The evolution of choreography over the last 150 years has radically transformed the way we experience dance. Artists like the wildly free Isadora Duncan and the incredibly focused Martha Graham began the modern dance movement by loosening the strict formality of 19th-century ballet. George Balanchine was the formidable force behind the neoclassical ballet movement, while Jerome Robbins took ballet into the world of musical theater, creating some of the most popular and well-loved productions on Broadway. The youngest choreographer included on this list, Rennie Harris, has even elevated the popular art of hip-hop dancing, bringing it front and center on the world stage.
These artists have not only contributed to the evolution of dance in the 20th and 21st centuries. Their legacies continue to inspire new generations of dancers and choreographers, some of whom will undoubtedly transform what we see on the stages of the future.
10: Katherine Dunham
Katherine Dunham remains an American icon. She cannot be understood solely by her prowess as a dancer and choreographer. She was also a director, scholar, social activist and published author. She packed a tremendous array of accomplishments into her 97 years, influencing hundreds of dancers, writers, activists and politicians along the way. The majority of her work -- whether it was dance or art -- was rooted in the culture of the West Indies, where she conducted both dance and anthropological research in the 1930s. The traditions she discovered in her travels remained with her throughout her illustrious career in the world of dance, showing their influence in her choreography.
Dunham's professional dancing career began in the early 1930s, after she landed a lead in the ballet La Guiablesse. However, her experiences and travels through the countries of the West Indies' and Haiti in particular, shifted her focus from the classical to the modern. She was keen to incorporate the exciting styles she experienced in those countries into an emerging form of American dance. Dunham's techniques embraced the emotions and the essence of the cultures she studied, whose history of dance were directly connected to the African continent. She integrated the principals of "a flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving" with the classical techniques of ballet and the fluidity of modern dance moves [source: Sommer]. These became the foundation of what is now known as the Katherine Dunham Technique. Of her the many famous and innovative dances she choreographed, her first full-length ballet -- L'Ag'Ya -- remains one of her crowning achievements. Based on a folktale about love and revenge, it was mixture of African-Caribbean styles, including the ag'ya, also known as the fighting dance of Martinique.
Over the course of her life, Dunham campaigned for civil rights and desegregation in the United States and other countries she visited. As part of her efforts to fight poverty and bring art to underprivileged children and teens, she opened the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) in East St. Louis [source: Library of Congress]. Her many awards include the Albert Schweitzer Award, the Kennedy Center's Honor Award, and induction into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance.
Next, we'll look at another woman who broke the mold when it came to the art of dance... and life.
9: Isadora Duncan
When you think of Isadora Duncan, "flamboyant," "imposing," "inspirational" and "original" might be the adjectives that come to mind. Her unconventional life brought criticism from many conservatives and admiration from the liberal-minded people of her day.
It is difficult to pin down the year Isadora Duncan was born, although it is known she entered the world in San Francisco. A discrepancy with her birth certificates -- there are two of them -- puts the year as either 1897 or 1898. That confusion could well be a symbol of the wild existence she was to lead. The youngest of four children, her interest in dance bloomed early on in her life. Duncan's mother instilled a love of music and poetry -- two art forms that would continue to influence the style of her choreography.
Duncan is considered by many to be the person who first broke the formal rules of dance, particularly those of ballet. Finding it confining for both the body and the mind, she threw this style of dance to the wind. She preferred the openness and fluidity of natural movement and unrestricted breathing, which she dubbed "ebb and flow." This, along with improvisation, became the signature style of her choreography. Interestingly, she was compelled to break dance boundaries by studying the statues and art of the Ancient Greeks. She began dancing barefoot in flowing robes and scarves. Her works were a blend of music, movement and poetry. This style proved to be a profound influence on the modern dance choreographers who came after her. Duncan also introduced modern athleticism into her techniques, incorporating "skipping, running, jumping, leaping and tossing" [source: Belilove].
Her life was far from quiet or formulaic. Duncan was known for her public love affairs. She dismissed marriage as antiquated, although she was briefly married to a man 17 years younger than herself. Duncan enjoyed a very social life and was a regular visitor to the salons of Paris and London. On a more tragic note, she lost her only two children in a car accident. Many years later, she herself was killed in a car, when one of her long scarves got caught in the open-spokes of a convertible's wheel. Her ashes were placed next to her children's graves in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Click over to the following page to discover a choreographer who embraced the digital age as part of his dance lexicon.
