Part V: 20TH Century Choreographers


The revolution in the dance world, seen to have begun with the likes of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis, seems never to have ended, with every new choreographer wishing to outdo his or her predecessors. They do this with their new fusions of movement styles, their shocking concepts and scenarios, or their mind-boggling technological advances in the fields of video, sound and other multimedia.


For me personally it all gets a bit tedious and I could wish that more people would concentrate on making work that one could appreciate for its beauty without having to fight through reams of political commentary, or work which was interested in attracting the general public rather than digging its way further into the grave of artistic progress. But I digress.


After the explosion of modern dance in the early 20th century, the 60s saw the growth of post modernism, which was touched on in the last article with the inclusion of Judson Church. Post modernism veered towards simplicity, the beauty of small things, the beauty of untrained bodies, and unsophisticated movement. The famous ‘No’ manifesto rejecting all costumes, stories and outer trappings in favour of raw and unpolished movement was perhaps the extreme of this wave of thinking. Unfortunately lack of costumes, stories and outer trappings do not a good dance show make, and it was not long before sets, décor and shock value re-entered the vocabulary of modern choreographers.


By the eighties dance had come full circle and modern (or, by this time, contemporary) dance was clearly still a highly technical and political vehicle for many practitioners. Existing alongside Classical Ballet, the two art-forms were by now living peacefully next door to one another with little of the rivalry and antipathy of previous eras. The present time sees us still in the very competitive artistic atmosphere of which choreographer can produce the most shocking work, however, there are still glimpses of beauty to be had, and much incredible dancing in an age where dance technique has progressed further in expertise, strength and flexibility than ever before in history. Go and see some contemporary dance and you’ll see what I mean.


The 20th Century has seen such a burgeoning of talent in choreography that it is even more difficult to narrow one’s focus down to a few key people for the purposes of an article such as this. With fear and trembling I have done so, at the risk of leaving out many who would be considered worthy! Please consult the list at the end of the article for directions for further research. We look at: Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Lloyd Newson, Graeme Murphy, Meryl Tankard



Judson Church

During the early 1960’s, most independent modern dancers struggled to have their work showcased. However, the world of dance dramatically changed with the formation of the Judson Dance Theater. The theater grew out of a dance composition class taught by Robert Dunn, a musician who had studied with John Cage. One significant development to grow from the Judson Church was ‘contact improvisation’, where dancers remain in contact with each other, supporting and balancing on each other, while improvising.

Unlike most dance troupes, the members of the Judson Dance Theater were both trained dancers, as well as, untrained visual artists, musicians, poets, and even filmmakers. In 1962 the theater company gave its first performance, Concert of Dance #1, at the Judson Church. For the next twenty years, the Judson Dance Theater would dominate postmodern dance and have huge impact on other art forms as well.

Part of the success of the theater was due to the conscious effort of its artist to work collectively. This, along with the toleration of artists from a variety of disciplines, contributed to the groups feeling of unity and community.


Summarized from an article by Sarah Doran which can be found at:


Paul Taylor
born July 29, 1930, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania

Critics and audiences all over the world agree that Taylor is a giant among modern dance choreographers. He has developed what is very much his own style of dance--a style that celebrates vigor, athleticism and strength, making Taylor, in a very special sense, an American choreographer.

After growing up around Washington, D.C., Taylor studied painting, but soon switched his attention to dance. He undertook his dance training in earnest at a number of institutions including the Juilliard School of Music Dance Department, and the Martha Graham School.

Taylor established his own dance company in 1954, and even while he was a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1955 to 1962, continued to present his own works in concerts in both the United States and Europe.

Taylor has choreographed more than 90 dances for his own company and his masterpieces, which are known for their wit, warmth, musicality, and excitement, are now also in the repertories of many of the major worldwide modern dance companies.

Taylor's body language always carries an incredible range of motion, emotion, and imagination. Through his choreography, he always comments on the human condition, and most importantly, he always entertains while doing so.

