Early Movers and Shakers in Dance Choreography

//Early Movers and Shakers in Dance Choreography

Great dance is inspired by many things, foremost of which is often great choreography accompanied by great music. Of the numerous classics and great choreographic works in existence, there are handful that were created by the creme of the crop, those who helped to construct and design modern dance as we know it today. These movers and shakers are often considered some of the most ground breaking and influential choreographers of the 20th Century. 

Martha Graham – One of the most familiar and quoted figures in dance, Grahams’ career lasted 75 years and produced some of the greatest masterpieces of modern dance. Her impact in dance and choreography is often compared with the influence Picasso had on modern visual arts. Graham was the first dancer ever to perform at the White House, travel abroad as a cultural ambassador, and receive the highest civilian award of the USA: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Martha Graham Dance Company is still going strong and can be seen in residence in New York City as well as on tour.

Alvin Ailey – A groundbreaking choreographer and activist who founded the world renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. He is credited with popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American participation in 20th-century concert dance. His company gained the nickname “Cultural Ambassador to the World” because of its extensive international touring. Legendary dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov told The New York Times, “His work made an important contribution to American culture.”

Katherine Dunam – More than just a legendary dancer and choreographer, Dunam was also an educator, author, and social activist. Dunham had one of the most successful dance careers in both American and European theater of the 20th century. She was an innovator who propelled the awareness of the cultures of the African Diaspora via her choreography, and was also a leader in the field of dance anthropology. Her undergraduate studies in Anthropology at the University of Chicago led to travel fellowships granting her unique opportunities to research dance and cultures around the world. This led to prestigious opportunities such as an appointment by President Lyndon Johnson as technical cultural adviser to the government of Senegal in West Africa in 1965.

For over twenty years the Dunham Company performed extensively throughout the continents, including thirty-three countries in Europe alone. They were featured in Broadway productions such as the acclaimed Bal Nègre, Bamboche!, and Cabin in the Sky, staged by George Balanchine and starring Ethel Waters. She and her company also appeared in a number of films including Carnival of Rhythm, Star Spangled Rhythm, the Abbott and Costello comedy Pardon My Sarong (1942) and the famous break-through black musical Stormy Weather (1943). In 1948, Dunham and her company appeared in the Hollywood movie Casbah, with Tony Martin, Yvonne de Carlo, and Peter Lorre, and in the Italian film Botta e Risposta, produced by Dino de Laurentiis. Dunham and her company appeared in three International films: Mambo (1954), made in Italy; Die Grosse Starparade (1954), made in Germany; and Música en la Noche (1955), made in Mexico City.

Along with all of her accolades, she was also received with resistance and outright sabotage from the government, who disapproved of her stands for civil rights. A highlight of Dunham’s later career was the invitation from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to stage dances for a new production of Aida starring Leontyne Price. In 1945, Dunham opened and directed the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theater in New York City, which included courses in applied skills, humanities, cultural studies, Caribbean research, as well as the performing arts. The Dunham Schools’ alumni included a long list of future celebrities, such as James Dean, Gregory Peck, Jose Ferrer, Jennifer Jones, Shelley Winters, Sidney Poitier, Shirley MacLaine, Doris Duke, Eartha KittToni Cade Bambara and Warren Beatty. The long list of Dunham’s many innovations includes her developement of an internationaly acclaimed dance pedagogy, later named the Dunham Technique, that is now taught as a modern dance style in dance schools around the world.


Bob Fosse
– Born Robert Louis Fosse was an American dancer, musical theater choreographer, director, actor, screenwriter and film director. Although he had always dreamed of becoming the next Fred Astaire, and at one time felt defeated that he could not match Astaire’s box office success, he went on to find success on his own terms by winning 8 Tony Awards for choreography, as well as one for direction.


Isadora Duncan
– Duncan’s work in free, interpretative movement formed the basis for modern dance. Duncan primarily lived and worked throughout Europe, finally tired of performing and touring, she opened schools in Germany and New York to teach her philosophy. interesting past, tragic death. Duncan lived a rebellious life filled with controversy and tragedy. Known for incorporating flowing scarves into her shows, she was tragically strangled to death by one such scarf that became entangled in the wheel of her a convertible car she was driving.


George Balanchine
– Often considered one of the 20th century’s most prolific choreographers and known as the father of American ballet; Balanchine fused the technique from his training at the Imperial Ballet School with other schools of movement that he picked up during his tenure as a guest choreographer on Broadway and in Hollywood, creating his signature “neoclassical style”. In 1933 Lincoln Kirstein, a young arts patron, invited to Balanchine to America to address the importance of high quality dance training in America, then together they founded the School of American Ballet, (which still stands as one of the foremost dance schools in the United States and the world). Along with Kirstein and Jerome Robbins, he also co-founded the New York City Ballet (NYCB).