8: Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham had a long and distinguished career as a dancer and choreographer. By the time he was 20, he was a professional dancer, soloing at the Martha Graham Dance Company. He transformed modern dance into an avant-garde exploration of what it means to be human. Throughout his career he embraced the spirit of collaboration, working with artists, musicians and designers to create pieces of work that were transformative. One of his longtime collaborators was the acclaimed experimental composer John Cage.
Cunningham began his own company, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, in 1953. It was here that his exploration of the avant-garde went into full swing. His pieces bucked conventions. They were often performed without a narrative. His collaboration with John Cage also resulted in a dramatic re-envisioning of the relationship between music and dance. Though Cage and Cunningham combined music and choreography for the performances, they believed that the two things should be composed separately and exist independent of one another.
Cunningham may go down in history as one of the first old-school modern dance choreographers to embrace the digital age. He grew up dancing and designing choreography before technology became intertwined with modern life. However, Cunningham recognized the evolution of computers as part of the human experience. In the latter half of his career, he began choreographing using DanceForms, a teaching software program he helped design. Still in use, it allows users to experience 3-D animation of dance moves. In 1998, he collaborated with digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar to choreograph a virtual dance composition called Hand-Drawn Spaces. This installation used motion-captured animated dancers to perform complex moves and techniques across three computer screens. The National Endowment for the Arts labeled it a "master work" and provided funding to keep the installation afloat [source: OpenEndedGroup]. Not one to miss out on ways to reach a larger audience, Cunningham even had his own Web-cast, known as "Mondays with Merce."
A multitude of famous dancers have passed through the doors of Cunningham's dance company, one of which is Paul Taylor, who is the next on our list of famous choreographers.
7: Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor was born in 1930, when modern dance was well on its way to becoming a driving force in the world of dance. His interest in the arts -- he began his college career as a painter enrolled in Syracuse University -- and his athleticism led him to dance. In 1952, he caught the eye of several prominent choreographers while attending the American Dance Festival school. Martha Graham was among his admirers, and he was invited to join her company. He eventually became a soloist.
Taylor's early work embodied the immediacy of our lives. His style embraced the ordinary movements and actions of people. An early piece of Taylor choreography might be based around a movement that was simply the dancer checking his or her watch [source: PBS]. This minimalist approach was a dramatic departure from the norm and left many audiences shaking their heads. Taylor went on to form his own company in 1954. 3 Epitaphs, one of his most famous pieces, was first performed in 1956. It was a funeral dance of sorts set to New Orleans jazz music. The piece continues to be a favorite among critics and crowds alike. Incorporating modern techniques, such as his innovative use of everyday movements with ballet, defines his philosophy of dance. Many of his themes deal with the uncomfortable realities of life. From the 1970s to the 1990s, his dances addressed issues such as incest, rape, war, religious zealotry and the dangers of conformity.
In 1993, Taylor founded a touring company, Taylor 2, with the purpose of bringing his work around the world "unhindered by economic or technical limitations" [source: PTDC]. In addition to performances, the company provides classes and outreach programs. It has toured 46 of the 50 United States, sending dancers to local high schools and community centers. Tanzania Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique are several of the countries the company has visited [source: PTDC]. Just as Paul Taylor has drawn inspiration from ordinary lives, he has taken extraordinary efforts to make sure those lives are appreciated.
Next, we'll encounter Bob Fosse, who is considered one of the bad boys of dance.
6: Bob Fosse
When it came to dance and to life, Bob Fosse didn't mess around. Born in Chicago, he came to the performing arts early in his life, acting and dancing for family and friends. By the time he entered high school in the late 1930s, he was dancing in local night clubs and vaudeville theaters. It can be assumed this is where he developed his jazz dance style that oozed sexuality. Classic vaudevillian moves that he learned early in his career -- turned-in knees, sideways shuffling, rolled shoulders and "mime-like articulation of hands" -- added a unique flavor to his choreography [source: PBS].
Fosse's artistic repertoire was far-reaching. While he began a dancer, his drive led him to choreography, screenwriting and directing. A common thread running through all of his work was the need to break with the conventional. He was often encouraged to de-sexualize his dances, and as a result, he did the exact opposite. Eschewing art form over social conventions, he turned to choreography in order to have more control over his work [source: PBS]. His personal and professional styles were based around the provocative, which he zealously incorporated into his dances and stage productions. Some of his more popular plays were turned into movies starring box-office powerhouses like Shirley MacLaine, who performed the lead in Sweet Charity (1969), and Liza Minnelli, who took the lead in the movie Cabaret (1972).
