The closer one gets to the present day, the more diverse dance art becomes. The aesthetic, stylistic and expressive features and changes in dance do not follow one another chronologically, but contemporary dance is defined by the parallelism and intersections of many historical developments. In the 21st century, dance is not a homogeneous art form in terms of aesthetics, artistic aims, production conditions or starting points, but a heterogeneous field that is realised and defined in different contexts.

Since the 1990s, the diversification of contemporary dance has expanded thanks to higher education and research in dance and performance, digitalisation, increased funding and multidisciplinarity in artistic interchange. Elevated awareness of dance phenomena around the world, made possible by internet platforms, and dance’s emerging relationship with current social, philosophical and art theoretical debates, provide pillars for artists and researchers to keep restructuring their relationship with society and build new performance forms and interpretive frameworks for contemporary dance. The evolving self-understanding of dance, its methodological diversity and the creative collaboration between artists in working groups form the basis for contemporary dance. Artists and works define their own starting points – what dance and choreography are or could be – depending on the frame of reference and the stage or setting. Working groups are increasingly multinational and residencies enable coproductions in several countries. Working group leaders may come from outside dance and play the role of facilitator or dramaturg, with the result that dance works and performances are often approached from thematic, contextual or methodological starting points. Indeed, professionalism in contemporary dance often consists of multiple paths, in terms of style, frameworks, working methods and educational backgrounds, and employment is characterised by fragmented, freelance, artistic labour within fragile structures.

Boris Charmatz: 10000 gestures. Photo from the performance in Volksbühne Tempelhof Berlin, 2017: Ursula Kaufmann. Charmatz describes the work as a “choreographic anti-museum – it does not preserve anything, but rather always invents something new. Every moment is unique. Each movement disappears to make way for the next.” Helsinki Festival

The Conceptual, Rhizomic and Perceptual Body

Since the 1990s, contemporary dance practitioners have become increasingly interested in how the meanings of dance and choreography are constructed in relation to broader conceptual paradigms and discourses. Several choreographers of the 1990s began to critically explore the discursive potential of dance in ways that were often interpreted with the controversial term “conceptual dance”. The critical gaze focused, for example, on the normative performance capability of the performer, construction of identity or the compulsion of continuity of movement, the ‘kinetic imperative’, as a way of examining how modern society has tied itself to a set of practices, forms of perception and norms taken for granted.

Many contemporary dance works of the 21st century have increasingly addressed issues of the able body, cultural representation, visibility and power in ways that can be situated within different interpretive frameworks of contemporary dance and performance, live art or installation. Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, La Ribot, Vera Mantero, Ivana Müller and Antonia Baehr, who began their choreographic careers in the late 1990s and 2000s, produced works that specifically explore and exploit material-discursive practices, language, philosophy and embodiment (e.g. Jérôme Bel: The Last Performance, 1998 or La Ribot: Piezas distinguidas, 1993). These topics are discussed in more detail in Kirsi Monni’s article Discursive Practices in Choreography – Jérôme Bel, Vera Mantero and Xavier Le Roy and Riikka Laakso’s article La Ribot – Embodied Dialogues.

Contemporary choreographers and dancers have often taken the subjective embodied experience or material corporeality as their starting point. Instead of a self-mirroring and indivisible unit of ‘the body’, the works may manifest the self and the body as an open collective process, as rhizomic multiplicities, as theorised by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. For example, Meg Stuart’s work has often focused on the idea of the precarious body – a body that is vulnerable and self-reactive. The vulnerable body parallels a constantly mutating identity, redefining itself in its search for new contexts of “being present” and new territories for dance (e.g. early Disfigure Study, 1991). The multifaceted body has also emerged as focal in Boris Charmatz’s works, where the dancer could be placed in various functional or perceptual situations, for example in relation to a mechanical device (enfant, 2011), entangled with naked bodies (herses (une lente introduction) 1997) or bodies eating rice paper (manger, 2014). Whereby the body is perceived within the complexity of functional materiality, biological entity and cultural-art historical relations. Furthermore, Mette Ingvartsen has worked on the relationship of embodiment to both technology and nature, breaking the nature/culture, organic/inorganic dichotomy (Artificial Nature Project, 2012) and joining the many contemporary artists working on a new understanding of ecology and the hybrid and cyborg relationship of humans to their environment.

