Contemporary ballet is a form of dance which incorporates elements of both classical ballet and modern dance. It takes its technique and use of pointework from classical ballet, although it permits a greater range of movement that may not adhere to the strict body lines set forth by schools of ballet technique. Many of its concepts come from the ideas and innovations of 20th century modern dance, including floorwork, balletic movements and turn-in of the legs.
George Balanchine is often considered to have been the first pioneer of contemporary ballet. Today the style he developed is known as neoclassical ballet, a style of dance between classical ballet and today’s contemporary ballet. Balanchine used flexed hands (and occasionally feet), turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes (such as leotards and tunics instead of tutus) to distance himself from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. Balanchine also brought modern dancers in to dance with his company, the New York City Ballet; one such dancer was Paul Taylor, who in 1959 performed in Balanchine’s piece Episodes. Balanchine also worked with modern dance choreographer Martha Graham, expanding his exposure to modern techniques and ideas. Also during this period, choreographers such as John Butler and Glen Tetley began to consciously combine ballet and modern techniques in experimentation.
One dancer who trained with Balanchine and absorbed much of this neo-classical style was Mikhail Baryshnikov. Following Baryshnikov’s appointment as artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre in 1980, he worked with various modern choreographers, most notably Twyla Tharp. Tharp choreographed Push Comes To Shove for ABT and Baryshnikov in 1976; in 1986 she created In The Upper Room for her own company. Both these pieces were considered innovative for their use of distinctly modern movements melded with the use of pointe shoes and classically-trained dancers — for their use of “contemporary ballet”.
Tharp also worked with the Joffrey Ballet company, founded in 1957 by Robert Joffrey. She choreographed Deuce Coupe for them in 1973, using pop music and a blend of modern and ballet techniques. The Joffrey Ballet continued to perform numerous contemporary pieces, many choreographed by co-founder Gerald Arpino.
Today there are many explicitly contemporary ballet companies and choreographers. These include Alonzo King and his company, Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet; Nacho Duato and Compañia Nacional de Danza; William Forsythe, who has worked extensively with the Frankfurt Ballet and today runs The Forsythe Company; Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, who are Co-Founders of Complexions Contemporary Ballet; and Jiří Kilián, former artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theatre. Traditionally “classical” companies, such as the Kirov Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet, also regularly perform contemporary works.