Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame
Dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney in appreciation of their sponsorship and establishment of the National Museum of Dance, the Hall of Fame honors innovators who have made outstanding contributions to American professional dance across all genres. More than fifty choreographers, dancers, artistic directors, designers, composers, and critics are recognized, with two dance pioneers now inducted each year, one living and one posthumous.
Carolyn Adams | Mindy Aloff | Nora Ambrosio | Karole Armitage Ella Baff | Gil Boggs | Donnie Burns | Lucinda Childs | Andra Corvino Ernesta Corvino | John R. Crawford-Spinelli | Terry Creach | Alberto del Saz Tory Dobrin | Anton Gazenbeek | Marc Happel | Phyllis Lamhut | Robert Maiorano Peter Martins | Mark Morris | Norton Owen | Charles L. Reinhart | Jay Rogoff Patricia Wilde | Cathy Young | Elizabeth Zimmer
Hall of Fame Inductees
Carmen de Lavallade (1931-)
The extraordinary career of Carmen de Lavallade has spanned more than seven decades in the arts. A dancer, choreographer, and actor, she was born and raised in Los Angeles where she trained and made her professional debut at age seventeen with the Lester Horton Dance Theater. Her career in dance includes ballets created for her by Lester Horton, Alvin Ailey, Glen Tetley, John Butler, Agnes de Mille, and her husband Geoffrey Holder. She was a principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera and guest artist with numerous companies including American Ballet Theatre. She has choreographed for Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Metropolitan Opera. She appeared in ten feature films and has had an extensive acting career in the theater including the Yale and American Repertory Theaters and Broadway and off-Broadway productions. In 2014 she premiered As I Remember It, a dance-theater work about her life and career in which she performed and toured for two years. Widely lauded for her contribution to the arts, her many honors include the Dance Magazine Award (1964), Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from The Julliard School (2007), Duke Ellington Fellowship Award (2010), Dance USA Award (2010), and a Kennedy Center Honor (2017).
Sir Frederick Ashton (1904-1988)
Renowned choreographer and dancer Sir Frederick Aston is among the most influential dance makers of the twentieth century. Born in Ecuador, he spent his childhood in Peru. As a teenager in London he studied with Léonide Massine and Marie Rambert who gave him his first opportunities as a choreographer. He joined Ida Rubinstein's company in Paris where he was greatly influenced by choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. In England he choreographed and danced for the Rambert Company and pursued a successful career as a dancer in musicals and revues. In the 1930s he became Resident Choreographer and in the late 1940s Associate Director of Ninette de Valois' Vic-Wells Ballet in London (now The Royal Ballet) where he had a long and important artistic association with prima ballerina assoluta Margot Fonteyn. In 1963 he succeeded Dame Ninette as Director, a position he held until his retirement in 1970. Ashton also worked in opera for over fifty years. He created nearly one hundred ballets in all, many of which are mainstays of foremost repertories around the world. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1962 and in 1977 became a member of the Order of Merit.
Alfredo Corvino (1916-2005)
Dancer and world-renowned master teacher Alfredo Corvino was born in Montevideo, Uruguay where he studied at the National Academy of Ballet with Alberto Pouyanne. He toured internationally first as a member of the Ballets Jooss beginning in 1940 and later as a soloist with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, among others. He joined the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in 1948 and subsequently became Ballet Master, where he taught for nearly twenty years. He also served as Ballet Master for Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal for ten years beginning in 1993. A highly influential instructor, he was one of the first faculty members in the Dance Division of The Juilliard School where he taught for forty-two years and founded and directed his own school, the Dance Circle, in New York City. Corvino choreographed for and directed the New Jersey Dance Theater Guild for ten years. He served as a panelist to the New York State Council on the Arts and was the recipient of many awards including the 2002 Martha Hill Award for Leadership in Dance. In 2003 he received an Honorary Doctorate from The Juilliard School and in 2005 was awarded the Juilliard Centennial Medal.
Lucinda Childs (1940-)
A leader of the postmodern movement, dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs was born in New York City. She first studied with Hanya Holm, Mia Slavenska, and Helen Tamiris, and while at Sarah Lawrence College continued her training with Merce Cunningham and Bessie Schonberg. She joined the Judson Dance Theater in 1963 where she choreographed and performed several dances by founding members of the collective. In 1973 she formed Lucinda Childs Dance Company for which she has created over fifty works. Her first work in opera was a 1976 collaboration with Robert Wilson and Philip Glass on Einstein on the Beach. She has since choreographed and directed sixteen international opera productions. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979 and since 1981 has choreographed over thirty works for major ballet companies around the world. Childs received the Bessie Award for Sustained Achievement in 2001 and was elevated from the rank of Officer to Commander in France’s Order of Arts and Letters in 2004, and in 2009 received the NEA/NEFA American Masterpiece Award. In 2017, she was awarded the Venice Biennale de la Danse Golden Lion Award and the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Lifetime Achievement Award.
Lewis A. Swyer (1918-1988)
Lewis A. Swyer was one of the Capital Region’s most prominent developers, responsible for several landmark buildings such as the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. A tireless philanthropist, he was deeply committed to civil rights, social justice, education, and environmental conservation. He was also a stalwart patron of the arts as chairman of SPAC and a founding member of the New York State Council on the Arts. Born in Hoosick Falls, New York, Swyer attended Johns Hopkins University and began his career as an actor. He found dance to be the most creative and noble pursuit of all the performing arts and in the mid-1980s established the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame with Marylou Whitney. He believed that the Museum had the potential to help make Saratoga Springs and the region a world center for dance. The Lewis A. Swyer Company oversaw the renovation and reconstruction of the Washington Baths for the Museum, with Swyer himself the driving force behind its completion, contributing both tremendous time and resources. The Museum’s Lewis A. Swyer School for the Performing Arts was built in his honor in 1992 for his perseverance and unwavering vision for the Museum as a site for innovative arts education, collaboration, and creation.
Marylou Whitney (1925-2019)
One of the most vital and consequential philanthropists in Saratoga Springs, Marylou Whitney has dedicated six decades to supporting the community through a vast range of causes including health, wellness, education, social and animal welfare, and thoroughbred racing. Whitney was among the first patrons of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, serving as a longtime trustee and today as honorary chairwoman. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, she began her career as an actress. Her commitment to the arts endured and in the mid-1980s founded the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame with Lewis A. Swyer. Whitney and her late husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, were the lead funders in the campaign to establish the Museum. In 1987, the Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame was inaugurated and named in their honor. Mrs. Whitney was integral in developing important national recognition and support of the Museum in its early years and was a member of the board of directors for two decades, serving as both president and honorary chairwoman. In 2013, together with her husband John Hendrickson, Whitney sponsored the complete renovation and redesign of the Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame.
