Contemporary dance for beginners

material men 2One of the perks of working in the arts is the free shows. Everyone loves freebies – and freebies are all the more satisfying and enjoyable when it’s good. I was recently fortunate enough to attend the second night of Material Men at Queen Elizabeth Hall in September:  a new music /dance work, commissioned by Southbank Centre for Shobana Jeyasingh Dance with music by Elena Kats-Chernin, supported by the RPS Drummond Fund.

Material Men sees the pairing of two dancers of the Indian diaspora (Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran) who contrast in style between classical and hip hop respectively. Throughout the dance, Sooraj and Shailesh explore and play off each other and their movements, in a way that simultaneously compliments their disparate styles.

This show was the first live contemporary dance work I had ever been to (if I can trust my memory). Even if it wasn’t, I know I’m still unfamiliar enough with contemporary dance and dance in general to fall into the ‘beginners’ category. And this is what I’m basing this blog on: how does a newcomer approach contemporary dance?

First and foremost, go in with an open-mind. As cliche as it sounds, I think this is an important point. Manage your expectations and anticipations, and be patient with what you’re seeing. It’s imperative not to disillusion yourself, thinking that you ‘get it’. You will ultimately take what you will from the performance. It’s a good idea read up about the background of the work, the dance company and all those involved to contextualise the piece for yourself. But don’t worry if, even then, some of the themes and ideas you’ve read about don’t come through for you. When seeing something new (or at least new to you), it’s worth going back to the work for a second or third time – it’s often only then when you begin to pick up some of the work’s nuances which you might have missed the first time.

Material men hi resThis brings me onto my second point: try to take in all the show’s elements. It’s so easy to be drawn in by one or two elements (often visual) and lose sight of what else is happening both on and off stage. In Material Men, I often found I was overlooking the fact that there was a live string quartet (the wonderful Smith Quartet) tucked away stage left playing Elena Kats-Chernin’s score! When it clicks and you realise all these different things are happening at once, you get such a buzz. I’d say you’re almost guaranteed to get more out of the experience as well. So whether it’s looking out for the staging or costume changes, music, lighting, little moments from or between the characters on stage, take as much in as you can!

Thirdly and finally: enjoy it! Even if you don’t like the style of dance, you are watching people launch themselves (often precariously) about on stage. You can only admire their skill, bravery and physical capabilities.

Material Men tours in October to Brighton Dome (6th), Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea (8th) and Aberystwyth Arts Centre (15th) – read more about the show and book tickets here.

Robin Sheffield