-Ahiha
What is dance? In the 1960s, dance anthropologists attempted to arrive at a universal definition, applicable to all the forms that can be encountered worldwide. The American Adrianne Kaeppler suggested that dance might be seen as “a system of structured movements”. A system?, Here, surely, is a key notion for finding one's way through the many genres and styles of dance that can be seen on the choreographic stage.
For behind terms such as “ballet”, “modern”, “jazz”, etc., lie distinct groups of characteristics in gesture, dynamic, music, use of space and even dress. These are “systems” that are organised according to basic principles and reinforced by values and ideals. Once familiar with the codes and conventions that govern a particular genre, the viewer is better able to recognise and appreciate all it has to offer. This Theme aims to provide just that: a few keys to understanding, so that today's major dance genres can be clearly identified.
But between “hip-hop”, “flamenco” and “modern” dancers, there are also differences of style which have to do with personality, the performer's feelings or each person's creative ambitions. Some work with crossovers, drawing their inspiration from different dance vocabularies. Others set out to explore new avenues and, in so doing, contribute to the emergence of new currents. Dance remains unique - a one-off living art!
Classical first and foremost!
Samanvaya / Swan Lake /Wheel in the middle of the field
When one thinks of “classical dance”, one inevitably imagines a ballerina up en pointe, dressed in a frothy tutu. Yet this western vision overshadows other forms of institutionalised dance, such as those found in India. In this land where all art is sacred, there is a classical dance tradition which draws its sources from the great mythological texts. Codified in a text dating back a thousand years, the Natya Shastra, there are seven main styles, including Bharata Natyam and Odissi. In Samanvaya, Alarmel Valli (on the left of the picture), representing the former, and Madhavi Mudga (on the right of the picture), representing the latter, put these two styles into perspective and so bring out the distinctive features of each and their similarities. The very upright posture of the one contrasts with the undulating curves of the other, as marked by three points of flexion: head, upper body and hips. The hand gestures might be based on the same symbolism, but how different they are in practice! Angular in the one, very rounded in the other, because each style expresses the energy of the divinity to whom it is linked. Power and vigour in the case of the former, in the image of the god Shiva. Grace and sensuality for the latter, better suited to the temperament of Vishnu.
Let us return to Europe and one of the most iconic ballets in the classical repertoire : Swan lake. As has already been said, tutus and "pointes" characterise the classical ballet vocabulary. But that is not all! Based on the principals of turn-out and balance, it is expressed in pure and graceful lines: the verticality of the supporting leg, the arabesque of the leg behind, the diagonal of the arms extended by a graceful hand. This principle of movement is to be found in the way the corps de ballet moves, dividing up the stage space into linear, circular or rectangular shapes. To achieve this effect demands perfect alignment and impeccable synchronisation on the part of the dancers. Each must be as one with the ensemble. This pursuit of uniformity is also one of ballet's driving forces!
A "développé", an "arabesque", running "en pointe"? This "pas de deux" appears to be quite classical! And yet, this choreography by the American Alonzo King fits better into the category of “neoclassical”. This can be seen in the floor-work passage by the female dancer, who pulls her arms in towards her chest, turns her knees inwards and even dares a “flexed” foot - in other words, a right angle. These are elements which transgress the classical rules.
Over the course of the twentieth century, Russian choreographers, such as Mikhail Fokine and George Balanchine began using the vocabulary of classical ballet, while taking certain liberties with its conventions when these got in the way of the artistic intent. It must be said that modern dance inspired this renewal. The term “neoclassical” was not coined until 1949, by Serge Lifar. Since then, many artists have chosen to go down this road, developing their own style along the way. Among the most well known are William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian and Mats Ek.
Formerly « modern », « contemporary » today
Blue lady / Marlon
At the dawn of the twentieth century, modern dance set out as the most radical opposition to academicism. Forged by the American critic John Martin in the 1930s, the term took into account a heterogeneous ensemble of approaches, each one aiming to invent its own system of movement according to specific expressive intentions.