Gregory Hines (1946-2003)
Gregory Hines, dancer, choreographer, director, actor, and singer, was widely considered the embodiment of modern tap, known for his remarkable virtuosity and innovation, and for connecting the rich history of tap with its future. Born in New York City, he began tapping at age two and by age five was dancing professionally with his older brother Maurice in an act called The Hines Kids. He trained with notable choreographer Henry LeTang and studied the technique of tap masters like the Nicholas Brothers and Teddy Hale. In 1954, he made his Broadway debut with his brother in The Girl in Pink Tights. A four-time Tony Award nominee, he performed to great acclaim in productions such as Eubie!, Comin’ Uptown, Sophisticated Ladies, and Jelly’s Last Jam, for which he won a Tony for Best Actor in 1992. His extensive film and television career included unforgettable roles in The Cotton Club, White Nights, Tap, and Bojangles. In 1989, he created and hosted the Emmy Award-winning Gregory Hines’ Tap Dance in America for PBS. Hines was a vital mentor and teacher to a host of rising tap dancers and an unflagging advocate for the preservation and advancement of the art of tap.
Patricia Wilde (1928-)
Patricia Wilde is regarded as one of the most superlative and important ballet dancers, teachers, and artistic directors of her generation. She began her ballet training with Gwendolyn Osborne in Ottawa, Canada and continued with Dorothie Littlefield and at the School of American Ballet in New York. She performed with the American Concert Ballet, Ballet International, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Ballets de Paris, and the Metropolitan Ballet early in her career. As a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet from 1950 to 1965, George Balanchine created a number of roles for Wilde in ballets such as Raymonda Variations, Square Dance, and Scotch Symphony. Known for her speed and precision, her style became a hallmark of New York City Ballet. She subsequently helped Balanchine establish the school at the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland, and served as Director of the Harkness Ballet School, Ballet Mistress at American Ballet Theatre, and Director of the American Ballet Theatre School. As Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre from 1982 to 1997, she introduced a number of Balanchine masterworks to the company and commissioned over 30 new works.
Mark Morris (1956-)
Mark Morris is among the most significant and prolific choreographers of his time. A native of Seattle, he performed with the companies of Lar Lubovitch, Hannah Kahn, Laura Dean, Eliot Feld, and the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble early in his career, and founded the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980. Revered for his exceptional musicality, innovation, and humor, he has created close to 150 pieces for MMDG, and his choreographed work is included in the repertories of numerous dance companies such as the San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Morris served as the Director of Dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels where he created three of his masterworks, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Dido and Aeneas, and The Hard Nut, and co-founded the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov. He actively conducts music, and directs and choreographs operas for the Metropolitan Opera and The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, among others. In 2001, Morris founded the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, New York, to provide a home for his company, rehearsal space for the community, programs for local children and seniors, and a vibrant school offering dance classes to students of all ages and levels.
Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993)
Rudolf Nureyev was among the most outstanding and influential dancers of his generation. He joined the Kirov Ballet as a soloist in 1958, and defected from Russia three years later while on tour in Paris, establishing great international acclaim and celebrity. In 1962, he joined The Royal Ballet in London as a guest artist, forming an extraordinary partnership with prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn and prompting The Royal Ballet’s golden era. In addition to significantly elevating the role of the male dancer in classical ballet, he is credited with firmly bridging the gap between ballet and modern dance. Throughout his magnificent 35-year career, he was immensely prolific in performance, dancing with companies worldwide, including The National Ballet of Canada, American Ballet Theatre, and the Martha Graham Dance Company, among many others. His numerous masterworks of choreography include The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and La Bayadère. In 1983, he became Director of the Paris Opera Ballet where he continued to dance and choreograph until 1989. Nureyev’s tremendous legacy lives on, not only in his work, but in The Rudolf Nureyev Foundation which he created to continue his vision, promote and advance the art form of dance, and support the health of dancers.
Jacques d’Amboise (1934-)
One of the finest classical dancers of our time, as well as a leader in arts education, Jacques d’Amboise discovered his lifelong passion in dance when he was enrolled in a dance class at age seven. By age 15, he was a member of the New York City Ballet and was promoted to principal dancer by age 17. Throughout his long career, d’Amboise inspired notable choreographers to create some of their best works for him. He also choreographed his own works that are still being performed. While still a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, d’Amboise founded the National Dance Institute in 1976, an organization devoted to exposing children to the art of dance. The National Dance Institute has continued to grow nationally and internationally, providing the opportunity for thousands of children to experience the joy of dancing. d’Amboise believes in the transformative power of dance, and the importance of the arts in every child’s education. An inspiration to many, d’Amboise makes us all feel like dancing!
Gene Kelly (1912-1996)
Gene Kelly was a premiere dancer, actor, singer, choreographer, producer, and director during Hollywood’s golden age of the movie musical. Born in Pittsburgh, PA, Kelly took dance lessons for most of his young life. He also taught and performed with his siblings before moving to the Broadway stage. His success on Broadway led him to Hollywood, where he became one of the most iconic dancers. Kelly created an original, acrobatic dance style that represented the working class, everyday guy – replacing the gentleman in a top hat and tails. He also revolutionized dancing on screen by combining technology and art, inventing a new language for body and camera. His long career of over fifty years includes more than forty-four films of work both on-screen and behind-the-scenes. Some of his more famous films include: Cover Girl (1944), during which he dances with himself using the double exposure technique of filming; Anchors Aweigh (1945), well-known for its dancing scenes with the animated Jerry, the cartoon mouse; Singin’ in the Rain (1952), his most famous role.
Judith Jamison (1943-)
From early childhood in Philadelphia through her college years, Judith Jamison studied modern, classical ballet, Dunham, Horton, and Cechetti techniques, Dalcroze Eurythmics, kinesiology, Labanotation, and many other aspects of dance. Jamison was selected by choreographer Agnes de Mille to star in a piece for ABT, The Four Marys. Soon after, while auditioning with other choreographers she was asked by Alvin Ailey to join his company in 1965. Performing in many of the company’s outstanding works, she is perhaps best known for the 1971 solo Ailey created on her, Cry, which has become an American dance classic. After thirteen years dancing with Ailey she explored working with other renowned companies, starred in the Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies, and even started her own company, The Jamison Project. By 1989 Jamison made her return to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre succeeding Alvin Ailey himself as Artistic Director, a position she held for over twenty years. In this role she continued to choreograph, welcome new artists, and preserve the Ailey legacy. Jamison authored an autobiography and is the recipient of endless awards including a Bessie, a National Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, and Handel Medallion.
