Top 5 Choreographers of the 20th Century

The world of dance has a rich history of change and innovation, but these things cannot happen alone. You have to know where you’ve come from to know where you are going. California Ballet’s mission of preserving the classics while fostering new works is the embodiment of this concept.

As we look forward to a new generation of choreographer’s, let’s take a look back at the 1900’s for inspiration and understanding. We’d like to present a list of the 20th Century’s top five choreographers (in no particular order).

Now, let’s be honest: this is a hard list to make. Many people were instrumental in shaping dance during the 20th century. And no matter who you choose, someone influential will be left off of this list. We’re quite certain that you, the reader, will likely disagree with at least one of the choices or say, “Well, what about so-and-so?” We welcome discussion, so please, feel free to include your suggestions for alternate choreographers in the comments section!

Sit back and enjoy this quick rollick through 20th century dance history. Here is our (completely subjective) list of the Top 5 Choreographers of the 20th Century:

Unknown1) George Balanchine (1904-1983) – Co-founder and Principal Choreographer, New York City Ballet

Born Giorgi Balanchivadze, George Balanchine was the son of an accomplished Georgian composer. He trained at the Russian Imperial Theater Ballet School as well as the Petrograd Conservatory of Music. From this art-laden beginning, Balanchine launched a career as a professional dancer in which he danced with the Soviet State Ballet (during a tour he would defect) and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (to which he defected).

In 1933, Balanchine met an American entrepreneur named Lincoln Kirstein. Kirstein’s dream was to create an American ballet school and company, and he felt Balanchine was the man to do it . . . he could not have been more right! Together, Balanchine and Kirstein founded the School of American Ballet, followed shortly by the American Ballet. This company would go through a couple reincarnations, including Ballet Society. In 1948, Ballet Society was offered the position of resident ballet company of the New York City Center. This solicited a name change to . . . you guessed it! New York City Ballet!

Balanchine create countless famous works. His prodigious body of choreography is instantly recognizable by his signature neoclassical style of movement with little or no narrative. Balanchine believed that dance should shine on its own, and therefore felt little need to embellish movement with storytelling. While the ballet world knows him for signature works such as Apollo and Serenade, his most widely known, and most profitable, work is his interpretation of The Nutcracker which premiered in 1955. Mr. Balanchine performed the role of Herr Drosselmeyer. New York City Ballet still performs Balanchine’s The Nutcracker every holiday season.

George Balanchine passed away in 1983 at the age of 79. He left behind quite a legacy: a premiere ballet school and company recognized the world over, a body of over 175 works, and a new style of ballet. He is widely considered the preeminent choreographer of the 20th century.


George Balanchine Retrospective – New York City Ballet


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2) Martha Graham (1894-1991) – Founder, Martha Graham Dance Company

Martha Graham was the daughter of a prominent Presbyterian physician. Coming from a family of high standing, Graham was exposed to art from an early age, however, she would not begin her training until very late in life (for a dancer). She was 22.

Graham trained at the Denishawn School, where she received instruction from modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis. She was told right away that she was much too old to become a professional dancer, but she knew her calling and refused to be swayed. Graham danced with the Denishawn Company for seven years before moving to New York City to begin her own company and school. Her work in New York would change the face of dance forever. Graham forged new ground with choreography that was visceral, primal, and spiritual. She choreographed subject matter that was topical and controversial. She created a new style of dance and choreography whose sole purpose was to elicit emotion and thought.

Martha Graham’s style has been deemed uniquely American, but took the world by storm. Her career and skill as a modern dancer is unmatched, and Graham didn’t take her final curtain call until she was 75 years old!  She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, received the Local One Centennial Award for dance (given only once every 100 years) and in 1986 was named Time Magazine’s Dancer of the Century. The legacy she left behind rivals even that of George Balanchine: a world-renowned dance school and company, a new genre of movement, and a choreographic body of 181 works. She is considered by many to be the mother of 20th century modern dance. Graham continued to teach until she died in 1991 at the age of 96.


Martha Graham’s Lamentation


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3) Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) – Founder, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey was born in Texas to a 17 year-old Lula Ailey. His father, also named Alvin, abandoned his family when he was only six months old. Life in Texas in the early 30’s was turbulent for African Americans, and segregation was predominant. Lynchings were common, and when he was five Ailey’s his mother was raped by a gang of white men. This left Ailey scared of whites as a youth, and eventually led to a fierce pride in his black heritage, which would heavily influence his choreography later in life.