Judith Jameson
– An American dancer and choreographer, best known as the Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since succeeding Mr. Ailey himself in 1989. Over the next couple of decades she brought the Company to unprecedented heights and was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Kennedy Center Honor, a prime time Emmy Award, an American Choreography Award, a National Medal of Arts and more. She was also listed in “TIME 100: The World’s Most Influential People”, and honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the first White House Dance Series event. This year, she became the 50th inductee into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance.


Jerome Robbins
West Side Story was immediately recognized as a major accomplishment in the history of the American musical theater, with its inventive setting and charged, explosive dance sequences. Robbins won the 1958 Tony Award for best choreography for the Broadway version and Academy Awards for his choreography and co-direction of the highly acclaimed 1961 film version. He directed and choreographed the popular musical Gypsy in 1959 and the even more successful Fiddler on the Roof in 1964.


Paul Taylor
– Widely considered to be one of the foremost American choreographers of the 20th century, noted ballet choreographer, Taylor is among the last living members of the second generation of America’s modern dance artists. Taylor joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1955 as soloist while continuing to choreograph on his own troupe. In 1959 he was invited by Balanchine to be a guest artist with New York City Ballet. He choreography many pieces of iconic moments in American history, particularly about soldiers, prompting The New York Times to hail him as “among the great war poets.” He received countless accolades including the Kennedy Center Honors and an Emmy Award for Speaking in Tongues.


Agnes de Mille
– Ballet dancer, choreographer and journalist who published 10 books, also founded the Agnes de Mille Theater and toured with them through 126 cities from 1953 through 1954. In 1955, she choreographed the pieces for a film version of Oklahoma! She also made a splash in the television world when she narrated and directed two hour-long programs on the dance for the “Omnibus” series the very next year. In 1958 De Mille published the second volume of her autobiography, And Promenade Home and choreographed the musical, Goldilocks. In the following years she created dances for musicals like Juno and produced many memorable ballets, including The Bitter Weird, The Wind in the Mountains, and The Golden Age. She was awarded the Handel Medallion, New York’s highest award for achievement in the arts, in 1976.


Michael Kidd
– American Broadway and film choreographer, dancer and director. One of his early choreography credits was the original production of Finian’s Rainbow, for which Mr. Kidd won a 1947 Tony Award. He would go on to win four other Tony Awards — for his choreography for Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, Li’l Abner and Destry Rides Again.


Hermes Pan
– Sometimes referred to as Fred Astaire’s other half, not only for his collaboration with Astaire on 17 of his 31 musical films, but also because he slightly resembled Astaire. Pan co-choreographed most of Astaire’s television specials and was nominated for Academy awards for his choreography in  Top Hat, Swing Time and finally won an Oscar award for his work on A Damsel in Distress in 1937. Pan continued to appear in, as well as remain in demand for a number of other films of the Hollywood Golden Era including Kiss Me Kate in 1953 which he collaborated alongside Bob Fossey.


Maurice Béjart
– This French-born dancer, choreographer and opera director was one of the most influential and controversial European choreographers of the 20th century. Although he was often noted as a modern-dance choreographer, he was recognized for helping to modernize ballet, his dancers were classically trained and his ballets were founded on classical technique. He was met with both praise and criticism for the mysticism and popular culture featured in his works. He made several ballets for the Paris Opéra, directed plays, films, operas, and made over 200 ballets. Béjart also wrote several volumes of autobiography, the novel Mathilde, plus program notes for his ballets, and ran the Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Switzerland.


Debbie Allen
– An iconic American actress, dancer, choreographer, television director, television producer, and a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Her 1980 staring performance in a Broadway revival of West Side Story garnered her a Tony award and a sought after role in the movie Fame. The movie evolved into a successful television spin off, which she also co-starred in and won three Emmy awards for her choreography. She produced and directed the popular Cosby Show spinoff TV series, A Different World, and went on to appear on other TV shows including Grey’s Anatomy and as a judge on So You Think You Can Dance. Her self titled dance academy in Los Angeles is a draw for aspiring young dancers everywhere, and her influence as a trailblazer in the arts carries on from generation to generation.


Merce Cunningham
– Considered one of the most important choreographers of our time, and a leader of the American avant-garde throughout his seventy year career, Cunningham expanded the frontiers of dance, as well as contemporary visual and performing arts. His collaborations with composers, designers and innovators from other creative disciplines have produced an unrivaled body of dance, music, and visual art.

By |2015-01-21T06:57:34+00:00January 20th, 2015|Dance History|0 Comments

About the Author:

Having fearlessly explored every continent, Nneka is multi-lingual and passionate about travel, culture and life. A SDSU alumni, she has worked in KTVU Fox's newsroom, interviewed notable figures and hosted programs for various media outlets. She has also written features for The San Leandro Times and LostGirlsWorld.com. Also a seasoned performer and fitness professional, Nneka holds several fitness certifications, has shared the stage with entertainment icons, and has appeared on various TV Shows. Follow her global adventures in the arts and beyond on IG @nnekaworldtrekker.