We’ve all heard of the most famous dance companies out there: New York City Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Paris Opera. They’re the companies with prestige and plenty of renown. And they deserve it. But what about those smaller, equally impressive, yet unorthodox dance companies? Those full of unusual talent, those harder to pin down – have we heard of them?
If we’re immersed in dance culture, then maybe. But more often than not, no. These companies are by definition more esoteric, because no longer can you have a huge group of dancers fill the stage. Instead of focusing on corps work, where the individual disappears into the mass, these smaller dance companies tend to focus more on the specific, on each dancer as an individual. And that’s what I like about them.
There are plenty of small dance groups out there, but the best of them tend to be light on their feet, innovative, and full of talented dancers that continually surprise us.
Think of them like small start-ups in the tech world. While national companies have more funding, local grounding, and a regular season, smaller dance projects fit in the cracks in theater programming, have smaller touring costs, and can be more experimental by nature.
This structure can lead to breakthroughs in style and exciting mixtures of form, and if popular and appreciated enough, these new styles eventually become incorporated into the mainstream dance world. Just like in the tech world.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll be defining small contemporary dance companies as having no more than 20 dancers. While some of them stay mostly in their hometown and perform there, many tour the world with one or two productions at a time.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, simply the companies that have most caught my attention. Let’s take a look.
The first time I saw Ballet BC five years ago, I was blown away. The virtuosity and daring that I experienced onstage was a marvel to behold, and I found myself thinking “Oh! So dance can incorporate all of these other elements into it too!?” This is the one company on this list that has its home base in its name, but it remains a small company, at sixteen dancers, in size and in feel. Their style is a nice blend of American and European contemporary, and creations abound in their rep. My experience with them in the theater left me excited about dance in a way that many performances have not. I imagine they’ve kept that up.
I could write long essays about all of these companies, but sometimes there’s only so much one can share about a dance company in word form. Sometimes it’s better to just watch:
This company is based out of Philadelphia. With only ten dancers, it may not have a huge roster to dig from, but what it lacks in numbers, it gains in depth. Distinctly American in its movement style, ballet is deep in this company’s DNA. All ten dancers in BalletX were born and raised in the US (although one comes from the exotic territory of Guam!), and many of the choreographers they bring onboard are American, as well. Whoever said that American innovation in ballet was dead?
This is perhaps one of the most improvisational of the companies on the list. Emanuel Gat’s aim is “to put dancers in the driver’s seat,” not simply to give choreography to dancers, but to give them tasks and ask them to think more creatively in the moment. His choreographic approach leads to the emergence of complex patterns from a starting point of simple tasks. Based out of Istres, France, but touring all over Europe, this group of sixteen dancers is continually playing and redefining itself, and every show ends up different for it.
Based in Malmö in the south of Sweden, Skånes Dansteater has fifteen dancers from all over the world. All perform in all of Skånes Dansteater’s productions, making sure none are left on the sidelines. But not only do they perform, they also give “dance workshops, interesting lectures, inspiring seminars, talks and tours.” One of this company’s stated goals is to make dance more accessible to everyone.
Ambitious, and full of purpose, this company pushes the limits on what being a dance company means. They are experimental, improvisational, and certainly less classical than most others on this list. Residing in Bergen, in southwestern Norway, this company of fourteen dancers is currently looking for a new artistic director for 2018. Some things may be up in the air, but one thing is not: they will continue to be daring in their choreography.
Kidd Pivot is Crystal Pite’s project company, and hands down my favorite from what I’ve seen. If you don’t know her choreography, get started. Her ability to meld different movement styles and talk about socially relevant issues brings poignancy to the stage. I literally got chills watching excerpts from her “The Tempest Replica”, and I’m watching it from a computer screen. Based out of Vancouver, B.C., the number of dancers in this company isn’t really set, but it stays small – under ten performers. They tour all over the world, so catch them if you can. For info on tour dates, check here.
Another American company filled solely with American dancers, this company hails from Los Angeles. A powerhouse of a company, these seven dancers perform mostly work from non-American choreographers. This leads to an interesting mix of American and European styles and something unique onstage. One thing’s for sure about this young company: there is dynamism in all that they do.
Bringing out some of the most unusual aspects of our humanity, this group knows how to dig deep to find the bizarre inside of us. The company and its ten dancers hail from Montreal, a city with a healthy dance scene. Marie Chouinard’s choreography plays with all aspects of the body, never forgetting about the possibility of using dancers’ facial expressions and voices as emotive tools. As an audience member, it can be disturbing, but I suppose the question to ask is: why? Her choreographic process brings out the unique qualities of all of her dancers, and she’s never afraid to show the discomfort that each of us encounter being human.
Be forewarned: the following clip has partial nudity.
Sasha Waltz is set to become co-artistic director of the Staatsballett Berlin in 2019, and with good reason. Her company has made a name for itself, reflecting Berlin’s cultural scene and innovating alongside. One thing I noticed while checking out her site was that she credits her dancers as choreographers as well. This reflects something about the way she sees her dancers, and I appreciate her approach here. It’s hard to pin down Sasha Waltz’s choreography, because she plays with her sources of inspiration and form a lot, but that’s what we have video for, I suppose. Just know that this video is but a small sampling of her choreographic style.
Akram Khan’s company is based out of London, where he combines contemporary dance with his original classical Indian dance background. This melding of Kathak and contemporary dance, in combination with his innovative approach to storytelling through dance, gives his work a unique flavor. Like Kidd Pivot, his company is project-based, so the number of dancers per production varies. Unlike Kidd Pivot, the director, Akram Khan, dances in his productions. This can sometimes be a liability in a dance company, but not in this one. Perhaps this is what allows him to tell his stories the way he wants.
As you can see, the range of these companies is enormous. Each of them is unique and each has its own special identity. That’s why seeing them onstage can be such a powerful experience.
If any of these companies ever comes your way – go see them. You won’t be disappointed.
No doubt I left many great small companies out. Tell me in the comments below, and maybe I’ll incorporate the best of them into another future article!