Many now well-known choreographers were once young unknowns in his early troupes--Pina Bausch, Laura Dean, and Twyla Tharp. His 1987 autobiography, Private Domain, was received with wide critical and popular acclaim.


Alvin Ailey

Perhaps the best known American choreographer in many parts of the world, Alvin Ailey  helped to bridge the gap between modern dance and the general public in the United States and abroad.

Ailey moved to Los Angeles in 1942 to study with Lester Horton Dance Theatre in 1953, and after Horton's death stayed with the company as choreographer creating his earliest works in 1954. In 1958 Ailey formed his own company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, of which he served as artistic director from its founding to 1980.

Under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, the company began its world travels with a 13-week tour of Australia and the Far East in 1958 and since that first tour has traveled extensively. From the beginning Ailey sought to reach a mass audience, blending ballet and modern dance, incorporating jazz, primitive, and contemporary forms.

He choreographed pieces for the Joffrey Ballet, the Harkness Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre for which he created The River (1970) and Sea Change (1972). Ailey performed extensively in musical comedies and dramatic shows, in films, and on television. "It is clear that, far from being a choreographer who deals only with folk materials--in this case dance and music of the American Negro--Alvin Ailey must be recognized simply as a major creative artist of our time" (Richard Kraus, History of the Dance in Art and Education).



Twyla Tharp

Tharp graduated from Barnard college in 1963. In 1965 she began assembling a group of dancers which eventually became TWYLA THARP DANCE. The company not only provided a vehicle for Ms Tharp’s choreography, but it illustrated that a well managed dance company can employ its dancers twelve months a year.

Since dismantling the company in 1988, Ms. Tharp has choreographed dances for many of the greatest dance companies worldwide. In 1991 Ms Tharp was invited to become an artist in residence at the Wexner Centre at Ohio State University and in 1992 she published her autobiography. Today, Ms Tharp is busy choreographing, and overseeing and creating work for an ongoing group which tours worldwide.


Excerpts from THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 25, 2000, Tuesday DANCE REVIEW; ‘The Beethoven Seventh': A Standoff in Serene vs. Sensual By ANNA KISSELGOFF

"The Beethoven Seventh," Twyla Tharp's new work... What she has done is to recall that Beethoven spans the eras of Classical and Romantic music…Ms. Tharp illuminates the Classical side, with its attributes of proportion and harmony, and does so through her disciplined structure and stricter-than-usual adherence to ballet's vocabulary.

Those who will be looking for a comic tour de force akin to the solo in which Ms. Tharp turned a classical dancer like Mikhail Baryshnikov into a Tharpist in "Push Comes to Shove" … will find something very different. But when [the dancer] rushes in and swivels on his stomach, this elegant break dance is actually vernacular movement absorbed into the ballet vocabulary.

Here is Tharp the Wise, a mature choreographer no longer making fun of the academic idiom. Like many modern-dance choreographers, she has often sought to explore new movement rather than to accept ballet's 350-year-old classical vocabulary as a given. But "The Beethoven Seventh" is a neo-Classical ballet that meshes with its music.


Mark Morris

Bounding up the stairs backstage at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, balancing a glass of lager and a cigarette, Mark Morris unintentionally displays the exuberant grace that characterizes his choreography. Even with his fullback's girth, the 6-foot-2 Morris seems light on his feet -- "like Fred and Ginger dancing in the same body," one reviewer marveled.

Born and raised in Seattle, Morris fell in love with flamenco when he saw a José Greco show. He was all of eight years old. Later, after a brief apprenticeship as a flamenco dancer, Morris realized that flamenco was too limiting for him and moved to New York at age 19.

Ever since founding his own company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, in 1980, the 40-year-old choreographer has been setting off alarms all around the world with dances exploring an extraordinary range of subjects. Long before multiculturalism became a buzzword, Morris was merrily shoplifting moves from Spanish flamenco and Israeli, Russian and Balinese folk dances. An inspired chameleon, Morris is as much at home with Michelle Shocked's twangy country laments as he is with Handel's shimmering "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato."

