Alexander Whitley

The contemporary choreographer on why everyone must experience contemporary dance at least once in a lifetime

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Ballet dancer by training, contemporary choreographer by trade, people often ask why, after training from the age of three to become a ballet dancer, I chose contemporary dance. Ballet is potentially the most revered of dance forms, steeped in history and tradition, while contemporary dance is experimental, borrowing and mirroring contemporary culture, and, yes, sometimes perplexing. And herein lies my answer.

Ballet was my life until the age of 23. As a junior associate of the Royal Ballet School at eight years old, I would head down to London once a month for classes. At 11 I joined the Royal Ballet School full time. It was a very particular education, something I will always feel privileged to have experienced, but it was all consuming. I worked incredibly hard but always wondered if it was the right path for me. It wasn’t until I got my first job at Birmingham Royal Ballet that I started to take a more active interest in dance beyond ballet.

“I had too much hunger to learn and too many questions about the changing world outside of dance to dedicate my life to paying homage to what once was.”

In 2002, the contemporary dance showcase event British Dance Edition took place in Birmingham. I was awestruck and inspired to learn more about how contemporary choreographers were creating such innovative styles of movement that spoke to me in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It also seemed to be so much more relevant to the world I saw around me and dealing with intelligent and moving subject matters. I had always danced in a world inspired by the past, telling stories – largely about the aristocracy – through linear narratives. There’s certainly an important place for this in our culture but I came to realise there was more I wanted from dance. I had too much hunger to learn and too many questions about the changing world outside dance to dedicate my life to paying homage to what once was.

In 2004 I took the rather bold move to join contemporary dance company Rambert, the start of my career as a contemporary dancer. I was totally out of my depth. On a physical level, I’d rarely strayed from the purist techniques of ballet. Now I had to re-learn how to move my body, how to free it up from the rigidity of a classical training and to embrace a range of approaches to movement that my new colleagues were so at home with. Ballet works within a strict method, which brings amazing skill and virtuosity to movement but doesn’t necessarily inspire much curiosity about the way in which it’s done. Contemporary dance, however, is premised on asking questions. From challenging the physical and expressive capabilities of the body to pondering political and conceptual ideas, it’s an explorative as well as physical art form for the dancer, choreographer and the audience.

Contemporary dance can have a reputation for being opaque – more about the idea than the movement, or lots of movement and no story to follow, which can sometimes make it feel intimidating and inaccessible for audiences. “But what does it mean?” is so often a question and perhaps an accusation held up to it. My journey into contemporary dance has made me appreciate how what we see is so largely determined by what we’re looking for, and sometimes when we relinquish the need to know we discover something we might not have expected. The magic of the stage is that it is a space in which anything is possible if your imagination permits it and a place where you’re granted the freedom to see and understand the world differently. With the combination of movement, music, design and lighting, contemporary dance is a wonderful and varied site for your thoughts, feelings and imaginations to run wild.

Everyone should experience contemporary dance at least once, because, like me, you might discover a different way of experiencing things and be moved enough to want more.

Alexander Whitley’s latest work, Beheld, for Candoco Dance Company, the company of disabled and non-disabled dancers, will be performed this Wednesday, 21 October at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool. Box office: 01253 290 190

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