Anna Pavlova (1881-1931)
After seeing a performance at Russia’s Imperial Maryinsky Theatre, eight-year-old Anna Pavlova was determined to become a ballerina. Though she was initially refused, by age ten she was accepted into the Imperial school where she trained with Russian ballet greats, including Marius Petipa and Enrico Cechetti, founder of the Cechetti Method. Pavlova’s frail frame, weak ankles, and arched feet defied the popular body type of the era. Despite torment from peers, her unique appearance and dancing style was what gained her quick fame and the eventual title of Prima Ballerina. Revolutionizing not only the visual aesthetics of ballet, Pavlova altered her toe shoes to better support her unfit feet by adding a hard innersole of her own design. At the time others considered this cheating but her ingenuity in fact helped design the modern pointe shoe. Pavlova danced briefly with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, but left to pursue her own interests. She formed her own touring company, was one of the first ballerinas to truly travel the globe, and popularized ballet in the U.S. with her 1914–1917 tour. Pavlova made her permanent home in England where she was a key figure in the development of British ballet.
Ben Vereen (1946-)
Ben Vereen displayed natural dance talent at an early age. He was enrolled at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City where he learned from dance greats like Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins. Vereen made his off Broadway debut as a professional dancer in The Prodigal Son in 1965 at the Greenwich Mews Theater. Soon after he was hired as a dancer under Bob Fosse for Sweet Charity, first in the North American stage tour and later in the film version. Amongst his many Broadway credits he originated roles in Hairand Jesus Christ Superstar. Vereen quickly broke into the world of television and Hollywood film where he advanced his reputation as a true triple threat: an actor, singer, and of course dancer. Vereen is a recipient of multiple Tony, Golden Globe, and Emmy Awards. Later in his career he became a great educator, lecturer, and advocate for the arts. He has served on Ballet Florida’s Board of Directors, as well as on panels for many other renowned arts organizations.
Frederic Franklin (1914-2013)
Frederic “Freddie” Franklin was born in England where he studied classical ballet. His first professional appearance was in 1931 with infamous cabaret dancer Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris. From there he returned home to dance with the Markova-Dolin Ballet, and in 1938 joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He danced as the premier danseur with the company for fourteen years and became ballet master in 1944. Franklin danced with various other companies and set dozens of historic ballets on many more companies. He additionally co-founded the Slavenska Franklin Ballet Company, co-founded the National Ballet of Washington D.C., and later served as artistic advisor to the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Without any attempt to retire, Franklin’s professional career spanned over eight decades as he continued to perform on stage in classic pantomime roles even in his late nineties. Franklin is a recipient of the Capezio Award, a Dance Magazine Award, a Laurence Olivier Award, and was declared a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Oliver Smith (1918-1994)
A Wisconsin native and Penn State graduate, Oliver Smith moved to New York City in his early twenties and began working in theatre. His first notable stage designs were for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Saratoga by Massine in 1941 and Rodeo by de Mille in 1942. By 1944 Smith was working with American Ballet Theatre, and he would become co-director with founder Lucia Chase a year later. Together they led the company until 1980. As Smith continued to guide and design many of ABT’s most famous ballets, he also worked on a number of Broadway hits, Hollywood films and musicals, and operas. He was the recipient of seven Tony awards and twenty-five all together nominations. Smith also taught at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. An interesting aspect of Smith’s work and teaching included his attention to the details of moving scenery within a show, approaching it very much like choreography in its own right. His designs also incorporated notes of not only modern art but uniquely American art that became a trademark not only his work but that of American Ballet Theatre.
Michael Jackson (1958-2009)
At the age of eight, Michael Jackson began his career as a nationally recognized pop performer with his family music group, the Jackson 5. With his four older brothers, he performed music and dance within the then popular Motown aesthetic. As he branched off as a solo music artist in the early 1980s, Jackson also developed a specific, iconic dance artistry. While creating many Billboard Top 100 hits, he also created many popular dance moves. In 1983 during a televised performance Jackson first executed his most popular dance move of all: the Moonwalk, a hip hop illusion that uses fluid, gliding, backwards motion. Later that year he released one of the most recognizable music videos and choreographic phrases of all time for his hit song Thriller. Nearly all of Jackson’s music videos utilized and popularized contemporary jazz, pop and hip hop dance, bringing new interest in dance directly to America’s homes.
Marge Champion (1919-)
Marge Champion grew up amongst Hollywood’s finest and was trained to dance by her father, who also taught Shirley Temple, Gwen Verdon, and Cyd Charisse. As a teenager, Walt Disney hired her as a live action model for Snow White, the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, and the Hippopotamus ballerina in Fantasia. Her dance movements were translated to the animated characters, allowing for more realistic motion. Together with husband, Gower Champion, Marge made many dance appearances in film, on Broadway, and on television. The pair even had their own sitcom The Marge and Gower Champion Show on which they regularly performed song and dance numbers. Marge Champion is the subject of several documentaries, books, and articles, and has received numerous awards for her choreography including an Emmy.
Suzanne Farrell (1945-)
Suzanne Farrell received her early training at the Cincinnati Conservatory for Music. In 1960 she moved to New York City and was admitted to the School of American Ballet with a scholarship from the Ford Foundation. A year later, at the age of sixteen, Farrell became the youngest dancer to join New York City Ballet. Balanchine quickly became enamored with Farrell, promoted her to Principal Dancer by 1965, and created many roles especially for her. Farrell has since always been identified as Balanchine’s primary muse. She left NYCB in 1970 to dance with Maurice Bejart’s Ballet of the 20th Century in Europe. Farrell later returned to NYCB until her retirement from the stage in 1989. She began teaching and invested much of her later career into the preservation of Balanchine’s choreography, passing on his many masterpieces to dozens of other companies. In 2001 Farrell was welcomed by the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. to establish her very own company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet.
