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Contemporary ballet

Updated on February 3, 2014
Contemporary ballet is different from classical ballet.
Contemporary ballet is different from classical ballet. | Source

While I studied classical ballet as a child, and today, classical ballet is still my preference, there is a new form of ballet that began in the 20th century and is still going strong today, and that is contemporary ballet.

I have also seen performances of contemporary ballet and they are beautiful and require as much dedication, practice. technique, and perseverance as classical ballet. It also uses classical ballet technique and classical pointe technique, although sometimes contemporary ballet is danced in just ballet slippers or bare feet.

Contemporary ballet allows for greater range of movement in the upper body, the back, arms and head and may deviate from the strict body lines and forms found in traditional classical ballet.

Much of its form comes from the ideas and innovations of 20th century modern dance, including footwork, balletic movements and turn in of legs. Some of the greats of modern dance who collaborated with ballet choreographers are Isadora Duncan, Marthan Graham, and Twyla Tharp, all from the early 20th century. But, with their combination of modern dance and balletic technique, they have created some of the most outstanding, unique, and unusual contemporary ballets.

George Balanchine c. 1950
George Balanchine c. 1950 | Source
Mikhail Baryshnikov, Russian ballet dancer and protégé of George Balanchine.  Director and choreographer of the American Ballet Theatre.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, Russian ballet dancer and protégé of George Balanchine. Director and choreographer of the American Ballet Theatre. | Source

Dance by Mikhail Baryshnikov

George Balanchine 1904 - 1983

Know as the 'father of American ballet and also contemporary ballet,' George Balanchine is one of the 20th century's most famous and prolific dance choreographers.

He co-founded the New York City Ballet and was its ballet master for more than thirty-five years. He came to America by way of Russia and was classically trained in ballet. He is known for his great musicality expressed with music and dance and he brought the neo-classical style of dance to his ballet company. He is also the first pioneer of contemporary ballet.

Surprisingly, Balanchine was not even interested in ballet as a child. His artistic mother insisted he audition for Russia'[s Imperial Ballet School along with his sister. Both brother and sister performed successfully annd were chosen to attend the school. He also played the piano well. Balanchine eventually went on to dance in the Imperial Ballet and the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov Ballet). He also attended the Petrograd Conservatory, where he studied ballet, advance piano, music theory, counterpoint, harmony and composition.

He graduated from the conservatory in 1923 and danced as a member of its corps until 1924. By then he was married (he married and divorced three times during his life and had no children) and he and his first wife visited Germany. From Germany, Balanchine and his wife fled to Paris, France and joined the Russian community living there in exile after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

That same year, Balanchine was invited by Russian, Sergei Diaghilev, to join the Ballets Russes as a choreographer. From 1924-29 Balanchine created nine ballets for the Ballets Russes and worked with the great music composers of the time: Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel; and great artists, Picasso and Matisse who designed costumes and sets for his ballets.

A serious knee injury limited Balanchine's dancing and performance career and he remained a choreographer for the rest of his life. After the Ballets Russes went bankrupt when Diaghilev's died, he was retained by the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, Denmark as a guest ballet master.

During the Great Depression, when ballet companies were having financial difficulties, Balanchine met Lincoln Kirstein, a young American arts patron who wanted to establish an outstanding ballet company in the U.S. He persuaded Balancine to move to the U.S. to do this.

Balanchine agreed and moved to New York City and he and Kirstein created the New York City Ballet, and the rest, as they say, is history. Balanchine began influencing the character, training, and techniques of American ballet and dance.

Although the New York City Ballet began as a classical ballet company, Balanchine introduced neo-classical ballet and contemporary ballet into his company. Today, the Ballet's classical ballet dancers also dance contemporary pieces.

Contemporary ballet, as Balanchine saw it, is a combination of different forms of dance, including classical ballet, modern, lyrical, and jazz dance. It developed from classical ballet styles with a greater range of movement and work on the floor.

Balanchine is considered to have been the first developer of contemporary ballets with his NYC Ballet, and today, Balanchine's personal style is considered to be neo-classical ballet that is placed between classical and contemporary ballet.

Balanchine's dancers used flexed hands and feet, turned in legs, off-centered positions and neo-classical costumes. He rid his ballerinas of tutus and other elaborate costumes, for body tunics and simple leotards and minimalist sets to focus all the attention on the dancer. Balanchine created over 400 ballets and is considered the greatest contemporary ballet choreographer of his time.

He turned to Martha Graham and her modern dance company for dancers and to combine modern dance choreography with his ballet. This was innovation of dance for the times.

Balanchine had a protégé, the great Mikhail Baryshnikov, from the Bolshoi Ballet in the Soviet Union, who defected to the U.S. in the 1970s. He danced with the NYC Ballet, and under Balanchine began choreographing classical and contemporary ballets.

In 1980, Balanchine moved on the the American Ballet Theatre, as director and choreographer for this ballet company. He continued with choreographing contemporary ballets and worked with famed modern dancer, Twyla Tharp. Tharp's pieces were considered to be innovative for their use of distinctly modern movements combined with use of pointe shoes and classically trained ballet dancers. Tharp was noted for mixing both classical and contemporary styles together.

