Classical and Contemporary Dance

Impressions of dance developments in Europe

The Dutch Connection

Sonia Gaskell, born in Russia, had come from Paris to Holland in 1939 and gave classes in the Russian-French ballet style. This ballet style was being taught in Paris by dancers who had been ballerinas under the stars. Due to the Russian revolution they fled to France. One of them was Lubov Egorova, Sonia Gaskell’s most important teacher.

Gaskell devoted herself entirely to realizing her dream: the building up of a ballet tradition founded on historical and contemporary milestones of the international ballet and contemporary world repertoire. This vision was a remarkable one!

The Dutch National Ballet was established in 1961 as a merger of the existing pioneer companies, with Sonia Gaskell as artistic director. Apart from the classical repertoire and the ‘modern classics’ where Balanchine occupied a special position, it was the work of Rudi van Dantzig which moulded the shape of the company. The mainspring of his expressionist style of choreography based on Graham was an urge to explore the psychological domain in a manner which led away from the well-trodden paths. In 1968 van Dantzig succeeded Sonia Gaskell as artistic director. The Netherlands Dance Theater was formed as a contemporary counterpart of the Gaskell tradition, becoming an exponent of the cultural innovations in the Netherlands in the second half of the 1960’s.

The Dutch National ballet in Holland became the forerunner in Europe and abroad to show audiences all over the world that a classical based company could also perform the modern & contemporary choreographies of their time. We speak here about the period 1961-1970. Gaskell invited many prominent choreographers and teachers to the company including Harold Lander, David Lichine, Leonid Massine, George Skibine, Serge Lifar, Abderakhman  Kumusnikov a famous teacher from Leningrad,  Nathalia Orlovskaya from Moscow and Pearl Lang from the Martha Graham Company. They all conducted training in classical and modern techniques. John Taras, an American ballet master from the New York City ballet, laid the foundation for the extensive Balanchine repertoire of the company. Sonia Gaskell was not concerned with tradition alone, new developments were also exceptionally of importance. Besides Balanchine’s “pure” dance form, which was one of the new developments in the fifties, few people are aware that one of the very first forms of post-modern dance was staged and choreographed by Paul Taylor for the former Netherlands Ballet commissioned by Gaskell in 1959. Taylor, at the time an unknown American choreographer in Europe became world famous. Martha Graham and her first soloist Pearl Lang and her company made their first performance in the Netherlands in 1955 and exploded like a bombshell on the Dutch dance world. Inspired by Martha Graham’s psycho dramatic dance pieces many of contemporary choreographers use many movements, elements and forms integrated and fused in today’s choreographies.

The Dutch National Ballet gradually acquired international recognition and played a prominent role in bringing about synthesis of both classical ballet and the Graham & Lémôn techniques. For that the company became an example in the sixties through the eighties for many more companies in Europe, America and elsewhere.

European Developments

The dance vocabulary, a ‘compelling and fluent’ synthesis of classical ballet and Graham & Lémon techniques were used by pioneers experimenting in this field in the fifties through the seventies. Glen Tetley and many other choreographers were influenced by Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and José Lemôn with their polished body techniques. A practical way for the professional dancer to experience different contemporary styles of training and choreographies is becoming a member of a company that is able to dance the diverse styles of dancing. In the eighties major cities in Europe showed companies representing a wide spectrum of styles, all the way from traditional classical ballet to the most developments in contemporary  dance in the  USA and in Europe. The German connection with Pina Bausch and the companies like those of Susanne Linke and Reinhild Hoffman. The National Opera of Vienna provided a direct link with the central European tradition of modern dance and Dance Theater. Traditional classical ballet was performed by the Bolshoi in Moscow, modern-classical ballet by Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century in Brussels. The Paul Taylor Dance Company of New York may be seen as a communicating link with the contemporary scene. As I mentioned before, since the fifties Taylor has variously borrowed from the modern and classical tradition. In the 1990ties contemporary French choreographers where also given a chance to present their works, together with the American avant-garde choreographers like Bill. T. Jones and Arnie Zane. 

The present climate may be such that we have a new chance to reassess the various influences in contemporary dance and fusions with the classical dance in Europe. We must discover what message is being communicated by the living medium of dance. William Forsythe, former soloist with the John Cranko Company, now an eminent important choreographer, was making his debut in the eighties. His contemporary developments where shown in his piece “Artifact I” and  “Artifact II”, Forsythe’s quotation from neo-classicism.

Contemporary choreographers like Jiri Kylian, Hans van Manen, Nils Christe, Rudi van Dantzig and Toer van Schayk, were the backbone and frontrunners from the sixties through the eighties in the Netherlands and Europe.  Nowadays, William Forsythe, Mats Ek, Wayne Mc-Gregor, Angelin Preljocaj, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millpied, Xavier Le Roy, Marco Goecke, Alexei Ratmansky and Krzysztof Pastor are leading contemporary choreographers in Europe.

 The latest Development in Russia

The acclaimed Nacho Duato, former principal dancer of The Netherland Dance Theater and since the eighties a contemporary choreographer from Spain headed The National Spanish Dance Company from 1990 through 2010. He will become the new artistic director of the Mikhailovsky Theater Ballet Company in St. Petersburg Russia in January 2011. His choreographies have been included in the repertory of many prestigious European Dance Companies. His shift to Russia is of great importance for the development of Russian contemporary dance for the next years. The Newspaper Kommersant reports that such a massive cultural switch would take more than 5 years to breed success either in establishing new training methods or in generating high-quality modern choreography. Yet the famous Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, the source of Russian classical excellence, has recently decided to include contemporary dance studies on its curriculum.

Benjamin Feliksdal