Fosse's personal life was often reflected in his work. Chicago was based on his experiences in his hometown. His third wife, Gwen Verdon, an accomplished dancer in her own right, was the inspiration for many of his pieces. She played the lead character in Damn Yankees, a play Fosse choreographed. Not known for keeping with the fitness trends, Bob Fosse was a chain-smoker. He would often dance with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Fosse's character, his personality and his accomplishments on stage and screen were larger than life, which is exactly how he wanted them.
Up next: a look at the work and life of the classical choreographer George Balanchine.
5: George Balanchine
Hailed as the most influential contemporary ballet choreographer of all time, George Balanchine grew up steeped in the arts. His father was a composer and encouraged Balanchine to begin playing piano at the age of five. This early experience with music was the foundation of his complex relationship with music and dance. Balanchine began his formal dance training when he was nine, enrolling in the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. At the age of ten he made his debut, playing cupid in a production of Sleeping Beauty with the Maryinsky Theatre Ballet Company, where he later became a member of the ballet corps. After graduating Imperial Ballet School, he entered the Conservatory of Music. He studied piano and musical theory, with a focus on "composition, harmony and counterpoint" [source: NYCB].
George Balanchine remains the defining choreographer of neoclassical ballet. This style of dance is considerably less rigid than formal classical ballet. Dancers perform extremely athletic and technical moves set to more "extreme tempos" of music [source: Washington Ballet]. Balanchine's understanding and experience with the foundations of music enabled him to envision new ways of using music in ballet. Inspired by modern dance, Balanchine fused the classical 19th-century techniques he learned at the Imperial Ballet School with the emerging free-form style of dance. He developed movements using flexed hands and feet, turned-in legs and off-centered positions. He declined the traditional uniform of ballet -- the tutu -- in favor of leotards and tunics. He also reduced the focus on the story in favor of abstract, unencumbered movements that showcased the dance. This isn't to say he disregarded the narratives of ballet entirely. Rather, he found innovative ways to fuse them into movement and music [source: NYCB].
George Balanchine's influence had a profound effect on our next choreographer, American dance master Jerome Robbins.
4: Jerome Robbins
Jerome Robbins has long been considered one of the top American dancers and choreographers. His eclectic range, stretching from classical ballet and modern dance to contemporary theater, allowed him to crisscross artistic streets. He moved seamlessly from the ballet stage to Broadway to movies. In his time, Robbins created more than 60 acclaimed ballets, many of which remain in the repertories of the New York City Ballet. For those who aren't connoisseurs of the ballet, Robbins is known for his fast-paced, jaunty Broadway productions. He directed and choreographed some of the biggest hits ever to play on the Great White Way, including West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy and Peter Pan. He didn't stop there. He won the 1961 Best Director Academy Award for the movie adaptation of West Side Story (1961). In short, he was a man who got around town.
Born Jerome Wilson Robinowitz on Oct. 11, 1918, his career spanned more than 60 years. He began dancing in the choruses of Broadway shows, including Keep Off the Grass, which was choreographed by George Balanchine. As his experience as a dancer grew, so did his desire to choreograph his own works. In 1944, he landed center-stage with Fancy Free, a quintessential American ballet which he choreographed while on the road with the American Ballet Theatre. With jazz music by Leonard Bernstein, who was an unknown at the time, the story involves three sailors, two women and a dance-off [source: ABT]. Robbins incorporated his personal experiences into his work. The work he did for Fiddler on the Roof was inspired by his Russian-Jewish roots and the experiences of his parents as immigrants to the United States [source: Catton]. Robbins was also interested in integrating different cultural styles into his work. His 1958 work, NY Export: Opus Jazz, was a blend of ballet, jazz and ballroom dancing. Its score was astonishing, incorporating African, Latin and American music into the production. The work was revived by New York's City Ballet in 2005 and a film adaptation was made in 2010 [source: Opus Jazz].
Like many dancers in the early to mid-20th century, Robbins' style was a mix. His first training was based on Martha Graham's modern dance techniques. Later, he moved to ballet, embracing the neoclassic styles of George Balanchine. This combination is evident in Robbins' work. Robbins' choreography stressed the loosening of traditional ballet forms. Dancers in his pieces often "walk flat-footed or run across the stage" [source: Catton]. These techniques allowed him to incorporate the feeling of the streets, which was so important in the staging and narrative of a play like West Side Story.
Next up, we'll enter the amazing world of Rennie Harris -- hip-hop ambassador to the world.
3: Rennie Harris
Born in Philadelphia in 1964, Rennie Harris has spent much of his youth immersed in the urban dance culture of hip-hop. This magnetic form of dance was the language of the neighborhood where Harris lived. His life's work has been bringing this "street" form of dance to the international stage, thereby giving it the artistic credibility and recognition it deserves.
