You Gotta Know These Choreographers
- Martha Graham (1894–1991) was the first dancer invited to perform at the White House. As a choreographer, she developed the “Graham technique” that creates dramatic tension through “contraction” and “release” of major muscles. Her first major success was her 1958 concert-length ballet Clytemnestra, one of four collaborations with composer Halim Ed-Dabh. She performed the title role in Clytemnestra with her namesake dance company, whose dancers included Merce Cunningham and her husband, Erick Hawkins, both of whom went on to become choreographers in their own right. Hawkins danced the male lead in Appalachian Spring, a ballet with “an American theme” that Graham commissioned from Aaron Copland.
- Michel Fokine (1880–1942) was accepted to the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, Russia, at age 9, eventually becoming a teacher there. He choreographed a four-minute ballet for Anna Pavlova called The Dying Swan, set to “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals (the title comes from a Tennyson poem entitled “The Dying Swan”). He mentored Vaslav Nijinsky (see below) and featured him in early works like Les Sylphides, a ballet based on the music of Frédéric Chopin. After Sergei Diaghilev (see below) hired Fokine to work for the Ballets Russes in Paris, Fokine showcased Nijinsky’s talents in several ballets based on the work of famous composers, such as Scheherazade, The Firebird, Petrushka, Daphnis et Chloé, and The Spirit of the Rose. However, once Nijinsky turned to choreography Fokine quit the Ballets Russes, only returning after Nijinsky’s dismissal.
- Bob Fosse (1927–1987) came to prominence in the 1953 film Kiss Me Kate. While he and dance partner Carol Haney only had small roles, the dance that Fosse choreographed for them in the number “From This Moment On” launched Fosse’s career. Fosse’s unique style, featuring turned-in knees, rolled shoulders, sideways movement, and “jazz hands,” found its greatest expression on Broadway, where he choreographed the musicals The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Redhead, Sweet Charity, Pippin, and Chicago. Many of his works featured his wife Gwen Verdon, who won four Tonys under his choreography or direction. Fosse also directed the films Cabaret and All That Jazz, winning an Oscar for Cabaret. Many commentators have described his cameo as The Snake in a 1974 film adaptation of The Little Prince as a forerunner to the dance style of Michael Jackson.
- Jerome Robbins (1918–1998) is probably best known for his work with Leonard Bernstein. He broke through as a choreographer with an experimental ballet about three sailors on leave in New York City, Fancy Free, which he then helped rework into the hit 1944 musical On the Town. Known for being temperamental and difficult to work with, he conceived, choreographed, and directed the 1957 original production of West Side Story and won an Oscar for co-directing the 1961 film version (despite quitting early in the process due to creative differences). He also choreographed and directed the original production of Fiddler on the Roof. He acted as an uncredited “show doctor,” rescuing several floundering Broadway shows, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Funny Girl.
- George Balanchine (1904–1983) trained in his native Georgia and Russia and briefly worked with Diaghilev at the Ballets Russes in Paris before being invited by impresario Lincoln Kirstein to the United States, where the two co-founded the New York City Ballet (NYCB) and its associated School of American Ballet. As artistic director of NYCB, Balanchine began the tradition of annually staging The Nutcracker at Christmas. One of his four wives—all dancers—was the company’s first major star, Native American prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. He collaborated with composer Igor Stravinsky and visual artist Isamu Noguchi on the 30-minute ballet Orpheus.
- Vaslav Nijinsky (1889–1950) was known as the greatest male dancer of his era, but what he really wanted to do was choreograph. His boss at the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, gave him the opportunity in 1912 with The Afternoon of a Faun, set to the music of Debussy, and a year later a riot broke out at the premiere of another ballet he choreographed, his choreography of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. (The exact cause of the riot is unclear.) In 1919 Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He never danced again in public, and spent much of the rest of his life in various asylums and institutions.
- Alvin Ailey (1931–1989) was a pioneering African-American choreographer. He originally danced in the Horton Dance Company run by his mentor Lester Horton. After Horton’s unexpected death in 1953, Ailey took over as its artistic director. In 1958 he formed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. His best-known work, Revelations, was based on his upbringing in Texas and is divided into three parts titled “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Take Me to the Water,” and “Move Members, Move.” “Move Members, Move” emphasizes gospel music, including the traditional spiritual “Sinner Man,” and concludes with the number “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” which recreates a joyous church service.
- Pierre Beauchamp (1631–1705) taught dance to French King Louis XIV at Versailles for over two decades. An early director of the Western world’s first dance institution, the Académie Royale de Danse, he collaborated extensively with Molière’s acting company and composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. He is often credited with codifying the five basic feet positions in ballet. His system of dance notation, later revised by Raoul-Auger Feuillet and Pierre Rameau and today known as “Beauchamp-Feuillet notation,” was used until the late 1700s.
- Agnes de Mille (1905–1993), niece of film director Cecil B. DeMille and granddaughter of economist Henry George, worked extensively with American Ballet Theater, but the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo commissioned her most famous work, Rodeo. That ballet, featuring music by Aaron Copland (possibly assisted by an uncredited Leonard Bernstein), details a love rectangle between characters known as American Cowgirl, Champion Roper, Head Wrangler, and Rancher’s Daughter. Her other notable stage ballets include Three Virgins and a Devil and Fall River Legend (based on the life of Lizzie Borden). De Mille also found success in musical theater, creating a revolutionary “dream ballet” for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!.
- Twyla Tharp (1941–present) made her mark in the mid-1970s with the “crossover ballets” Deuce Coupe (performed by the Joffrey Ballet to music by The Beach Boys) and Push Comes to Shove (starring Mikhail Baryshnikov), both marked by a fusion of diverse musical and dance styles. She found success on Broadway with the “jukebox musical” Movin’ Out, set to the catalog of Billy Joel; she subsequently built musicals around the songs of Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra. She created the children’s ballet The Princess and the Goblin and collaborated with director Milos Forman on the Hollywood films Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Yogesh Raut.