The concept of labelling things; and I’m not talking apple stickers or luggage labels here before you ask, is basically society’s way of keeping everything neat and tidy, and in its own little box so that everyone feels a lot more comfortable living within the surrounding world. Even language, an essential part of human communication, is just a complex system of labelling. As dramaturg Ruth Little states, language evolved to describe the things that were not in immediate sight. So this semiotic link between what we see, and what this therefore means, has dispersed itself into the nooks and crannies of society; rendering the use of labelling essential, if not only to situate one thing in relation to another. I’ll give you an example; more often than not, the type of music that you like, will no doubt in some minute way influence the type of clothes you wear, and how you perceive your likeness to others, simply because by choosing ‘genre’ we immediately enter into a system of labelling.
One aspect of this that I find particularly interesting is the labelling of dance genres. I recently purchased a book that lists all of the perceived art styles, schools and movements conceivable. Ever heard of New Brutalism, Post-painterly Abstraction or Stuckism? No, me neither. The fascinating thing about this labelling (extreme labellism?! There you are, I’ve just invented a new one) is how completely different it is to dance, or, at least contemporary dance.
All Contemporary Dancers out there, ever been asked what ‘Contemporary Dance’ actually is and been at a total loss of what to say? And no, it’s not all about emotion and narrative, Arlene Phillips. My point is that the word ‘contemporary’ has been used to describe everything considered vaguely ‘modern’, since Martha Graham decided to contract and expand wearing a piece of swaddling (simplistic description to say the least, admittedly).
Ok, so there are a lot of different genres of dance, each with its own style. But to have ‘contemporary dance’ as a genre in itself, goes no way to explaining what it actually is. Whether this is a good or bad thing is up to debate. In a way it would be nice to be able to explain in layman’s terms what it is you actually do; having specific labels within the genre would help to conjure up that well needed and accurate mental image; therefore creating a more significant sense of validity. As John Berger describes; ‘It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world’. However, contemporary dance was originally about breaking away from the conventions of dance; including the then prevalent system of labelling.
So, perhaps contemporary dancers, whatever shape or form, will just have to put up with being a bunch of ambiguous genre label-escapers (contemporary labellescapism?!). This, in reflection isn’t too bad at all, and is perhaps the very reason why dancers past and present turn to ‘contemporary dance’ as a source of refuge and freedom.