Harris credits "The Campbell Lockers," a dance group featuring Don Campbell, who promoted the "locking" dance style, as his earliest inspiration [source: Stanford University]. While still in high school, Harris began to form hip hop groups that performed locally. Excited to perform to larger audiences, Harris joined a group called "The Scanners." Their style was "popping," a form of dance with "stop-start, freeze-frame, or slow motion gestures" [source: Gottschild]. From there he leapt into other styles of hip-hop -- break dancing, also know and B-boy, stepping and house dancing—all of which have emerged on urban streets over the course of the last 20 years. He began incorporating African dance techniques as his style matured.
In 1992, Harris founded his acclaimed dance company, Rennie Harris PureMovement (RHPM). His company encapsulates hip-hop as the "voice of the new generation." It seeks to educate people on the merits of this style of dancing as an art form. Harris believes that shaking off stereotypical portrayals of hip-hop in media will help it transcend cultural boundaries. He also sees this as a way to up-end the notion that hip-hop is the domain of men [source: RHPM]. One of the most famous and influential pieces he directed and choreographed was Rome & Jewels, loosely based on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, as well as on West Side Story. The work incorporated his experiences growing up in North Philadelphia as an African-American male. Harris won the Harman Shakespeare Theater award for the piece, and the company has performed it throughout the United States.
RHPM is dedicated to helping at-risk children and teens living in North Philadelphia. In 2000, the company began an After School Mentoring program at schools and community centers. RHPM also tours its educational programs. Its "History of Hip Hop" lecture/dance program works with educational facilities and college campuses across the United States. Rennie Harris' achievements have garnered world-wide recognition. He has been compared to Alvin Ailey and Bob Fosse for his innovative style of choreography. His many awards include a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship, a medal from the Kennedy Center as a master of African-American Choreography and an honorary doctorate from Bates College [source: Stanford University].
Because of his inclusion of African dance traditions into his work, Harris has often been compared to Alvin Ailey, the next choreographer on this list.
2: Alvin Ailey
Born Jan. 5, 1931, to a single mother in Rogers, Texas, Alvin Ailey has long been hailed as one of the most inspiring dancers and choreographers of his generation. Throughout his career, he was dedicated to expanding the tradition of modern dance in America. As an African-American, Ailey believed it was extremely important that the black cultural experience inherent in modern dance be acknowledged and cultivated by other choreographers, dancers and patrons.
He began his studies with famed choreographer Lester Horton's company, the Lester Horton Dance Theater. Ailey eventually took over as director in 1953. As director, he began choreographing his own dances steeped in several dance disciplines, including ballet, modern and jazz dance. Many of his pieces were influenced by the African-American spiritual tradition. One of his best known works, Revelations, was based in his own experiences growing up black in the South and the "religious heritage of his youth" [source: ABT].
Ailey began his own company several years after moving from California to New York to dance on Broadway in Truman Capote's House of Flowers. His company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed for the first time in public on March 30, 1958, at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in New York City. Ailey often referred to the subsequent series of dance venues around the country as the "station wagon tours" [source: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater].
By the time he died in 1989, Alvin Ailey had worked with some of the biggest names in American dance, including Martha Graham. He choreographed more than 79 ballets over the course of his influential career. His company received numerous awards, including the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988. In recognition of his amazing contributions to the world of dance, Ailey was inducted into the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame in 1992. Ailey's legend as a dancer and choreographer lives on. His pieces have graced the stages of some of the most venerable dance companies, such as the American Ballet Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem and Paris Opera Ballet.
On the next page, you'll read about the woman who gave new meaning to the words "modern dance."
1: Martha Graham
Many consider Martha Graham to be one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of the 20th century. She set in motion an entirely new concept of modern dance -- one that transformed its very nature in both movement and tone. Her career spanned 70 years, during which she choreographed more than 180 dance compositions. She inspired hundreds of aspiring dancers. Many of her pupils later distinguished themselves as acclaimed choreographers.
Graham was immersed in the study of movement from the moment she was old enough to observe the fluidity of the body. Her father, a doctor who specialized in nervous disorders, believed strongly in diagnosing through observation. He focused on watching how his patients moved physically through a space. This was not lost on Graham, who later incorporated the relationship between body and space into all of her work [source: PBS]. Graham's interest in dance turned into a passion after she attended a performance of Ruth St. Denis, a premier ballerina in her day. Curiously enough, Graham's parents were not thrilled with her career choice and had her attend a junior college. After her father's death, she enrolled in the Denishawn dance school, which Ruth St. Denis founded with her husband Ted Shawn.