A major factor in the rethinking of the relationship between movement and choreography in contemporary dance in the 21st century has been a more conscious relationship with embodied and environmental perception. Deborah Hay, who had already contributed to Judson Dance Theatre in the 1960s and worked for decades with non-professionals, brought to the field of professional dance in the early 21st century an approach based on the embodied perception and interpretation of the choreographic score (e.g. The Match, 2004). Hay’s approach has contributed to the way in which dancers’ own movement creativity and interpretation of the choreographic score have in many cases replaced the kind of choreography that is fixated on the movement vocabulary produced by the choreographer. Hay’s methods and written choreographic scores are discussed in Kirsi Monni’s article The Embodied Practice of Perception as a Starting Point for Dance – Deborah Hay. Further examples of approaches that rely on dancers’ choreographic thinking and movement creativity in 21st century dance art include the early choreographies by Thomas Hauert and the Company Zoo which use perception and systemic approaches to improvisation and William Forsythe’s Improvisation Technologies.

Both Hay and Forsythe are also examples of how history is layered in artistic expression, and how artists’ interests in their art change and take on new emphases as their careers progress. Hay worked with non-professionals for two decades before moving to the international professional scene in the 2000s, while Forsythe has moved from ballet and theatre houses to social choreography and frameworks of environmental and visual arts. Artists also often work in multiple roles and frames of reference. Meg Stuart’s own group Damaged Goods produces choreographic works as well as a range of exploratory and experimental projects, video works and films. Boris Charmatz conceptualised the choreographic centre he ran in Rennes, France, as a museum of dance (Musée de la danse 2009–2018), which combined ideas of the museum as a protective, preserving and interpretive institution with the mobile, nomadic and audience-gathering nature of dance.

The Politics of Personal Embodiment

The major socio-political debates of the 2010s, related to the existence and rights of minorities and structural racism, have also increasingly taken place in dance, both in the arts and in education. The Black avant-garde, led by artists such as Dana Michel (Yellow Towel, 2013), nora chipaumire (Dark Swan, 2005) and Trajal Harrel (Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, 2011), has become an important part of the artistic and social discourse in dance. Black artists are taking their place in dance history, and their critical artistic thinking has challenged the whiteness of the avant-garde. Thomas DeFrantz’s article Black Sensibilities – Contemporary Dance of an African Diaspora explores the development of Black aesthetics. DeFrantz asks what a post-racial Black aesthetic looks like. From a Finnish perspective, North American and continental European dominance as an aesthetic and artistic determinant of contemporary dance has begun to decline since the 2010s. Today, contemporary dance also looks to Asia, Africa and South America, where many artists draw on the history of their own local traditions and their contemporary cultural manifestations, combining them with global contemporary art and dance currents. Singaporean-born Choy Ka Fai, for example, has extensively explored Asian shamanistic traditions in his high-tech works. Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula works in a multidisciplinary way, combining his country’s musical culture and political content in his works performed on global contemporary dance stages.

Especially since the 2010s, contemporary dance stages have given space and visibility to issues of gender and sexual diversity. Queer perspectives and socio-political and artistic treatments of embodiment often seem to have found an appropriate form in works that could be situated between the frameworks of contemporary dance, performance and live art. Such works often oscillate between the public and the private and address political themes through personal experience and a variety of performative forms and modes of dramaturgy. The audience-engaging performances of Trajal Harrell, Mette Ingvartsen, Ann Liv Young, Keith Hennessy and Ivo Dimchev are examples of this (e.g. Ivo Dimchev: The Selfie Concert, 2018 and Mette Ingvartsen: 69 Positions, 2014). The relationship with embodiment, sexuality, biology and the environment is also explored in the broader field of human interaction as a space between species and materials in the works by, for example, the recoil performance group (MASS – bloom explorations, 2018) and Simone Aughterlony (Biofiction, 2016).

As with queer perspectives, the disability activist crip-perspective has also emerged in dance art in the 2000s. Hanna Väätäinen’s article Ableism in Dance and Disabled Dancers discusses the body normativity of dance and visibility of disabled dancers. Väätäinen examines the little-known history of disabled dancers from the founding of so-called integrated dance groups of disabled and non-disabled people in the 1970s (e.g. CandoCo 1991) to the present day, where the visibility of disabled dancers in the field not only demands the creation of more accessible environments but also highlights an activist norm-critical crip perspective on the often discriminatory and normative relation to the body of both society and dance art (e.g. Jérôme Bel and Theatre HORAN Disabled Theatre, 2012 and Danskompaniet Spinn’s Miramos, 2019).