Living through the Great Depression was difficult for Ailey and his mother. Employment was difficult to find and hard to maintain. When the United States joined World War II in 1942, Lula Ailey moved her family to Los Angeles to seek employment in support of the war effort. In California, Ailey’s exposure to the arts would flourish. He studied many forms of art as a child and young man, including poetry and gospel. He started his dance training at the age of 18, but did not begin to take dance seriously as a profession until a late age. Ironically, it was the same age as another dance icon. He was 22!

In 1953 Alvin Ailey joined the Lester Horton Dance Company. When Horton died later that year, Ailey took over as the company’s Artistic Director and began his long career as a choreographer. His stint in San Francisco with the Horton Dance Company lasted only one year, and in 1954 he moved out to New York City to dance on Broadway. This turned out to be one of the best decisions he could have made for himself and, indeed, the entire dance world.

While his experience on Broadway was no doubt incredible, Ailey was dissatisfied with New York’s modern dance scene. He attended classes and performances of the greats: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Jose Limon. He didn’t like any of them. He found himself incredibly disappointed that there was no one in New York offering modern dance similar to the Horton technique he had excelled in while in California. With no mentor readily available, Alvin Ailey decided that the best thing he could do was to create dance on his own.

In 1958 Alvin Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The company would allow him to create his vision of modern dance in America and to preserve African American culture. In a time when the modern dance scene was dominated by white dancers, Ailey created a company that not only gave blacks a cultural mouthpiece, but became one of the very few multi-racial dance companies in America at the time. His company was uniquely positioned at the beginning of the Social Rights Movement, giving Ailey’s work an amazing opportunity to shape America’s understanding of itself, its citizens, and its art. He also created the practice of hiring dancers solely based on talent, skill, and merit with no consideration to race, gender, or creed.

Alvin Ailey spent his entire career making dance accessible to anyone and everyone who wanted to experience it. He brought dance to underserved communities, and crossed racial boundaries. He created a pioneering company that continues to innovate and educate to this day. He developed a new technique of modern dance and founded a school to teach it. He created 79 choreographic pieces and inspired countless youth. Alvin Ailey was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor in 1988 and was posthumously inducted into the National Dance Hall of Fame.

Alvin Ailey passed away from AIDS in 1989 at the age of 58. The New York Times said of Mr. Ailey, “You didn’t need to have known [him] personally to have been touched by his humanity, enthusiasm, and exuberance and his courageous stand for multi-racial brotherhood.”


Alvin Ailey’s Revelations


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4) Bob Fosse (1927-1987) – Broadway and Hollywood Choreographer/Director/Producer

Bob Fosse was born in Chicago, Illinois, the second youngest of six children. He spent his entire childhood surrounded by dance, and was the stereotypical boy who got dragged along to his sister’s dance classes. He spent several classes standing in the viewing area and trying out the steps for himself, before being invited to join the class properly. Ironically, his sister would quit dancing shortly thereafter, while Fosse would go on to become a dance legend.

Fosse’s training was troubled by the fact that he did not have a traditional dancer’s body. He suffered from knock-knees, pigeon-toes, and a slouch. Obviously not suited to ballet, he turned to tap. His ability as a tapper was phenomenal, and he set his sights on becoming the “new Fred Astaire.” As a youth he performed on the Vaudeville circuit in Chicago, gaining exposure to new dance styles that would eventually influence his own choreography. He would spend the second World War touring the Pacific Theater in a show called Tough Situation. Fosse often said that his time performing for the military was when he honed his performance skills.

Following the war, Fosse moved to New York to continue his dream of becoming the new Fred Astaire. While there, he caught the eye of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis who contracted Fosse and his wife at the time, Mary Ann Niles, to appear on the Colgate Comedy Hour. Their success on television led to Fosse securing a MGM contract in 1953. He appeared on the silver screen multiple times, but his performance in the movie musical Kiss Me Kate led directly to his success later in life. The short dance sequence in which Fosse appeared was choreographed by himself, and caught the attention of Broadway producers.

Fosse found himself cashiered from the Hollywood spotlight in 1954. While the history books say that it was due to “typecasting,” it was in reality due to early balding. His lack of hair made him undesirable at the time, and he lost his contract with MGM. This turned out for the best, as he was being sought out by Broadway producers. Fosse took the leap to the stage, where he would change the face of dance as a choreographer. Fosse’s first stage work was The Pajama Game. It was with this musical that he would begin to develop his trademark style of jazz that is instantly recognizable. Knocked-knees, pigeon-toes, slumped shoulders, shuffling steps, bowler hats – they all appeared in his unforgettable number Steam Heat. These innovations in style, heightened by a dramatic sense of sexuality, were the culmination of Fosse’s early childhood training, his personal peculiarities (such as his bald head and his dislike of his hands), his time on the Vaudeville circuit, his rebelling against Hollywood conventions, and his own personal need to push the boundaries of dance.The result: one of the most technically challenging, aesthetically pleasing, and recognizable styles of jazz and musical theater dance to ever grace the stage.

Fosse would continue to create works for Broadway, and his choreography and vision would eventually bring him back to Hollywood for countless screen-adaptations and original works. He would work with Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Doris Day, and Dustin Hoffman, to name a few big stars. Fosse’s work would net him 9 Tony Awards, 3 Oscar nominations, 1 Academy award for direction, and 1 Emmy. He is the only person to have ever received all three award in the same year! Fosse created an amazing body of work that graced the stage, the silver screen, and television. He developed a brand new style of dance that continues to challenge dancers today the world over.


Bob Fosse’s Steam HeatThe Pajama Game (1957)


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5) Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) – Choreographer & Director, Stage/Television/Film; Ballet Master, New York City Ballet

Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz (later Robbins) was born in the heart of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His family had many show business connections, and he was surrounded by artists. Robbins began his college education at New York University in Chemistry, but dropped out after one year to pursue dance. He studied at the New Dance League, receiving ballet training from Ella Daganova, Antony Tudor, and Eugene Loring. He would expand his training with lessons in modern, Spanish, and folk dance styles.

By the end of the 1930’s, Robbins was appearing regularly in the chorus of Broadway shows. He appeared in the 1940 production of Keep Off the Grass, where he worked with George Balanchine for the first time (Balanchine choreographed for the show). In 1940, Robbins decided to refocus his efforts from theater to ballet, and joined Ballet Theatre. Can you guess what that company’s name eventually became?

That’s right, American Ballet Theatre.

Robbins performed as a soloist with the company for three years, where he gained attention for his dramatic abilities. It wasn’t long, however, before he was drawn back to theater. With the success of choreographers like Agnes de Mille, who had integrated dance into the drama of musicals, Robbins felt compelled to challenge his own choreographic chops. His first foray into theatrical dance was Fancy Free, a ballet about three sailors on liberty. It was a huge success! It was also the foundation for a long and prolific association with a, then unknown, composer Leonard Bernstein. Like a modern day Petipa and Tchaikovsky, Robbins and Bernstein would together create some of the most stunning music and dance moments of the 20th century.

What Bob Fosse was to jazz dance and pop culture, Jerome Robbins was to ballet. Robbins’ expertise in theatrical dance and ballet blended to create some of the most technically impressive, visually pleasing, and emotionally exhilarating dance pieces in musical theatre and movie history. Robbins brought ballet to the masses, cleverly disguised as frothy theater. But the dance community was not fooled. Robbins continued to split his work between theater and ballet for two decades – creating works for ABT and the Joffrey Ballet while also making a huge splash in Hollywood and on Broadway.

In 1972 Robbins was asked to join New York City Ballet as Ballet Master. He would work alongside his dance idol, George Balanchine until Balanchine’s death in 1983. The two choreographers, while sharing a mutual respect, were very different sides of the same coin. Where Balanchine was prolific, Robbins obsessed about each dance piece to the point of near-stagnation. Where Balanchine’s choreography was minimalist in nature, Robbins’ works ran the gamut from dramatic to comedic and married technique with acting. Together, Robbins and Balanchine gave America’s finest ballet company one of the world’s finest repertoire.

Following Balanchine’s death, Robbins continued to work alongside NYC Ballet Director Peter Martins as a Co-Director. He staged his last ballet, Les Noces, in 1998 before dying two months later at the age of 80. Jerome Robbins bridged the gap between classical and popular dance, creating his own vision of a dramatic contemporary ballet style. His ability to marry emotion, movement, and music brought joy and humor to millions of people the world over.


Jerome Robbins Retrospective – New York City Ballet

So there you are! Five dance icons. Five dance legends. Five giants that shaped not just dance, but how we view the world. But, let’s not get mired in the past. Let’s look towards the future! Join California Ballet on March 22, 2014 as we explore new works of the choreographers of the 21st century:


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