Words by Eve Moore,
In the past few years, contemporary dance has really started to show its face to the public, defining it as a beautiful, interesting and creative style of dancing. Whilst the more familiar hip hop and jazz genres ruled the music video industry for quite some time, it has only been recently that contemporary dance has started to infiltrate, but there is no doubt that it is definitely holding its own.
For those who don’t dance, contemporary dance is made up of a combination of different styles. There is no specific technique to contemporary, but for it to work, it relies on the dancer connecting the body with the mind to create expression through fluid movement. The style stresses versatility and improvisation, allowing the dancer ‘to freely express their innermost feelings’. So surely there should be no boundaries regarding what a dancer can illustrate through the medium of dance? However, following the release of Sia’s music video for ‘Elastic Heart’, thousands of people were left shocked and disgusted by the 5 minute piece.
In the video, 12 year old Maddie Ziegler (star of Dance Moms) and 28 year old actor Shia LaBeouf can be seen dancing alongside one another wearing nude coloured costumes, or a lack of. Whilst Maddie wears a leotard and cropped blonde wig, Shia sports incredibly tight underwear. Both are smeared in dirt and they dance inside the confines of a huge metal cage. Instantly, comments of negativity swept across social media in a tidal wave of hate towards the video and the choreography within it. Why? Probably because it was different, brave, and a release of innermost feelings that many people couldn’t comprehend.
Dance is an art as well as a sport, and art is ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination. Producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Art can be interpreted in many different ways, but the element of thought is vital if you want to deconstruct what is before you to discover its meaning. The amount of people that interpreted ‘Elastic Heart’ as a video possessing connotations of paedophilia was frightening, although Sia has since said she felt it would happen.
The truth behind the choreography, was that the dancers were portraying two warring self-states, perhaps Shia in the form of the thick skin, and Maddie representing the elastic heart. The controversy seemed to spark as soon as it was seen that Shia and Maddie have physical contact in the video. In my opinion, this is where the minority view became fuelled by the distortion of touch meaning lust, and bare skin meaning sex. Would there have been the same controversy if the dancers were both clothed, or both female? Sia herself informed Nastassia Baroni that her sole intention was to move people and elicit some form of excitement. However, can art be misinterpreted, is it actually possible? Of course, you can disagree with the opinion of someone else, but art is left down to interpretation, so surely there is no actual right or wrong answer.
Emma Parkin, a dancer herself, said ‘I think it’s quite naïve of people to criticise the videos when they are a form of art, thought has gone into every second of the choreography. Although unorthodox, the style of dance is well suited to the themes within Sia’s songs’. Another example of contemporary choreography would be that of Years and Years in their new music video for their single ‘King’ in which the band chose to go down the interpretive dance route and create something ‘unusual’. Using a troupe of dancers to visually suffocate Olly, the lead, and play him like a puppet, it becomes clear that the dancers are illustrating the power and control of another person over him. Yet other accounts show interpretations of drug and alcohol addiction, as well as mental illness.
However, given the clothes and relative ages of all involved in the video, Years and Years have avoided the slate by the public, despite actually having used the same choreographer. An important point to make, is the incredible difference that a music video can make to the song it accompanies. A perfect example of this is Skylar Grey’s ‘Dance Without You’. Featured in the dance film Step Up Revolution, the song seems to be a raunchy, sassy kind of number. That is, until, Grey’s own music video is viewed and it becomes apparent that actually she is singing about mental health, namely bipolar disorder. At this point, the creepy instrumentation makes a little more sense and the theme of psychosis emerges alongside simple but dark choreography.
Another example might be Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’, a song which is evidently touching upon the theme of religion. The music video features Sergei Polunin, a principal ballet dancer, flawlessly executing a stunning contemporary ballet dance. Now associating Polunin with the song, a new meaning begins to seep through as it appears Hozier has written not only a love song, but a contemplation of sin. In Hozier’s own words, “The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love”. Polunin’s effortless choreography represents finding oneself and loving yourself in spite of all the things that persistently try to sabotage individuality.
In more recent years, contemporary choreography has most certainly started to assert itself in the music video industry, thus creating and publicising visual masterpieces. The art of dance knows very few limits, and contemporary takes the restrictions of the other genres and mixes them all together to make a free, interpretative style. In the opinion of Rachel Bowers, dancer and dance teacher, contemporary is important “because you can express your individuality and your emotion through movement, losing yourself in dance”. Although the exposure and expression of raw emotion can cause controversy, all in all I don’t doubt that this may actually be what the artists wanted.