Agnes DeMille (1905-1993)

Agnes DeMille (1905–1993) choreographed some of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1940s and 50s, such as Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), and Paint Your Wagon (1951). In 1942, she was asked by The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to create a new ballet for the company, and she choreographed Rodeo (1943), which was a huge success. Following this triumph, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein asked her to choreograph Oklahoma!, which was the first musical to use choreography to advance the story line.

Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948–Present)

Mikhail Baryshnikov trained with the Kirov Ballet in Russia, where he was a principal dancer. In 1974, he defected to the United States and instantly became a star soloist. After dancing for the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and the New York City Ballet, he became the director of ABT in 1980. Under his direction, ABT became a strong, vital company. Baryshnikov broke down the traditional casting system used in the company to give youthful corps dancers a chance at having lead roles. In an effort to integrate modern dance and ballet together, Baryshnikov formed the White Oaks Dance Project and began working as a dancer with modern dance choreographers, such as Twyla Tharp. Her piece, Push Comes to Shove, choreographed for ABT and starring Baryshnikov, was accepted by both the modern dance and the ballet world. Under Baryshnikov’s influence, it has become more acceptable for modern dance choreographers to work with classical ballet companies, and that trend continues today.

Alvin Ailey (1931–1989)

Alvin Ailey, an American dancer and choreographer, is seen as one of leading modern dance artists of the mid-to-late twentieth century. His company, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, was the first black dance company to travel abroad, and he was regarded as a great ambassador for black American modern dance throughout the world. His most famous work, Revelations, is based on black culture in America and is filled with emotion. The movements, music, and costumes used in Revelations  have made it a signature piece for the company. In addition to black themes, Ailey has choreographed many pieces with various subject matters, including that of the American Indian and Irish monks. Ailey integrated his dance company by using white dancers to play traditional black roles, thus breaking down the barriers of race in dance.

George Balanchine (1904–1983)

George Balanchine, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, had one of the strongest influences on American ballet in the twentieth century. Trained at the Imperial School, he began to choreograph a number of experimental works in the 1920s but was not well-received. In 1924, he was permitted to leave Russia, and he soon became the ballet master for Serge Diaghilev in Paris. Following Diaghilev’s death, Balanchine was brought to the United States. After several attempts at establishing dance companies in America, he finally became successful with the formation of the New York City Ballet Company. The company achieved international critical acclaim in 1950 when it was recognized in Great Britain and throughout Europe. Balanchine’s choreographic style, called  neoclassic, took a very clean and simple approach to presentation. Dancers were often dressed in a simple leotard and tights where a long, lean body structure was preferred for the female dancer. During  the 1950s to the 1970s, Balanchine helped the New York City Ballet Company become one of the world’s strongest dance companies with the many dances he choreographed for the company. Some of Balanchine’s most famous ballet works include Apollo, The Prodigal Son, The Four TemperamentsSerenade, and The Firebird I.

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Martha Graham (1894–1991)

Martha Graham was one of the most influential modern dance choreographers, teachers, and dancers of the twentieth century. From 1926 to 1949, she choreographed more than 100 dances. Many of these dances were huge theatrical productions involving innovative movement, creative and sculptural set designs, and newly composed music. They made a fashion statement with innovative costuming and props. Some of the themes used by Graham in her choreography included that of the American Indian, ancient dance ritual, American pioneers, and Greek mythology. She expressed raw emotion and symbolic meaning in her work, which was shocking to audiences who were only used to ballet. In addition, she developed an entirely new method of movement, known today as the Graham Technique. This technique involves the contraction and release of the midsection of the body and the use of the floor in movement and warm-ups. She continued to choreograph new works spanning six decades into the 1980s. These include Appalachian Spring (to music by Aaron Copland), Seraphic Dialogue, and Phaedra, which are some of her most famous works.

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Anna Pavlova (1881–1931)

Anna Pavlova (1881–1931) was known as the finest female ballerina of the time and is one of the most famous dancers in ballet history. She trained in Russia, where she performed for ten years before joining the Ballet Russe in 1909. She was the first Russian ballerina to tour in the United States. One of her most famous roles was that of the Dying Swan, because of its interpretation of the subject through expression and physical technique.

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Vaslav Nijinski (1889-1950)

Vaslav Nijinski (1889–1950) is said to be one of the greatest male dancers of the early 1900s. His ability to leap, jump, and turn left Parisian audiences breathless and contributed greatly to a renewed interest in ballet dancing in France. He joined Diaghileff’s Ballet Russe in 1911 and was the featured male soloist in the company. In addition to being an accomplished technical dancer, Nijinski also contributed to the company with his own choreography. He explored movements in new ways that were not seen before and was a prelude to the modern dance movement that was to follow in the 1920s. Two of his dance works, Afternoon of a Faun and The Rite of Spring, were very controversial for the time and were not widely accepted. Now we realize he was ahead of his time in terms of creating new, modern movement for ballet.

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Serge Diaghileff (1872-1929)

Serge Diaghileff (1872–1929) was not a dancer but was an impresario (producer) of his famous ballet company, Ballet Russe, whose home was first in Paris and later in Monte Carlo. He employed Mikel Fokine and other choreographers and featured the leading dancers of the time. His contribution to ballet was extremely important. He brought together some of the best composers, such as Stravinsky, Debussy, and Satie, and visual artists, such as Picasso, Bakst, and Cocteau, to collaborate on the music, set design, and costumes along with the choreographers and dancers. The end result was a successful, creative effort produced by the Ballet Russe.

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Michel Fokine (1880-1942)

Michel Fokine was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1880. He began taking dance lessons at the Imperial School of Ballet in 1889. He was an accomplished dancer but ultimately became famous as a choreographer. He was dissatisfied with the way ballet had become so stiff and uninteresting. He also felt that the choreography, music, and dancing were not relating to each other in ballets at the turn of the century. His goal as a choreographer was to unite these elements and create meaningful works of art for best work boots for the money. When he traveled to Paris between 1909 and 1914, he began to create his most successful works, including Prince Igor (1909), Les Sylphides (1909), Carnaval (1910), Firebird (1910), Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), Petrouchka (1911), and Le Coq d’Or (1914). He worked with two very talented dancers, Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova, as soloists in many of his new works. He developed a five-point philosophy for ballet production:

  • Dance movement should be appropriate to the music.
  • Movement should move the story of the ballet forward.
  • The entire body, rather than just gestures, should be used in expressing ideas.
  • The dance ensemble on stage should develop the idea of the dance and be part of the plot.
  • The music, scenery, dancing, and costuming should all coordinate, producing a unified work of art.

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