Last month, Alonzo King Lines Ballet kicked off the fall dance season with a performance at Segerstrom Center for the Arts that was enthusiastically attended. Philadelphia’s BalletX and Orange County’s own Backhausdance are next with performances on Saturday, Oct. 16.
Though varied, the companies all fall under the large umbrella term that is “contemporary”— be it contemporary with ballet roots, contemporary that is grounded in everyday movement and feats of athleticism, or contemporary that is some combination of all of the above.
What IS Contemporary Dance?
“Ahhh, ‘contemporary dance’ really covers a wide variety of dance making that blends different types of movement approaches to create a unique vocabulary,” said Jennifer Backhaus, founder and artistic director of Backhausdance. “For Backhausdance, we combine the structure and lines of ballet technique with the weight and release of modern dance techniques, mix in a little acrobatics and some everyday, pedestrian movement — there you go, a wonderful dish.”
While the term is mainly used in major dance metropolises in Europe and the United States, “contemporary” can be used to refer to a variety of styles from hip-hop to ballet to commercial dance and non-Western folk. In a broader sense, the category refers to styles of dance that started to appear in the mid-20th century.
“I fall back on ‘new,’” said Christine Cox, executive and artistic director of BalletX. “Contemporary is the inclusion of different voices. It’s new points of view, new opportunities, it’s saying, ‘Yes, let’s try that and see what happens.’”
Dance performances were once a kind of formulaic affair. The productions were characterized by narrative stories, lavish costumes and sets, classical accompaniment, and ballet choreography. Fast forward many years later, and the vision of dance has expanded beyond defining what dance is, to now expanding what dance can be.
Cox and Backhaus are here to see that through.
BalletX Makes Its Segerstrom Center Debut
Saturday’s performance is not the first time BalletX has been in front of Orange County audiences — the company participated in Jodie Gates’ Laguna Dance Festival as early as 2009 — but the highly anticipated Segerstrom Center for the Arts debut marks a significant milestone in the company’s evolution.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Tickets: scfta.org or 714-556-2787
“A center like Segerstrom is an anchor institution in a community that clearly has a passion and love for the arts,” Cox said. “This is such a prestigious venue and it is an honor to be invited to perform here. … We hope to share a moment together of complete connection where audiences can invest in the seconds and minutes and moments — stopping time.”
BalletX is set to perform three works, “Increasing,” “Napoleon/Napoleon” and “Steep Drop, Euphoric” by choreographers Mathew Neenan, Cayetano Soto and Nicolo Fonte, respectively. The pieces will demonstrate the breadth of the company’s movement style and depth of the performers’ storytelling.
Taking the stage with the company is Orange County native Andrea “Andie” Yorita who graduated from UC Irvine before joining BalletX in 2012. The last time she was on the Segerstrom Center stage was as a tiny, blond wig-wearing angel in ABT’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
“It’s pretty crazy to think about this all coming full circle,” Yorita said. “Segerstrom is where I would watch ABT. That is where I basically fell in love with dance and every time I am there I turn into that child again with big dreams of being a prima ballerina.”
As Yorita celebrates her 10th season with the company, she said she never would have guessed she’d end up at a company heralded for its innovation in contemporary dance.
“I was set on being in a classical company like ABT, but BalletX opened up a different realm to me,” Yorita said. “I fell in love with all of the different ways you can move. And Christine (Cox) is always pushing the envelope. She keeps us very busy and we’re constantly shifting styles. I remember one show where I went from pointe shoes to sneakers to barefeet. I feel like, especially in the U.S., there isn’t a company that rides between contemporary and classical ballet the way BalletX does.”
While bringing new works to life is one of Cox’s claims to fame — she and her team have produced over 100 world premiere ballets in their 16-year history — she also leads efforts to make ballet accessible for all generations.
“The whole identity of ballet needs to change and it is changing,” Cox said. “It’s about opening our minds to different ideas and understanding that the strict view of the art form has kept communities out.
“I want to invite communities in. I want them to feel love and feel engaged. We all want to see something we can relate to. Even if they can’t do a double pirouette, I can’t hit a baseball but I love baseball. Let’s get the same enthusiasm for dance in America.”
Backhausdance ‘Garden Flow’
When: Saturday, Oct. 16 from 2–3 p.m., and 5:30–7:30 p.m.
Where: Sherman Library and Gardens, 2647 East Coast Highway, Corona del Mar
Tickets: thesherman.org, tickets are limited.
Backhausdance Gets Out of the Proscenium Theater
This week, Corona Del Mar’s nationally-renowned botanical garden, Sherman Library and Gardens, will be the site of Backhausdance’s latest commissioned work, “Garden Flow.” After a month-long residency in the gardens, the company will present a piece consisting of 11 dancers interacting with and responding to the botanical art around them.
The commission from Sherman Gardens comes after another recent site-specific work where Backhausdance performed at the Orange County Museum of Art’s OCMAExpand gallery space (now closed) during an exhibition by Alexandra Grant titled “Telepathy is One Step Further Than Empathy.”
Backhausdance is beginning its 19th season in Orange County and is continuing to grow and support the community’s understanding and access to contemporary dance.
“I think that the Orange County dance audience is open to contemporary dance. Of course, it is a more difficult sell than traditional big ballets — that everyone recognizes — but I think with the strong dance training schools we have in the OC, universities and private studios, contemporary dance is very popular with students,” Backhaus said. “These are our future patrons and many are growing up participating and learning about contemporary dance. Plus, with the wide variety of styles now available to view on the internet, people are more exposed to innovative styles of dance.”
Contemporary Dance, A Bridge to Younger Audiences
When dance is at its best, it is not only trying to reach the people who already love the art form, but the people who are there for the first time.
Dance educator, advocate and founder of the Laguna Dance Festival Jodie Gates looks at the offering of dance in Orange County this fall and is encouraged by the progress and the choices dance presenters are making.
“Judy Morr’s programming is spot on for this fall season,” said Gates of the Segerstrom executive vice president.
In addition to Alonzo King Lines in September, and BalletX this week, Parsons Dance Company takes the stage on Nov. 20 as one of the world’s leading modern/contemporary dance companies.
“I think all of us (dance presenters) are working together to bring a variety of companies to the area,” Gates said. “Depending on our size and the venues we have available, it’s a collective effort.”
Gates thinks now that dance is something people see on a daily basis in commercials or on TikTok, the industry is ripe for reckoning in its importance and popularity. First on the small screen and then on the big stage.
“With more and more voices added to the world of dance, more audience members will see themselves in the stories we tell and think ‘maybe I can go to the Met,” Gates said. “People will be encouraged that going to a big theater is not as daunting as they once thought.”
Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.