What is a Contemporary Ballet?

What does "Contemporary Ballet" mean, anyway? 

With the premiere of our new Contemporary Ballet "Love Is..." approaching, I'm sure you've had many questions including: What are the costumes? What will the music sound like? Is there even a story? 

Ballets can sometimes be intimidating, perhaps difficult to understand. But throw in the word "contemporary" and things get even more confusing – or do they? Here’s a crash course on contemporary ballet that will get you up to speed.

If you have attended any of the Ballet 5:8 School of the Arts performances in the past, you've seen a lot of what we call "classical ballet." 

Beyond the Nutcracker, The Toymaker, and Racham are all ballets that, though original choreography, mimic the style of the historical ballets that have largely shaped the art form over the last several hundred years. Think classical literature, or classical music. Classical ballet is very similar!

Though classical ballet comes in many different shapes, sizes and styles, there are specific elements that are consistent among them all. Certain visual elements, including the iconic costume known as a "tutu", are typically a big part of what makes a classical ballet, classical! The setting is typically a historical time period and the music used in classical ballets is also classical, performed by an orchestra or group of classical musicians. 

There should be some sort of investigating of movement that is not directly taken from the ballet book, something new so you’re not just repeating what the vocabulary has been for hundreds of years.
— Jorma Elo, Resident choreographer, Boston Ballet

Now, for the contrast. You may already have a sense of what the word "contemporary" means by this point! 

Merriam-Webster says that contemporary is that which is "happening, existing, living, or coming into being during the same period of time," or, that which is "marked by characteristics of the present period." Just like in the fields of literature or fine art or music, contemporary ballet starts off with a classical foundation but takes the liberty of incorporating elements from present period - from NOW!

The classical technique, the anchor, must be there so the riffs can happen. And perhaps the riff is the contemporary part of ballet. Like jazz riffs, like in a poetry jam, you have your anchor and then you go from there.
— Helen Pickket, Choreographer in Residence, Atlanta Ballet

“Love Is,” our newest contemporary ballet, does exactly this.

Many of the elements from classical ballet are still present, including what may be a favorite for many of you: pointe shoes! The movements are based in the codified ballet vocabulary; however, the choreography experiments with new, original movements and stylistic adjustments. As respected dance writer and critic Wendy Perron puts it, contemporary ballet "allows the body to careen off balance” to express emotion and the story in different ways. Though the music is primarily classical, or what is known as "concert music," there are a few surprises thrown in here and there. The costuming for “Love Is” is styled in the present, rather in the historical setting of the typical classical ballet. The storyline (and yes, there is one) deals with some very relatable modern-day topics: a high school student learning to love those around her, and a married couple walking through the challenges of married life. You’ll also recognize very familiar prop and set elements used to help convey the story and setting onstage: a school bus, backpacks, and cell phones, just to name a few.

That wasn’t so difficult to understand after all, right?

Make sure to get your tickets to the performances of “Love Is” on June 3rd and 4th if you haven’t already (LEARN MORE). We are so excited to share this very relatable, down-to-earth contemporary ballet with you! We are also excited about the opportunity to give our students at Ballet 5:8 School of the Arts a well-rounded dance education, with exposure to both the classical and contemporary forms of storytelling used in dance performance today.