Frameworks and Contexts from Different Media to Research

The omnipresence of the internet, its latticed, networked, non-hierarchical and image-centred landscape cannot but affect not only the content of art, but also the dramaturgy of the works and diversification of the interfaces of art – the events and places of performance – and the relationship with the public. In the new aesthetics, virtual, mediated and physical worlds intermingle and the works are not necessarily built on the aesthetic coherence of a single language of expression, but their intertextual landscape can combine materials from different sources (e.g. Schönheitsabend by Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek, 2015). Ari Tenhula’s article Dance Art and the Internet Age – What is the New Aesthetics of Dance? takes awide-ranging look at the impact of post-internet art and changes in the media landscape on the art scene. For example, Cie Gilles Jobin and Artamin’s VR_I (2017), a work based on virtual technology, mixes viewers’ avatars with the virtual characters in the work. Game industry devices are also used as part of the live performance. In Julian Hetzel’s The Automated Sniper (2017), the audience can use a game controller to manipulate the live performance.

The relationship between dance and film has historically been very close. As early as 1896, Thomas Edison’s Kinoscope produced a film of a serpentine dancer in the style of Loïe Fuller, and the Lumière brothers followed suit in 1899. Alongside the musical spectacles of Hollywood’s golden age from the 1930s to the 50s, today’s dance and music videos, and dramatic and choreographic dance cinema, there has also been a fruitful relationship between experimental technology and dance, from Maya Deren in the 1940s to Merce Cunningham in 2000s. The interactive virtual technology of the 2020s opens up a reality that transcends time and space, both for the contemporary dance artist and those experiencing the dance not just as a spectator but as a participant in the work. Gilles Jobin, for example, sees virtual, even remotely accessed, art as one of the major forms of future dance (e.g. Cosmogony – Live Digital Performance 2021). These topics are discussed extensively in Hanna Pajala-Assefa’s two articles Dance Film – an Alliance of Dance and Moving Image and Dance and Technology – New Stages for Mediated Bodies.

In the early 2020s, museums increasingly curate performances as events for their exhibitions and more and more choreographers and performance artists have sought out museums or galleries as spaces of performance. Unlike in theatres, in the context of museums and visual arts, dramaturgy is not based on a shared viewing experience for the audience, but is built on the time spent with the work as defined by the spectator. Tino Sehgal’s “constructed situations” (e.g. Kiss 2002) and Anne Imhof’s choreographic spatial installations (e.g. Faust 2017) create choreographic events that can be seen as related both to the tradition of performance art in the visual arts context and to the tradition of choreography that arises from the choreographic abstraction of movement, gesture and situation. In contrast, community and participatory art includes Boris Charmatz’s dance events for large crowds at the Tate Modern, London, and the many social choreographic works by Michael Kliën and Steve Valk can be seen as belonging to the field of community and participatory art. Such events of social choreography are not about a performance for the audience, but a facilitated choreographic proposal, situation or score that the participants carry out in their own way.

In recent decades, higher education in art and dance has increasingly followed the university model, and artistic research programmes have sprung up in art universities around the world. Research has become an increasingly important part of both art education and the search for, renewal and definition of the artistic relationship with the world. The chapter on contemporary dance concludes with an article by Simo Kellokumpu’s article Artist, Researcher and the Challenge of Writing. Through his own doctoral work, Kellokumpu presents the artistic research carried out at the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, illuminating the possibilities such research opens for artists. An artist conducting artistic research can work simultaneously in the international art field as well as in the framework of academic artistic research. The results of artistic research can be found in e-journals such as Journal of Artistic Research, RUUKKU and Research Catalogue as well as the Theatre Academy publication series Nivel, Acta Scenica and Kinesis. The broad field of performance studies, dance research and artistic research provides both education and the artistic field with a constant processing, open questioning and exploratory orientation that contributes to enriching dance’s ability to connect with the world and its contemporaries.


Kirsi Monni

Kirsi Monni (Doctor of Art in Dance, 2004) is Professor of Choreography at the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki. She has worked extensively in the field of dance as a choreographer, dancer, researcher, lecturer, curator and in various positions of trust since the 1980s. Her own research deals with historical, ontological and theoretical questions in dance art and choreography. Monni is one of the founders of the Zodiak – Centre for New Dance and was involved in its development for two decades before accepting a professorship at the Theatre Academy in 2009.