Contemporary dance underwent an explosion in France in 1980. It was with this new term that the young generation, who had studied in the modern schools in the United States and Germany, claimed their right to exist on the dance stage. There were no similarities between the choreographic styles that came through, other sharing a firmly-instilled concept of dance as the expression in movement of one's existence in the world. In short, arthouse dance, which has as many different faces as choreographers.
Carolyn Carlson's style is quite recognisable. As here, in Blue lady, the solo she created in 1983 which became legendary: fluidity of the torso, multidirectional projection of arms and legs, thrusts turned aside, rolled up, stopped; whirling skips and studied slow-motion. The broad range of qualities in the movement renders Carolyn Carlson's dance unpredictable and shot through with imagination.
When the unorthodox Aude Lachaise, gets up to speak on stage, she says what the danced gesture never can, to ask: where does the dancer stands in the contemporary dance market? She prefers to see a show as a place of interrogation. Calling out to the audience who are impatient to see her dance – are they getting their money's worth? – she questions not only audience expectations, but also the ambiguous relationships between choreographer-bosses and dancer-workers. Between danced lecture and one-woman show, Marlon follows in the wake of a movement which appeared in the 1990s: “non-dance”, the expression of a disenchantment with all that contemporary dance had promised.
From jazz to Hip-Hop
Jazz tap ensemble / Onqôto / Agwa
Jazz is, first and foremost, a style of music. From that follow a whole series of dances with syncopated rhythms. Among them, tap dance is distinct in its use of the foot as a true percussion instrument.The result of crossing struck-step techniques from English clog dancing, Irish reels and the dances of African slaves deported to America, a complexity of rhythmic and sonorous combinations developed according to whether the impact on the floor takes place with the heel, the toe or the flat of the shoe. To achieve this, the dancers, like those shown here from the Jazz Tap ensemble continually shift their point of support, passing from one leg to the other, often in daring fashion, in sequences of slides, jumps, chassés and cross steps. When the band falls silent, the dancers can give free reign to improvisation, competing with each other in skill, before picking up the same sequence together again.
It might not be jazz, but a similar character of suspension and pick-ups can be found in Onqôto, by Grupo Corpo, one of Brazil's major companies. Rodrigo Pederneiras, its choreographer, has created an original vocabulary which fuses elements of classical ballet with folklore and dance rooted in Afro-Brazilian culture. The swaying hips and steps typical of "samba" are married with great"battements" to the side, backward leaps and pirouettes on the toes. The flexing of the head and upper body along with pelvic thrusts add a touch of African colour to the choreography.
The dancers in Agwa are also Brazilian, but its choreographer is none other than Mourad Merzouki. A major artist on the French hip-hop scene, he is not one to confine himself to just one territory. Quite the contrary! His encounter with the Companhia Urbana de Dança, made up of breakdancers and capoeristas from deprived areas of Rio, stimulated his creativity. He devised a dance on the theme of water, that precious source of life, which interweaves figures from "popping" (pointing, waving) and "breakdance" (floor acrobatics) with elements of capoeira (wide rotations of the leg) and "samba". The soundtrack is also made up of diverse musical styles, not normally associated with these types of movement, and this contributes to the build up of energy by the dancers.
Social and traditional dances brought to the stage
Tango Vivo / El cielo de tu boca / Perles noires
Jazz, samba, hip-hop: these were originally danced at celebrations, in ballrooms, dance halls and in the street. It was only after a process of dramatization that these “social” dances appeared on the stage, adopted a show format and were choreographed. Even if this intensified during the twentieth century, this was not a new phenomenon! Let us not forget that classical ballet was also born out of popular and peasant dances re-appropriated by the nobility.
In the 1980s, tango dancing underwent a revival in France. This couple dance, which originated in Argentina during the nineteenth century, had already been greeted with enthusiasm when it first arrived in Europe in 1905. This resurgence of interest led, in particular, to the creation of shows which brought the world of tango to the stage. Tango Vivo, by the Union Tangueracompany, alternates choreographed group sequences with moments in which couples can improvise, as they might do in the context of a ball. Tango consists of a walk made up of various figures, such as the corte (a “cut” or pause) or the double eight (a figure described by the foot on the floor), and is built on a basic imbalance between the partners. The dancers entwine and disengage in a play of contrasts between slowness and rapidity, embrace and separation.