NYC Ballet

Classical ballet ballerina.
Classical ballet ballerina. | Source

Contemporary ballet ballerina

Classical, neo-classical, and contemporary ballet

Classical ballet

This form of ballet is the most formal of ballet styles and adheres to traditional ballet technique. It's variations are only according to its area of origin: Italian ballet, French ballet, and Russian ballet.

The most famous and most popular well-known styles of ballet are the Russian method, the most strict; the Italian method, known for its athleticism and acrobatic movements; the Danish method; the Balanchine method (also known as the NYC Ballet method); and the Royal Ballet School method created in England.

Pointe work, introduced to ballet around the 1830's, is incorporated in all the above methods. It has strict and straight body lines that are maintained throughout an entire dance and there is little movement in the upper body while the dancer is dancing.

Neo-classical ballet

This form of ballet uses a blend of traditional ballet but is less rigid than classical ballet. The dancers dance to more intense tempos and perform more technical than artisitic feats. The spacing on the stage is more modern or complex than classical ballet. Its organization is more varied and its focus on structure is a defining characteristic of neo-classical ballet.

20th century classical ballet drew on advanced technique of the 19th century Russian Imperial Dance. Balanchine took this classical ballet and stripped it of its detailed narrative and heavy theatrical setting.

He went for a more minimalist, sophisticated, sleekly, and avant-garde modern dance, retaining the pointe shoe aesthetic, but his neo-classical ballet is rid of the well-presented drama and mime of the full length narrative ballet.

To help achieve his neo-classical vision of dance, Balanchine brought modern dancers into the NYC Ballet, one of the most famous being Paul Taylor in 1959, along with Martha Graham.

Contemporary ballet

This form of ballet is abstract and completely minimalist in costume and set design. In fact, many times there is no set design at all, just a bare stage on which the dance is performed. It takes technique and use of pointe work from classical ballet and blends this with a greater range of movement that may not adhere to strict body lines set forth by schools of ballet technique. In other words, the contemporary dancers unlearn their strict body forms.

The concepts for contemporary ballet come from the ideas and innovations of 20th century modern dance, including avant-garde floor work and turn-in of the legs.

Balanchine is considered the first pioneer of contemporary ballet through his development of neo-classical ballet. His protégé, Baryshnikov then continued with contemporary ballet with the ABT and Twyla Tharp.

In turn, Twyla Tharp also worked with San Francisco's Joffrey Ballet (founded in 1957 by Robert Joffrey), choreographing modern contemporary ballets for him. She is famous for her contemporary ballets, Deuce Coupe (1973), Push Comes to Shove (1976) and The Upper Room (1986).

Her contemporary ballet dance, Deuce Coupe used pop music by the Beach Boys and a blend of modern dance and ballet techniques to wow the audiences.


Similarities and Differences

Although both classical and contemporary dance forms both use ballet dancers to perform the dances, there are both similarities and differences between the two forms. Because they both are a form of ballet they are closely related yet diverge when it comes to dance form.


Both classical and contemporary ballet use French vocabulary that was established centuries ago during the development of classical ballet. The use of French carried over from classical to contemporary ballet.

Both forms of dance use dancers who are trained in techniques as well as performance of the ballet form. And, both styles emphasize a strong relationship to music, whether classical or contemporary.

Both classical and contemporary ballet dancers can dance both forms of dance as both forms of dance take years and years of practice, technique, and schooling to perform professionally.


Classical ballet follows a narrative ballet, while contemporary ballet focuses on the movement of the dancers and the ballet dance. Contemporary ballet is more abstract and through the movement and music the dancers relate the dance to a particular theme rather than a story.

Classical ballet is symmetrical - that is both sides of the stage are equally balanced with dancers and the performance of the dance. Contemporary ballet has an unbalanced stage with dancers and the performance dance anywhere on the stage without notice of symmetry.

Classical ballet incorporates pantomime and literal gestures in the choreography of the dance and contemporary ballet focuses on a physical interpretation of a particular theme.

Classical dancers keep backs straight with rigid, upright posture and perform straight lines in positions. Contemporary ballet dancers curve, twist, and bend their upper bodies and keep arms in unfluid positions and movement.

Classical female ballet dancers perform on pointe to give the aesthetic feel of fluidity, ethereal, weightlessness and a sense of floating. Contemporary female ballet dancers can perform on pointe, but many times perform only in ballet slippers or bare feet. Their movements are many times chunky, clunky, bold, and twisted.

Ballet performances, whether classical or contemporary are beautiful, engaging, and unique and there is something for everyone, no matter which form of ballet you choose to see performed. Today, most ballet companies perform both classical and contemporary ballets during their seasons of performances. Some ballet companies perform only contemporary ballets.

Some top-notch contemporary ballet companies performing today:

Robert Joffrey (USA)

Jiri Kylian (Netherlands)

William Forsythe (USA)

Mats Eh (Sweden)

Nacho Duato (Spain)

Jean Cristophe Maillot (Monaco)


American Contemporary Ballet

© 2014 Suzette Walker


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