Asking for a definition of contemporary dance is like asking what a book is. It’s everything and nothing, riveting masterwork and dreary hackwork, familiar as your nightstand and strange as an alien culture.
Dance is a hundred things-from what Lady Gaga does on tour to what you do at a disco or in your jazzercise class to the conga line at your last wedding. The South Arts’ Dance Touring Initiative you are reading about focuses on a narrow slice, but a very important one, of all the things dance can be. Specifically, it is aboutchoreographed concert dance organized by an intelligence for viewing by an audience. It can happen almost anywhere and involve everything from a soloist to a 60-member corps de ballet. The choreographer can be an individual, a team, or even a committee of the whole (company). Admission can be expensive or free. The key underlying all these variants is that an organizing intelligence has chosen to “bend” movement (and any other production elements-music, costumes, sets, props, lights) into meaning and emotion. (The formulation comes from a famous definition of modernist poetry by Ezra Pound: the poet bends language into meaning.)
Now here comes the wrinkle that throws some people off. “Meaning” does not necessarily mean that there is some story of narrative, a linear story one can follow from the beginning of the dance to the end. Dance, like music, is often abstract. The ways it resonates are implicit, not explicit, and each viewer can have a different but equally legitimate reaction or perception.
The American public is not as practiced as it once was in dealing with abstraction in the arts. Practice is the relevant word; it has little to do with intelligence and much to do with opportunities for exercise. Think about learning to swim. The best advice is to stop reading and jump in a pool; that is, see a dance concert. However, while waiting for the next one in your town, you might want to read more. The essay,Acquiring Dance Literacy, lays out, in a tongue-in-cheek form of a twelve-step program, a strategy to “get at” the dancemaker’s intentions by paying close attention to the choices she/he made in creating the work. An Introduction to ModernDancegives your some generally-accepted definitions and descriptions.