Alone on stage, Andrés Marin sets up a studied dialogue with the accompanying musicians. For the show El Cielo de tu boca, the Sevillian dancer called upon the experimental musician Llorenç Barber and his bells – proof that flamenco, an Andalucian gypsy dance which became a theatrical art at the beginning of the twentieth century – continues to explore new avenues. Andrés Marin embodies this flamenco, which one might call “contemporary”, through his pared-down theatrical aesthetic, but also by his distinctive style. The way he stamps on the floor (zapateado) is delicate and subtle. His arms define a linear space. Alternating intense tension with release, the dance nonetheless remains faithful to that energy, so characteristic of flamenco, which sometimes borders on transcendence: that untranslatable state known as "duende".
Fervour, excitement, gusto: the dancers of the Honvéd Ensemble also know how to put these across. Here, too, we find stamping, clapping along with striking of the chest. This comes as no surprise as these are gypsy dances, this time from Hungary. But the idea of this show is quite different. It brings to the stage dances which normally take place in a social context: parties, celebrations, dances… Traditional groups have taken the initiative to collect, reconstitute and adapt for the stage a musical and dance heritage which industrial civilisation has threatened with extinction, in order to preserve it. The result of this process has been labelled “traditional dance”, even though the dances on which it is based have lost the context of the way of life and society which spawned them.
In more depth
BRETECHE, Guy. Histoire du Flamenco : Eloge de l'éclair. Biarritz : Atlantica, impr. 2008. 257 p.
CHALLET-HAAS, Jacqueline. Terminologie de la danse classique. Paris : éd. Amphora, 1987. 159 p. (Sports et loisirs).
FRETARD, Dominique. Danse contemporaine : danse et non danse : vingt-cinq ans d'histoires. Paris : Editions Cercle d'art, impr. 2004. 174 p. (Le cercle chorégraphique contemporain ; 1).
GUEST, Ivor, ALEXANDRE, Paul (trad.). Le Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris : trois siècles d'histoire et de tradition. Paris : Théâtre National de l’Opéra : Flammarion, 2001. 336 p.
LUSTI-NARASIMHAN, Manjula. Bharatanatyam : la Danse classique de l'Inde. Genève : Adam Biro ; Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, 2002. 175 p.
MOÏSE, Claudine. Danse hip hop : respect!. Montpellier : Indigène, 2004. 135 p. (Indigène esprit).
NOISETTE, Philippe. Danse contemporaine mode d’emploi. Paris : Flammarion, 2010. 254 p.
PLISSON, Michel. Tango : du noir au blanc. Paris : Cité de la musique ; Arles : Actes Sud, 2001. 1 vol. (180 p.) + 1 CD audio. (Musiques du monde).
POUDRU, Florence. Serge Lifar : la danse pour patrie. Paris : Hermann, DL 2007. 255 p. (Hermann Danse).
SEGUIN, Eliane. Danse jazz : une poétique de la relation. Pantin : Centre national de la danse, 2017. 352 p.
SORIGNET, Pierre-Emmanuel. Danser : enquête dans les coulisses d'une vocation. Paris : La Découverte, impr. 2010. 321 p. (Textes à l’appui. Série Enquêtes de terrain).
VENKATARAMAN, Leela, PASRICHA, Avinach. La danse classique indienne : une tradition en transition. [S.I.] : Editions de Lodi, 2003. 144 p.
AUGE, Catherine, PAIRE, Yvonne. L'Engagement corporel dans les danses traditionnelles de France métropolitaine [en ligne]. Ministère de la culture et de la communication, 2006. Disponible sur : http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/dmdts2006/publications/etude-dansestraditionnelles.pdf
Anne Décoret-Ahiha is an anthropologist of dance, doctor of Paris 8 University. Speaker, trainer and consultant, she develops proposals around dance as an educational resource and designs participatory processes mobilizing corporeality. She animates the "Warming up of the spectator" of the Maison de la Danse.
Texts and bibliography selection
Maison de la Danse
The "Genres and styles" course was launched thanks to the support of General Secretariat of Ministries and Coordination of Cultural Policies for Innovation (SCPCI)