Article by Rio Spelling
Your Guide to the Choreographers That Changed Dance – Entertainment – Celebrities
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Choreographers make art using body movement – any ballet or other dance performance requires their magic touch to both create original dances and develop new interpretations of existing works.
As an avid dance enthusiast, I am highly interested in learning about choreography and following the career path of some of the current well-known choreographers such as Craig Revel Horwood, as well as the master innovators who paved their way.
The following guide will give dance fans an exploration of some of the most famous choreographers who set a new standard – Part 2 of this series will focus on Agnes de Mille and Katherine Dunham.
Agnes de Mille (1905-1993)
American dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille contributed greatly to the world of 20th-century dance with impressive choreography for both ballet and Broadway musical theatre. Born in Harlem, she came from a family of theatre professionals, so early on in her life she developed a love for acting. She turned to dance however when she was told that she wasn’t pretty enough to be a successful actress. De Mille was once again disappointed as she did not have a body that displayed the natural flexibility and technique for dance. Her frustration led her to choreograph by watching Hollywood movies, and once she graduated from UCLA she then moved to London to study at Marie Rambert’s Ballet Club.
In 1939 de Mille staged her first ballet, Rodeo, for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was a success, which then earned her the job of choreographing the dream ballet Oklahoma! in 1943. She then went on to choreograph over a dozen other musicals and in 1953, she founded the Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre. De Mille stands out for her unique style, courage and determination in the world of arts.
Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)
Also known as the “matriarch of black dance”, Katherine Dunham was pivotal in helping to establish black dance as an art form in America and the dance company she established pave the way for future famous dance theatres of its kind.
Originally born in Illinois, Dunham’s interest in dance became evident at an early age. Even while in high school, she started a private dance school for young black children. Later, she studied dance and anthropology at the University of Chicago and began dancing at a local playhouse that her brother helped to establish.
Here she met two members of the Chicago Opera Company – choreographer Ruth Page and ballet dancer Mark Turbyfill. The trio later opened a dance studio together, calling their students the “Ballet Negre” to distinguish them as black dancers. Although the school was eventually forced to close because of financial issues, Dunham continued to study dance with her teacher Madame Ludmila Speranzeva and won her first lead in Page’s La Guiablesse in 1933.
On completion of college, Dunham moved to the West Indies to further study anthropology and dance. Her work in the Caribbean led to the creation of the unique Katherine Dunham Technique – a style of dance combining both ballet and modern dance that involved a loose torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs.
When Dunham returned to Chicago she organised a company of black artists dedicated to African-American dance called the Negro Dance Group. In 1939, she moved to New York where she became Dance Director of the New York Labour Stage. The Katherine Dunham Dance Company was formed and began a successful tour, including Broadway. To finance her company without government funding Dunham also earned extra money by appearing in several Hollywood movies.
In 1945, Dunham launched the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre in Manhattan – it offered a range of classes, from dance, drama and performing arts to applied skills, humanities, cultural studies and Caribbean research. In 1947, the school was granted a charter as the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts.
The year 1967 saw Dunham opened the Performing Arts Training Centre in St. Louis, a school designed to turn the city’s youth away from violence and toward dance. In the 1970s she became involved with the First World Festival of Negro Arts. Thanks to her tireless works, Dunham received the Kennedy Centre Honours Award in 1983 and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Choreographers Agnes de Mille and Katherine Dunham revolutionised the world of contemporary dance – with their unique innovation and passion they circumvented difficult obstacles to bring their vision to the public. They also paved the way for modern choreographers such as the UK’s own Craig Revel Horwood to excel in their profession.
About the Author
Rio Spelling is a choreography and dance enthusiast
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