Frankie Manning (1914-2009)
Frankie Manning grew up during the Harlem Renaissance. By his teens he was attending the popular dances held at the Savoy Ballroom, a dance hall often credited as the site of Lindy Hop’s creation. There Manning pioneered “air steps,” some of the first and most recognizable aerial moves in swing dance. He soon joined performance group Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers as a lead performer and choreographer. The group toured with jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Cab Calloway and pioneered ensemble swing pieces. They disbanded during WWII, and the popularity of swing dance waned with changing times. After decades working as a postal worker, Manning was sought out by a new generation of Lindy Hoppers. Manning reinvested himself in teaching and advocating swing dance’s resurrection. His birthday (May 26) is celebrated as a Lindy Hop holiday, drawing thousands from all over the world to various festival locations. Known as “the Ambassador of Lindy Hop,” he has contributed choreography, performance, and consultation to many films, programs, and era specific research projects.
Tommy Tune (1939-)
After completing his bachelor’s degree and graduate courses, Texas born and raised Tommy Tune moved to New York City to pursue professional dance. After several years as a chorus dancer, his debut principal role won him his first of an outstanding nine Tony Awards. He has received these awards not only as a performer, but also as a director and choreographer. While continuing with his Broadway career Tune also appeared in multiple television specials and films, choreographed for cruise lines, and even starred in the hit Las Vegas revue, EFX. In 1997, Tune wrote his memoir Footnotes and released his own music record, Slow Dancing. As a tap, jazz, and Broadway icon, Tune famously measures in at six foot, seven inches tall. Out of Houston, Texas, he continues to further his legacy with the Tommy Tune Awards, which annually recognize excellence within high school performing arts.
Edward Villella (1936-)
Edward Villella joined the School of American Ballet at age ten. He bravely paused his dance studies to pursue a college education and eventually received a degree from the New York Maritime Academy where he also excelled at baseball and boxing. After returning to SAB, Villella soon became a member of New York City Ballet and soon after that, a principal dancer. Balanchine created many roles on Villella, including one of his most iconic in the 1960 revival of Prodigal Son. After retiring as a performer, Villella acted as director and various other artistic positions for many ballet companies. In 1986 he founded the Miami City Ballet and served as Artistic Director until 2012. Villella is recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors as well as many other awards and has been featured in numerous television and film productions. He also wrote an autobiography titled Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic.
Peter Martins (1946-)
Peter Martins began his professional dance career with the Royal Danish Ballet where he was a principal dancer. In 1970, George Balanchine invited Martins to join New York City Ballet. With Suzanne Farrell, Martins created one of the most famous partnerships in NYCB history. While he continued to perform as a principal dancer until 1983, Martins was designated Balanchine’s choice for the next Ballet Master early on. He shared the title with others until 1989 when he assumed sole directorship. Martins entered the twenty-first century as the Ballet Master in Chief, Artistic Director, and Chairman of Faculty of the School of American Ballet. He has choreographed over eighty of his own works, yet continued Balanchine’s tradition of integrating new artistry for NYCB by encouraging the works of up and coming choreographers. Martins wrote an autobiography (Far From Denmark), created choreography for several animated films, and was the mastermind behind the popular exercise program: the New York City Ballet Workout, a fitness series utilizing ballet practices made accessible to non-dancers.
Bob Fosse (1927-1987)
As a teenager, Bob Fosse danced in Vaudeville and burlesque acts that exposed him to the sexuality and cynical humor that became branding elements of his later career. He transitioned from there to various Broadway chorus parts and eventually found his breakout role in the MGM movie musical Kiss Me, Kate in 1953. Now integrated into both the Hollywood and Broadway scenes, Fosse turned his focus to direction and choreography. His success as a film and musical director and choreographer, earned him multiple Tony Awards, Academy Awards, and an Emmy Award. Fosse’s choreographic style is one of the most recognizable to date. He embellished preexisting jazz technique with turned in knees and feet, rolling shoulders and wrists, rhythmic snapping, pantomime, and pelvic thrusts. His work used many props, costume pieces, and visual elements such as canes, hats, white gloves, chairs, cigarettes, and a still popular jazz motif: all black attire.
Bill T. Jones (1952-)
Bill T. Jones began dancing at SUNY Binghamton where he also met his artistic partner and companion, Arnie Zane. Jones and Zane formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982 where they began first creating solo and duet works. The company quickly grew with great success and is recognized to this day for its eclectic appearance and content. Unlike most other visually uniform companies, BTJ/AZDC welcomes a diverse group of colors, ages, ethnicities, trainings, shapes, and sizes. Jones’ politically aggressive works draw from his personal experiences and larger social concerns including HIV related topics, gay and lesbian themes, social violence, and African-American history. Often recognized for his outstanding intellect, Jones has been featured in dozens of documentaries, publications, talk shows, and news broadcasts like NBC Nightly News and the Today Show. He has received at least eight honorary doctorates and won a Tony Award for his Broadway production Fela! In 2010 he oversaw the merger of his company with the iconic NYC performance space, Dance Theatre Workshop, to create a new model for large-scale arts organizations.
Arthur Murray (1895-1991) and Kathryn Murray (1906-1999)
Arthur Murray became a dance instructor after winning a waltz contest at age seventeen. He began formal dance studies under ballroom celebrities Irene and Vernon Castle. Murray went on to major in business administration at Georgia Tech but continued teaching dance in the midst of his studies. After marrying Kathryn Kohnfelder, a former student, the pair established a mail-order business selling dance lessons. He developed a standardized teaching model and, more uniquely, a business model that revolutionized the dance industry. The lessons were administered by cut out footprints, print manuals, and popular music recordings. Becoming an iconic dance duo in their own right, the pair hosted The Arthur Murray Dance Party for over a decade: a popular 1950s television program that exhibited current dance trends and guest entertainers. Always business minded, the Murrays established a dance school that later developed into a highly successful franchise. Arthur Murray Dance Studios have been established at thousands of locations and is the second oldest franchise in the United States.
New Dance Group
The New Dance Group was founded in 1932 by a group of seven students from Hanya Holm’s studios. These dancers were dedicated to a philosophy of social change based in dance studies and dance development. They stressed an atmosphere of tolerance, both socially and artistically. The New Dance Group School welcomed students regardless of race, religion, or financial capabilities and became a well-recognized supporter of the Jewish community. The school offered programs in all genres of dance, held discussion forums to build educated dancers, and heralded the use of improvisation. The School supplied dancers for the many performances spawned by the company and fueled the creative needs of many struggling choreographers. While countless dancers and choreographers traveled through The New Dance Group’s four decades of activity, some of its most well-known participants include Anna Sokolow, Talley Beatty, Jean Erdman, Pearl Primus, Sophie Maslow, Daniel Nagrin, and Charles Weidman.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Igor Stravinsky’s reputation as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century began with his work for Sergei Diaghilev’s company Ballet Russes. A Russian defect, Stravinsky moved to France along with the other leading artists of the time where he composed many of his most well-known pieces. In 1913, Le Sacre du Printemps, or the Rite of Spring (both the music and the accompanying ballet), stunned audiences with its debut performance resulting in riots and protests. This work, as well as his others of the same period, revolutionized music composition for generations to come. He later moved from France to the U.S. where he found his most significant dance collaboration: that with George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet. While experimenting with Romantic, Neoclassic, and Serialist composition styles, over thirty of his pieces would be used in NYCB repertory, as well as the repertory of dozens of other companies beyond that.
Edwin Denby (1903-1983)
Edwin Denby was born in China to a U.S. diplomat and grew up between Asia, Vienna, and the United States. He studied various topics at Harvard but received a final degree at the University of Vienna in gymnastics and modern dance. Before returning to the U.S. he danced professionally, though briefly, for several European companies. He began his writing career for the magazine Modern Music which led to his position at the New York Herald Tribune as the lead dance critic. Denby returned to the U.S. at the same time George Balanchine made his first arrival; coincidently he had seen Balanchine’s early choreography for Ballet Russes while still in Europe. Denby’s career overlapped with the heights of other artists including Graham, Robbins, and Cunningham, marking him as an important and well-timed voice. His interest in dance was indiscriminant, allowing him a vast knowledge of dance and a wide scope of content to relay to his audiences. Denby published two dance criticism volumes, several works of poetry and prose, and countless critiques. In addition to his writings, Denby was also a poet, arts patron, actor and dancer.
Léonide Massine (1895-1979)
Léonide Massine was discovered in Moscow where he received ballet training at the Bolshoi Theatre. He started dancing with the Ballet Russes in 1914 when the company began many of its most extensive, far-reaching tours. Massine’s later work was heavily influenced by their travels, especially those of Spain. Showing artistic promise early on, he was designated as one of the Ballet Russes’ principal choreographers. After company founder Sergei Diaghilev’s death, Massine played a significant role in cementing the Ballet Russes’ legacy via its daughter companies Colonel De Basil’s Ballet Russe and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Massine created the first symphonic ballet, much to the dismay of musical purists, but continued to choreograph to large-scale symphonies from there. Massine also made multiple appearances in film, including the Hollywood classic The Red Shoes.
The Nicholas Brothers
Fayard Nicholas (1914-2006)
Harold Nicholas (1921-2000)
As young children the Nicholas Brothers began their careers in the Vaudeville circuit and jazz clubs. Their parents were jazz musicians that brought them along to performances where the brothers were introduced to the dance and music styling of the Harlem Renaissance. The boys developed their dance technique by watching other shows: they were completely self-taught. While still performing alongside jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, they were signed with Twentieth Century Fox and began significant Hollywood careers. The Nicholas Brothers’ dancing style is often referred to as “flash dance,” a jazz-tap-acrobatics fusion. One of their most famous moves was “no-hands splits,” where they would leap over one another into full splits and then get up without use of their hands.
Trisha Brown (1936-2017)
Trisha Brown worked with the other artists of Judson Dance Theater, ushering in the post-modern dance movement of the 1960s. True to the post-modern mission, her work questioned the definition of dance movement and the prior limitations of choreography. Brown created “equipment pieces” that involved the use of harnesses, trees, buildings, and the scaling of walls. Her work was some of the first that intentionally and greatly utilized improvisation as part of the choreography. Brown’s pieces use geometric patterns and pedestrian movements, though she has implemented use of traditional dance techniques as well. She was the first female choreographer to receive a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Genius Award and has been the recipient of many of the most prestigious arts awards pertaining to dance.
Robert Joffrey (1930-1988)
Robert Joffrey studied ballet and modern dance in 1940s New York City. After making his professional debut as a dancer, he taught at the New York High School for the Performing Arts. In 1954 he founded his own company, which after several slight name changes, came to be known simply as The Joffrey Ballet. The company moved from New York City, to Los Angeles, to its final home in Chicago. Joffrey’s choreography made an immediate splash as the first to incorporate rock music and special effects into classical ballet. He pioneered the use of elaborate lighting, film and projection, modernized costumes and unitards, and other contemporary concepts. The Joffrey Ballet became the subject of the very first episode of the Dance in America series on television, the first and only company to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, and the first American company to visit Russia. Joffrey himself was actively involved in the preservation of the premier repertory of the twentieth century including Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring and Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe.
Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993)
Alwin Nikolais studied music, theater, puppetry, and other performing arts as a child. Many of these talents showed through in his professional choreography. Nikolais was a student of and assistant to Hanya Holm, and also studied at Bennington College with the other greats of modern dance. As he became an independent artist he quickly developed his philosophy of “total theater,” where he viewed dancers as smaller elements of a greater environment and sought to eliminate the complications produced by individual personalities. Nikolais is often referred to as the “father of multimedia” as he was the first choreographer to largely apply new technologies to his compositions. He explored light, shape, color, sound, projection, and other theatrical elements and how they would affect choreography and technical dance. Nikolais used elaborate costumes and sets to challenge the dancer and the choreography.
Barbara Karinska (1886-1983)
A Russian defector, Barbara Karinska was the daughter of a successful textile manufacturer and grew up learning the art of Russian embroidery. While in Paris she made her first dance costumes for the fledgling company Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She met George Balanchine in 1933 and later became the costume designer for the New York City Ballet from 1949 to 1977. She dressed over seventy-five ballets and created nine thousand costumes for the company. In addition to New York City Ballet, she worked with many other renowned choreographers including Frederick Ashton and Agnes de Mille. Her costumes were characterized by intricate detail, daring yet not always dance-friendly use of material, and unique design elements for her time. With Balanchine she also developed a revolutionary new tutu style and construction method. She won an Academy Award for her work in the 1948 movie Joan of Arc.
Arthur Mitchell (1934-2018)
Harlem-born Arthur Mitchell was accepted into the School of American Ballet after graduating from the High School for Performing Arts. He soon after became the first African-American principal dancer in the New York City Ballet. Balanchine created many of his most famous pieces on Mitchell, who danced with the company until 1966. Spurred by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Mitchell returned to Harlem with intentions of starting a classical ballet school. Within months there were hundreds of students enrolled and not long after, Mitchell created a professional company in conjunction with the school: Dance Theatre of Harlem. The company and school’s main mission was to offer children—particularly those of disadvantaged backgrounds in the Harlem community—an opportunity to dance.
Anna Sokolow (1910-2000)
Anna Sokolow was a student of Martha Graham and Louis Horst and eventually became a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Sokolow later started her own company and worked with the New Dance Group and the Workers Dance League. As her career matured, she became extremely involved with the development of modern dance in both Mexico and Israel. Sokolow’s work was designed to be a social and political commentary. She embraced the idea that dance could be much more than just entertainment. She drew material from her own roots as a Jewish-American, from her travel experiences, from the isolating effect of urban living, and from the rising tension exhibited by the youth population of her time. Sokolow used jazz music in a unique way, championed the use of stillness within dance movement, and incorporated speaking into her choreography. She also worked on a range of Broadway pieces and was a prominent member of the Julliard faculty for several decades.
José Limón (1908-1972)
Mexican-born artist José Limón first studied fine art at UCLA and then moved to New York to pursue a career in painting. Limón was awestruck by his first encounter with modern dance and quickly realized that this was his path. He enrolled at the Humphrey-Weidman school where he met his lifelong mentors Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. When it came time to form his own namesake company, Limón invited Humphrey to act as the first artistic director, making the José Limón Dance Company the first to have a separate founder and artistic director. Limón choreographed over seventy works up until his death. He developed a distinctive modern technique still widely practiced today and served as a significant faculty member at the Julliard School’s Dance Division. His work helped to further legitimize male dance roles while investigating many multicultural, historic, and literary themes.
Paul Taylor (1930-2018)
Paul Taylor began dancing in his early twenties, after transferring from Syracuse University to the Julliard School. Despite his late start, Taylor was quickly recruited by Martha Graham to become a soloist in her company while he choreographed works for a small troupe of his own on the side. After dancing with Graham for seven years, Taylor left to concentrate on the development of The Paul Taylor Dance Company. When he retired as a performer in 1974 he devoted himself entirely to choreography. Taylor has created over one hundred thirty pieces for his own company and for many others, including New York City Ballet at George Balanchine’s personal request. The topics of Taylor’s choreography have proven eclectic. He has produced many pieces for the pure beauty of movement as well as many socially conscious works that touch on topics like incest, marital rape, and religious zealotry. In 1993 he created Taylor 2, a junior company to represent the next generation of dance.
Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972)
Bronislava Nijinksa was born into a Russian performing arts family. Like her famous brother, Vaslav Nijinksy, she was trained at the Imperial Ballet School. Her early professional career was spent with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, where she received her first starring role by default when the scheduled ballerina failed to arrive on time. As the company matured, she began to choreograph and eventually created several works, earning her recognition as ballet’s first prominent female choreographer. Nijinska’s repertory upheld Ballet Russes’ reputation as a forward-thinking company by using humor, sexuality, and both contemporary and historical concepts. After she parted from Diaghilev in 1925, she created her own company and then traveled the world working with various groups in Buenos Aires, Paris, and Hollywood. Eventually settling in the United States, Nijinska was a key contributor to the expansion of ballet education in America, and brought her choreography to its earliest companies. She is also widely considered the founder of neoclassicism in twentieth century ballet.
Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)
Merce Cunningham was discovered in his early twenties while studying dance in Seattle, Washington. Martha Graham invited him to join her company, where he danced as a soloist for six years. After presenting several of his own solo works, he founded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953. His choreography was groundbreaking and every bit controversial as he challenged traditional boundaries of the music/dance relationship. With his artistic and life partner, musician John Cage, he approached musical scores and movement sequences as independent artistic elements, often not piecing them together until the moment of performance. He introduced the artistic philosophy of using “chance procedures,” allowing fate to make finer decisions of choreography such as space, time, and repetition. He welcomed artistic collaborations with figures like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman, and Andy Warhol. His love of innovation led him to investigate new technologies. Cunningham used computer programs, motion-capturing devices, and webcasts to further develop dance.
Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)
Ailey started his dance career as a student and company member under Lester Horton. In 1958 he founded his own company: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. From the beginning he embraced diversity in all facets of the company. Though predominately African American, his dancers were selected on a basis of talent, never ethnicity, creating a distinctly multi-racial group. Much of his work contained African American themes and was derived from his own personal history, but he also choreographed purely aesthetic works as well as pieces commissioned for other companies, including American Ballet Theatre. In maintaining artistic diversity, he also welcomed many other choreographers to contribute works to his company. Ailey fused together many dance aesthetics to assemble what became his unique style and like his mentor, Horton, implemented a similar cross-genre education plan at the Ailey School. Students at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center study Horton and Graham techniques, African dance, and classical ballet.
Jerome Robbins (1918-1998)
Jerome Robbins began dancing professionally in some of George Balanchine’s early Broadway works. His return to ballet training and performing led him to join American Ballet Theatre in its formative years. As Robbins transitioned from a soloist dancer to a choreographer, he created some of the most borrowed and beloved ballets in American dance. After his time with ABT, Robbins joined New York City Ballet, where he was made Associate Artistic Director in 1949. After he took a small hiatus to direct his own short-lived company, Ballet: USA, he eventually returned to NYCB as Ballet Master in the mid 1960s. Amidst his prominent ballet career, Robbins returned to his roots in Broadway to choreograph many classics including The King and I, West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof. His work on Broadway and his many film adaptations won him numerous awards including several Tonys, Academy Awards, and the Kennedy Center Honors.
Busby Berkeley (1895-1976)
Busby Berkeley was born into a well-connected Hollywood family and started acting at an early age. He began his adult career as a Broadway dance director during the 1920s which acted as a short precursor to his major successes as a Hollywood film choreographer and director. Despite a lack of significant dance training, Berkeley took a firm approach to choreography and film composition from the start. His work focused largely on geometric patterns, producing what is often described as a kaleidoscope effect. He created various techniques such as the “parade of faces” (a quick close up of each chorus dancer’s face) and the “top shot” (scenes shot from overhead angles to reveal new choreographic illusions). Berkeley often created elaborate dance scenes that referenced otherworldly environments and what seemed to be limitless depth of stage. He pioneered the application of dance in film, while bringing to attention the distinctive artistic differences and potentials between film and live stage performance.
Lucia Chase (1897-1986)
While studying theatre at the New York Theatre Guild School, Lucia Chase took up ballet. She quickly identified dance as her true passion and trained to a serious degree with dance masters like Mikhail Mordkin and Michel Fokine. In 1939 she became the primary founder and champion of American Ballet Theatre. During many years of instability Chase contributed much of her own personal fortune to build, maintain, and set the future for this prominent American ballet company. She shared the title of Artistic Director with Oliver Smith for forty years, while also dancing as part of the company. Chase was ABT’s first principal dancer and set the distinctive theatrical tone for the company. She welcomed dozens of choreographers to contribute to American Ballet Theatre’s repertory including Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, Leonide Massine, and George Balanchine. Chase was featured in several dance films and received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.
Hanya Holm (1898-1992)
Hanya Holm is equally recognizable as a dance choreographer and a dance educator. Her early training came from Mary Wigman, the same woman who sent her to America from Germany for the precise purpose of establishing a school in their technique. While Holm worked as a choreographer in modern dance, Broadway, television and opera, she also pushed the evolution of dance education in the United States. She was one of the founding teachers at Bennington College, where the American Dance Festival originated. Holm eventually taught at several other universities as well. She is considered, along with Graham, Humphrey, and Weidman, to be one of the “Big Four Choreographers” who created modern dance in America. Setting a new precedent for artistic ownership Holm’s choreography for the musical Kiss Me, Kate was the first copyrighted dance work in the U.S.
John Martin (1893-1992)
John Martin’s career as a dance critic was preceded by positions as an actor, theatre director, publicist, and editor. When he first began writing for The New York Times, the field of dance criticism was nearly nonexistent. Most reviews were written by theatre and music critics who rarely focused on the actual choreography or dancing. Martin’s arrival at The New York Times also coincided with the arrival of the founding generation of American modern dance. Prior to his writing, many audiences were intimidated by this new style. Martin’s writing trained audiences to view new dance with an open mind as much as it expected quality artistry from the company at hand. His reviews were met with great acclaim for their strong modern focus and his development of not only a modern but also a general dance criticism vocabulary. Throughout his career he guest lectured at leading dance institutions, wrote four significant books on dance, and taught at the university level. In his late career he shifted focus to include more ballet content, but is recognized to have had strongly well-rounded tastes in all genre of dance.
Antony Tudor (1908-1987)
Antony Tudor began dancing with Ballet Rambert in England in 1928. There he not only danced principal roles, but choreographed for the company as well. With other former Rambert dancers he created the London Ballet in 1938, but it quickly disbanded with the onset of World War II. A year later, Tudor and friends were invited to the U.S. to become part of Lucia Chase’s company: American Ballet Theatre. He brought with him many of his early pieces, which were restaged and adapted, to ABT’s repertory. He acted as resident choreographer for ABT for over a decade. After retiring as a performer, Tudor held positions on the faculty of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, The Julliard School, U.C. Irvine, and acted as Artistic Director for the Royal Swedish Ballet. As he continued to choreograph, many of his later works still found a home with ABT, and his work is included in their yearly repertory to this day. Tudor is an influential figure who brought modern, psychological concepts to classical ballet.
Fred Astaire (1899-1987)
Fred Astaire made famous use of tap, ballroom, ballet, and jazz. He began dancing alongside his sister, Adele, in a popular childhood Vaudeville act. After Adele retired from show business, he transitioned alone to Hollywood. Then with frequent on-screen partner, Ginger Rogers, he popularized music and dance sequences in commercial films. Their movie Top Hat was number one at the box office in 1935. “Fred and Ginger,” as they are commonly known, are recognized as one of the most iconic duos in the history of cinema. Astaire also instituted many innovative practices in dance filmography. One of the most significant was his insistence that the camera remained fixed at a forward viewing perspective. This allowed the choreographed section to be seen in its entirety without interruption from viewpoint changes or panning motions. He also required that dance was used to convey part of the story line in each film and that it was not misused as tangent embellishment.
George Balanchine (1904-1983)
After an early career in Europe, George Balanchine came to America in 1933 at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein. Together they co-founded the School of American Ballet in 1934 and the New York City Ballet in 1948. Balanchine created over four hundred works not only for ballet, but also Broadway, Hollywood film, opera, and the circus. Balanchine was a key figure in the application of modernism to classical ballet and was often affiliated with the creation of the “Neoclassic” movement. He partnered with masters of many other crafts to procure the finest artistic elements to complete his ballets. Composer Igor Stravinsky was one of the most iconic Balanchine collaborators, having sourced the music for almost forty of “Mr. B’s” pieces. Balanchine was also instrumental in the shaping of the contemporary ballet-body type. This physique emphasizes long lines, flexibility, speed, and strength since his choreography and technique required a new level of athleticism from both male and female dancers.
Agnes de Mille (1905-1993)
Agnes de Mille was raised into show business by her famous Hollywood family. Her failed hopes of becoming an actress or a dancer led her to become a choreographer. De Mille choreographed for Hollywood films, Broadway musicals, television specials, and various ballet companies (notably Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and American Ballet Theatre). It was in 1939 that she was invited to join American Ballet Theatre’s opening season, starting a creative collaboration that would continue for many years. In 1940, she set her ballet Black Ritual, which was one of the first ballets to prominently feature black dancers in a white company. Within Hollywood and Broadway she revolutionized the use of dance as a plot device. Much of her work contained distinctively American themes. De Mille also authored many dance related books, including an autobiography.
Isadora Duncan (1887-1927)
Isadora Duncan is widely recognized as the founder of modern dance. Her aversion to ballet was due to the rigid, restricting qualities of its technique and instructional process. Duncan’s aesthetic emphasized organic movement, nature oriented themes, improvisation, and emotion. In pursuit of a fitting creative environment, she moved abroad where she also spent much of her late career. European audiences gave her fame and celebrated her influence on dance and on other artists. There she also founded her first of many schools, and informally adopted her dancers, lending them her last name and dubbing them the “Isadorables.” Duncan stressed the importance of the training process and dance experience over public, structured performances. Her technique incorporated skipping, running, and fluid motion, and she championed the most recognizable trend of the modern dance movement: bare feet.
Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)
Katherine Dunham began dancing and teaching as a teenager. At the University of Chicago, Dunham studied dance and anthropology eventually achieving a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate when higher education was not widely accessible to African Americans. With her research she revolutionized dance anthropology as a clear means of social and artistic analysis as well as an officially recognized course of study. Later, Dunham traveled to Haiti and other Caribbean islands to explore the roots of Afro-Caribbean and African American culture through dance. She was particularly interested in Voudoun, or Voodoo, culture, eventually even becoming a recognized high priestess. In addition to her anthropological studies, she founded the The Katherine Dunham Company, worked on Broadway, toured abroad, appeared in films, and established several schools for disadvantaged inner-city youth. Throughout all of these ventures, Dunham created contemporary, artistic choreography using elements of folk and indigenous dance.