While Graham began her career in ballet, her passion was for modern dance. Once she began teaching, she was able to have complete control over her craft. The study of the body's intimate relationship with movement was the foundational piece of Graham's extraordinary vision. She choreographed her dances to embrace harsh emotions, incorporating what she called "contraction and release" breathing that allowed for jerky movements, sharp bends, elasticity of the body and falls. Often, her work had very visceral sexual themes and explicit moves [source: Martha Graham Contemporary Dance Company]. Graham's dance pieces embraced and connected to the wilderness that is the human body.
The themes of her work reflected what was happening socially and politically at the time. One of her most celebrated pieces, Lamentations, was a solo piece depicting a woman wrapped in a single piece of fabric shaped into a tube. This is thought to be a response to industrialization, particularly the skyscrapers that were beginning to rise in New York City.
Martha Graham's contributions to the world of dance earned her numerous awards and recognitions. She was granted the highest award given to an American civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But her greatest legacy was how she changed the face of dance forever.
Click on over to the next page for lots more information about choreography, dance and the performing arts.
Lots More Information
- Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater History 1958." (July 14, 2011) http://www.alvinailey.org/about/history
- African American Registry. "Alvin Ailey Was a Modern Dance Original." (July 14, 2011) http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/alvin-ailey-was-modern-dance-original
- American Ballet Theater. "Alvin Ailey Biography." (July 14, 2011) http://www.abt.org/education/archive/choreographers/ailey_a.html
- American Ballet Theater. "Fancy Free." (July 14, 2011) http://www.abt.org/education/archive/ballets/fancy_free.html
- Belilove, Lori. "About Isadora Duncan." Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation. 2005. (July 14, 2011) http://www.isadoraduncan.org/about_isadora.html
- Catton, Pia."Dancing American." National Endowment for the Humanities. January/February 2002. (July 14, 2011) http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2009-01/dancingamerican.html
- Conner, Lynne and Susan Gillis-Kruman. "The Early Moderns." University of Pittsburgh. (July 14, 2011) http://www.pitt.edu/~gillis/dance/isadora.html
- Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. "Pure Spirit and Sheer Joy-Rennie Harris/PureMovement Dance Company's African Influence Hip-Hop Dance Style." bNET. August 1999. (July 14, 2011) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1083/is_8_73/ai_55292587/
- The Jerome Robbins Foundations and Robbins Rights Trust. (July 14, 2011) http://jeromerobbins.org/
- Katherine Dunham Center for the Arts & Humanities. (July 14, 2011) http://kdcah.org/
- The Kennedy Center. "Jerome Robbins." (July 14, 2011) http://www.kennedy-center.org/explorer/artists/?entity_id=3792&source_type=A
- Library of Congress. "Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection." (July 14, 2011) http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/dunham/dunham-timeline.html
- Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance. "About Martha Graham." (July 14, 2011) http://marthagraham.org/resources/aboutgraham
- Merce Cunningham Dance Company. "Biography." (July 14, 2011) http://www.merce.org/about/biography.php
- New York City Ballet. "George Balanchine 1904-1983." (July 14, 2011) http://www.nycballet.com/company/history/balanchine.html
- OpenEndedGroup. "Hand-Drawn Spaces / 1998; 2009/" (July 14, 2011) http://openendedgroup.com/index.php/artworks/hand-drawn-spaces-1998/
- Opus Jazz. (July 14, 2011) http://opusjazz.com/about
- Paul Taylor Dance Company. (July 14, 2011) http://www.ptdc.org/artists-dances/taylor-2
- PBS. "American Masters: Paul Taylor." (July 14, 2011) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/paul-taylor/about-paul-taylor/719/
- PBS. "Bob Fosse." (July 14, 2011) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/stars/fosse_b.html
- PBS. "Jerome Robbins, Something to Dance About." August 9, 2008. (July 14, 2011) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/jerome-robbins/something-to-dance-about/437/
- Rennie Harris PureMovement. (July 14, 2011) http://www.rhpm.org/
- Sommer, Sally. "Free to Dance: Katherine Dunham." (July 14, 2011) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/biographies/dunham.html
- Stanford University. "Rennie Harris." (July 14, 2011) http://diversityarts.stanford.edu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=229&Itemid=125
- Washington Ballet. "Ballet 101." 2009. (July 14, 2011) http://www.washingtonballet.org/news-media/ballet-101/