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Your Guide to the Choreographers That Changed Dance

  • By Rio Spelling
  • Published 04/5/2012

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 4 of this series will focus on Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)

Texan born African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey is known as no less than a modern dance genius. The backbone of his unique style was his spiritual and gospel background, along with his desire to enlighten and entertain audiences. In addition to popularising modern dance, Ailey’s legacy was to create a multi-racial dance troupe at a time when modern dancers were mostly Caucasian.

Ailey developed an interest in dance when a friend introduced him to the Hollywood studio of Lester Horton, whose school was the first multi-racial dance studio in the United States. Horton became a major influence to Ailey, providing him with both a solid dance foundation and artistic technique.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was founded in 1958, and to date has performed before millions of people throughout the world. Ailey’s company was unique in that his dancers had trained in a variety of styles, including ballet, modern, jazz and hip-hop.

The many works Ailey went on to develop focused on themes particular to the black experience, with topics such as spirituality and despair. In total, he created 79 ballets during his lifetime – one of his most famous works is ‘Revelations and Cry’. Ailey was inducted posthumously in 1992 into the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame.

Twyla Tharp (1941-present)

Best known for developing a contemporary dance style that combines ballet and modern dance techniques, American dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp’s talent has led to numerous works on Broadway, film, television and print. She earned many awards during her lifetime, including five honorary doctorates.

As a young girl living in California, Tharp enjoyed music and Flamenco dancing, and began ballet lessons at the age of 12. Later, she moved to New York City where apart from towards a degree in art history, she studied at the American Ballet Theater School. She went on to dance with several stellar masters of modern dance, including Erick Hawkins, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.

Following the completion of art history degree in 1963, Tharp joined the famous Paul Taylor Dance Company. Two years later, she formed her own dance company, called Twyla Tharp Dance. Though it was a small company that struggled for the first five years, it grew in prestige as many of its dancers were asked to perform with major ballet companies.

Twarp’s contemporary dance style was distinguished by improvisation (creating spontaneous dance movements). Her signature choreographical style included combining strict ballet technique with natural movements such as running, walking and skipping. It was also characterised by a humorous and edgy quality – Twarp referred to her relaxed style as the “stuffing” of movement phrases, often adding squiggles, shrugged shoulders, little hops, and jumps to conventional dance steps.

In 1988, Twyla Tharp Dance merged with the American Ballet Theatre, which then held world premieres of sixteen of her works. Tharp has also choreographed for several major dance companies, including Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Hubbard Street Dance and Martha Graham Dance Company.


Choreographers Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp 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.

Author Bio: Rio Spelling is a choreography and dance enthusiast



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