Martha Graham (1894-1991)
Martha Graham was inspired to dance after seeing a performance by Ruth St. Denis, and subsequently joined the Denishawn School and Dance Company. After eight years under the tutelage of St. Denis and Ted Shawn, she parted ways to pursue her own aesthetic. The Martha Graham Dance Company was officially founded in 1926 making it the oldest surviving dance company in the nation. As a first-generation modern dancer, Graham developed not only her own choreographic philosophies, but her own dance technique. Her work was based on physical impulse spurred by human emotion. Many of her pieces focus on her love of the American West, while others borrow from the theater of the Orient. Graham performed on stage into her late seventies and continued to teach and choreograph up until her death. Her pupils include dance greats such as Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and countless others.
Doris Humphrey (1895-1958)
Doris Humphrey attended the Denishawn School of Dance where she trained, taught, and choreographed. With fellow Denishawn dancer Charles Weidman, she left the school to pursue her own dance interests. She developed the “fall and recovery method,” which became a more substantial body of movement based on the physical influence of gravity. Yielding to gravity and quickly coming to the upright position became key elements of her teachings and choreography. After the Humphrey-Weidman Company disbanded and she retired as a dancer, Humphrey accepted the position of Artistic Director for the José Limón Dance Company. She held positions on the original faculty for the prestigious dance programs of The Bennington School of the Dance and The Julliard School. Humphrey also wrote a book, The Art of Making Dances, which was not published until after her death.
Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996)
Lincoln Kirstein grew up in a wealthy setting that allowed him an early and rich understanding of the arts as well as a Harvard education. His first experience with dance was at a performance by ballet star Anna Pavlova, which inspired him to investigate the art form further. While abroad he attended several performances of the Ballets Russes where he first met George Balanchine. Kirstein quickly invited Balanchine to the U.S. with intentions of establishing an American ballet tradition. Together they founded the School of American Ballet and, eventually, the New York City Ballet. Kirstein was also author to hundreds of books, articles, poems and critiques. His personal collection of artifacts and library materials were donated to become the basis of the Dance Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. In addition to his role as NYCB’s General Director, he commissioned fine art works from numerous artists, and arranged for several exhibitions of Japanese art and culture selections to be brought to the United States. While enlisted in the 1940s, he assisted General Patton’s Third army in the retrieval of art work previously looted by the Nazis.
Catherine Littlefield (1905-1951)
Catherine Littlefield was born into an arts oriented Philadelphian family. After receiving her early dance education from her mother, Littlefield danced for Ziegfeld on Broadway as a teen. Upon her return home, she founded her own dance company which eventually became The Philadelphia Ballet. This company was the first to consist of entirely American-trained dancers. Her school and company eventually sourced many of the dancers that would become the basis of both Balanchine’s American Ballet (the beginnings of New York City Ballet) and American Ballet Theatre. Her ballets included uniquely American themes, elements, and supportive artists. Upon the outbreak of WWII The Philadelphia Ballet disbanded, as many of her male dancers became enlisted service members. From there, Littlefield turned her interests to more marketable fields like musicals, ice shows, and ballet education. Littlefield was the first choreographer to create ballets on bicycles, as she did at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Her ballets on ice skates were also tremendously popular.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949)
Bill Robinson began performing as a young child at local nightclubs, Vaudeville circuits, and other venues before quitting school by age ten to further pursue dance. He quickly developed his popular staircase routine act and became a regular star of Broadway. Robinson devoted his early career to black venues and audiences. He did not perform for whites until the age of fifty, around the same time he started his film career. He appeared in over a dozen Hollywood pictures and is best known for his roles opposite child star, Shirley Temple. His partnership with Temple marked him as the first African American man to dance on screen with a Caucasian girl. The height of Robinson’s career coincided with the Great Depression, yet he still had a notably profitable career. Though he earned what could have amounted to millions of dollars in his lifetime, he was often broke due to his endless generosity and charity. In 1989 Congress officially declared his birthday (May 25th) National Tap Dance Day. The occasion is still celebrated annually and at a growing international level.
Ruth St. Denis (1877-1968)
Trained in many genres of dance from early childhood, Ruth Dennis started performing professionally in Vaudeville and Broadway acts. As a solo artist with a new name, Ruth St. Denis, she found artistic and spiritual inspiration in exotic cultures, images, and themes. She famously cited a cigarette advertisement depicting an Egyptian Goddess as her first inspiration for the development of a new form of dance-theater. St. Denis married dancer Ted Shawn in 1914 and cofounded with him the Denishawn Dance Company and School. Together they trained the “First Generation” of modern dance, including Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, and Doris Humphrey. St. Denis returned to her mastering of the solo after her separation from Shawn, but remained in touch and involved with his dance endeavors at Jacob’s Pillow. Her visual aesthetic and personal dance technique enforced a high standard of dramatic flair and stage presence.
Ted Shawn (1891-1972)
Ted Shawn began dancing as a teen to regain muscle strength after catching diphtheria. After marrying his wife and artistic partner, Ruth St. Denis, Shawn realized that dance was his professional path. They established the Denishawn Dance Company and School where they were able to choreograph, teach, and develop a new modern technique. Shawn, or “Papa Shawn” as students called him, was responsible for shaping modern dance greats like Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, and Doris Humphrey. In 1930 he purchased a farm in the Berkshires: Jacob’s Pillow. There he established “Ted Shawn and His Male Dancers,” the first company to campaign for strong, reputable dance careers for men. Shawn’s choreography and artistry upheld his vision to showcase masculinity. Jacob’s Pillow has survived to become the oldest and most acclaimed dance festival in the country. The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival welcomes tens of thousands of people annually, includes a series of dance intensives and course offerings, and is the premier showcase for contemporary dance companies worldwide.
Charles Weidman (1901-1975)
Charles Weidman began his career as a dancer in the Denishawn Company. He left the company in 1927 with fellow dancer and iconic partner, Doris Humphrey. Together, they investigated a new American modern dance aesthetic and are recognized as two of the “Big Four” (along with Martha Graham and Hanya Holm). Weidman rejected the rigidity and defiance of gravity found with ballet, as well as the foreign, imaginary, intangible themes of preexisting modern dance. Together with Humphrey, he developed the fall-and-recovery method which is still utilized by most modern techniques today. He also encouraged the investigation of contemporary themes, trends, and technologies. Weidman’s strong legacy lies not only in his technique but his pupils. His students became many of the next generation’s leading dance artists including José Limón and Bob Fosse. He also set a new precedent by encouraging male students to continue training by only charging them for the classes they missed.