Excerpts from an article by Richard Covington found at:


Lloyd Newson

From 1981 to 1985 Newson was a dancer and choreographer with Extemporary Dance Theatre, during which time he worked with a wide range of choreographers, including Karole Armitage, Michael Clark, David Gordon, Daniel Larrieu and Dan Wagoner. In 1986 DV8 Physical Theatre was officially formed in the UK and became Incorporated in 1991. From 1985 until the present the company has delighted in shocking audiences and critics alike with controversial and highly emotive work, to the extent that the front page of their website proudly displays the following quote:

‘We owe it to the community to ensure this sort of thing is not encouraged. We have to protect the public.’ – Ken Blanchard, Tory Councillor

Lloyd Newson's work since 1986 as the Director of DV8 Physical Theatre has had a dynamic impact on contemporary dance by challenging the traditional aesthetics and forms which pervade most modern and classical dance. An important aspect of this challenge is his personal rejection of abstraction in dance with his concentration on connecting meaning to movement and in addressing current social issues.


Graeme Murphy

Murphy has choreographed over forty original works for Sydney Dance Company, including the 1996 production Free Radicals - his twentieth full-length ballet.

Murphy's career began as a dancer with The Australian Ballet. He created his first ballet, Ecco, for a choreographic workshop in 1971. He later danced with the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet), and the Ballets Felix Blaska in France. In 1975 he worked as a freelance choreographer before rejoining The Australian Ballet in early '76 as both a dancer and as a resident choreographer. He was appointed as Artistic Director of The Dance Company (N.S.W.) in November, 1976, alongside Janet Vernon who left The Australian Ballet to join him on this exciting new venture. Both Murphy and Vernon seized the opportunity to build a strong and individual company with a repertoire of orginal works by Australian choreographers and wherever possible, with Australian design and music. In 1987, he was commissioned by the Nederlands Dans Theater to create an original work, Song of the Night, designed by Perth based artist Andrew Carter.

Outstanding projects for Murphy include the creation of Sensing, a unique dance film for ABC-TV, and the premiere seasons and tours of his full length works Fornicon, Berlin, Free Radicals , Salome, and most recently Air & Other Invisible Forces which reviewed its World premiere in Sydney in September 1999 and has toured around Australia.


Meryl Tankard

Tankard is one of the most innovative and adventurous graduates of the Australian Ballet School. In the late 1970’s she joined the Pina Bausch Tanztheater in Germany, returning to Australia in 1982 as one of its leading dance/mime performers. After touring the United States with Pina Bausch, she gathered around her a group of actors and dancers in 1984, choreographing her ballet Echo Point, which was made possible by an Australia Council Grant. She was one of the lead dancers/actors in the television version of A Pack of Women, and in 1987 her dance/acting work Travelling Light was part of the 1987 Spoleto Festival.

Tankard took over the role of artistic director of the Human Veins Dance Theatre in 1989. Between 1989 and 1992 the renamed Meryl Tankard Company created a range of works that reflected Tankard’s highly individualistic style, once described as a cross-art form ‘never merely a vehicle for the display of movement.’ The Meryl Tankard Company was a regular feature at various Australian arts festivals. Tankard left Canberra at the end of 1992 to take on the directorship of the Australian Dance Theatre. She created many successful works for ADT, notably Nuti, Kiki Mora, Songs with Mara and Furioso. Her directorship of ADT was terminated in 1999.


You may also want to look up:

USA: Pilobilus, Momix, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane,

UK: Siobhan Davies, Robert Cohan, Christopher Bruce, Richard Alston, Matthew Bourne,

Europe: Pina Bausch, Mats Ek

Australia: Chrissie Parrot, Leigh Warren, Stephen Page, Cheryl Stock, Wendy Wallace, Graeme Watson, Nanette Hassall, Maggi Sietsma, Kai Tai Chan, Jennie Kinder


Links to worldwide modern dance companies can be found at:


Further information about Post-Modern Choreographers can be found at: