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George Balanchine studied at Russia’s Imperial School of Ballet but left in 1925 to join Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. After Diaghilev’s death, Balanchine co-founded Les Ballets, where impresario Lincoln Kirstein discovered him in 1933. Kirstein convinced him to help organize the School of American Ballet, which evolved into the New York City Ballet in 1948. Once in America, Balanchine also became an important choreographer. His work included Hollywood’s first full-scale ballet in Goldwyn Follies (1938) and on Broadway, such musicals as On Your Toes and Cabin in the Sky. In this photograph, Balanchine holds a drill and a hammer—the tools of an artisanal laborer. It was the process of creation that mattered: “God creates,” he said, “and I assemble.” From 1948 until his death, Balanchine choreographed more than 150 works for the New York City Ballet. Always emphasizing “the visual spectacle,” he proved that America could produce a ballet that was both indigenous and spontaneously brilliant. (George Platt Lynes, 1941; gifted to National Portrait Gallery)
In the 1930s, James Cagney was Warner Bros.’ highest-grossing star. Cagney, a New York City native, mainly played gangsters, but appeared as a hoofer in Footlight Parade and Something to Sing About. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a patriotic film biography of Broadway great George M. Cohan, allowed Cagney to dance full-throttle. He also adjusted his own Irish clog to incorporate Cohan’s idiosyncratic, strutting tap style. The film’s premiere in May 1942 came in the early days of America at war, and reviewers raved about “the spirit of Americanism” that Cohan’s flag-waving music embodied. Cagney’s performance “glowed with energy,” and the film was said to convey “both superb entertainment and inescapable inspiration.” In the final scene, Cagney/Cohan—emerging from a conversation with President Franklin Roosevelt—taps down a marble staircase at the White House. The title tune surges, and hearts swell. Even in black and white, it’s a red-white-and-blue finale. (Continental Lithograph Corporation, 1942; National Portrait Gallery)
Agnes de Mille was raised among screen legends. The niece of Hollywood founder Cecil B. DeMille and the daughter of William de Mille, a Broadway playwright who became a respected film director in the silent era, the New York City native was accustomed to movie stardom. But when she saw Anna Pavlova perform, she was so dazzled that she instantly decided to make dance her life. She began as a choreographer in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s when, as she described it, “there were no rules.” Her breakthrough work, Rodeo, premiered in 1942 and did for dance, as she explained, what the Gershwins were doing in music. This triumph launched her long-term collaboration with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, beginning with their landmark 1943 musical Oklahoma! De Mille’s singular contribution—integrating dance into the musical’s narrative flow—established her as Broadway’s preeminent choreographer. (Maurice Seymour, 1942 (printed 1996); National Portrait Gallery)
From the 1940s through the 1970s, storytelling choreographers like Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins held sway over the American musical theater. Chicago native Bob Fosse contributed a unique attitude to the era, bringing a cock-of-the-walk intensity and a dance style that was sinuous, angular, and driven: fingers snapped, shoulders rolled, hips swiveled and dancers strutted. Fosse choreographed such great Broadway shows as The Pajama Game (1954), Sweet Charity (1955), Bells Are Ringing (1956) and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961). His movie and television hits included Cabaret (1972), which won eight Oscars, and the Emmy-winning NBC special Liza with a “Z” (1972). Chicago (1975) was the quintessential Fosse show, resplendent in his trademark dames-in-sequins seediness. Its anthem rang out, “Give ’em the old razzle dazzle/Razzle dazzle ’em/Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it/And the reaction will be passionate.” (Harry Benson, 1979)
In the 1890s, Loie Fuller’s genius was to create an electrifying style of dance that harnessed technology with the emerging physical culture movement. She became famous for her Serpentine Dance, an undulating performance enacted amid dazzling visual staging. For this dance, Fuller clothed herself in a voluminous, transparent costume consisting of 500 yards of thin China silk and bathed herself in multicolored stage lighting of her own design. Critics reported that the dance regularly swept audiences “into an emotional frenzy” that required 20 or more encores. Touring made her internationally famous, and consumers everywhere lined up to buy Loie Fuller hats, shoes and petticoats. She became a star of the Folies Bergère, and her Fire Dance sparked a sensation at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. A modern dance pioneer, Loie Fuller paved the way for such other women dancers as Isadora Duncan. (Jules Cheret, 1897; National Portrait Gallery)
Savion Glover first performed on Broadway when he was 10, in The Tap Dance Kid. He has rooted his style firmly in the tradition forged by the great tappers of the past—the Nicholas Brothers, Jimmy Slyde, Honi Coles—but he has added his own sense of funk that is squarely based on contemporary life. Glover describes his tap as “hittin’,” and it’s all about his feet, which are his drums. His left heel is his bass drum, his right a tom-tom: “I can get a snare out of my right toe, a whip sound. . . . And if I want cymbals, crash crash, that’s landing flat, both feet.” In his choreography for the Tony Award–winning Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, he chronicled how dance expressed African American identity, from slavery to rap. For Glover, dance is all about “communicating, getting on the floor the rhythm you live by.” (National Portrait Gallery)
Born in New York City, Gregory Hines began performing as a child with his father and older brother in the tap dance act “Hines, Hines, and Dad.” As he grew up, he became a tireless advocate for tap’s resurgence. In 1988, he successfully petitioned Congress for the creation of Tap Dance Day. On Broadway, Hines earned Tony nominations for Eubie!, Comin’ Uptown and Sophisticated Ladies, and a Tony Award for Jelly’s Last Jam. Onscreen, his films included The Cotton Club and White Nights, in which he co-starred with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Enormously influenced by tap’s historic roots and especially by the work of the Nicholas Brothers, Hines was always driven by “the search for the new step.” He viewed spontaneity and improvisation as defining characteristics of tap’s uniqueness: “My argument is,” he once said, “that tap is the American dance.” (Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985; National Portrait Gallery)
A pioneer of modern dance in America, Martha Graham brought dance into the vortex of the Machine Age. The idea of motion and dynamism were fundamental tenets of modernism, as was the quest to “make it new.” In this spirit, Graham, a native of Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, saw herself as both “a dancer and an inventor.” She studied at Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn’s Denishawn School from 1916 to 1923 and then worked as a solo dancer at the Greenwich Village Follies. She also taught at the Eastman School and, with some of her students, established the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in 1926. In her 1944 signature piece, Appalachian Spring, she presented a “quintessentially American” scenario that conveyed “a dance of hope.” It was a perfect vehicle for Graham, who once described dancing as “an affirmation of life through movement.” (Edward Jean Steichen, 1931; acquired by National Portrait Gallery)
Born in 1943 in Philadelphia, Judith Jamison was 21 when she was selected by Agnes de Mille to appear in de Mille’s The Four Marys with the American Ballet Theatre. She joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1965 and quickly became a principal dancer. Her height (5’10”) gave her a regal bearing, and her electrifying performance in Cry, which Ailey wrote for her in 1971, propelled her to international stardom. Jamison danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov in Ailey’s 1976 Pax de Duke, performed to the music of Duke Ellington, and appeared in companies around the world. In 1980 she starred with Gregory Hines in the hit Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies. She was artistic director of the Ailey company from 1989 to 2011, once explaining, “I don’t feel as though I’m standing in anyone’s shoes. I’m standing on Alvin’s shoulders.” (Max Waldman, 1976; gifted to National Portrait Gallery)
Born in 1952 in Bunnell, Florida, Bill T. Jones partnered with Arnie Zane on a highly experimental dance company during the 1970s and 1980s—years in which Jones feels modern dance was “democratized” by personal style and improvisation. An emphasis on free-form movement also connected him to pioneering American dancers: like them, he has said, “I trust very much my own body dancing, and what it knows, so I set about allowing it to do what it does best.” In addition to the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Jones has established a dynamic career on Broadway, winning two Tony Awards for choreography, most recently for Fela! Fascinated by the cultural impact of new media, his works often incorporate digital technology. He uses computer-assisted scores and programs digital interactions between audience and dancers to push the performance envelope: “How much,” he wonders, “can you pull an audience along?” (Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985; National Portrait Gallery)
The queen of contemporary celebrity spectacle is a wildly theatrical dancer/pop/singer/songwriter from Yonkers, born in 1986 as Stefani Germanotta. She morphed into “Lady Gaga” after studying the sociology of fame, as she once explained on 60 Minutes, and has assiduously cultivated her image into a celebration of “Otherness.” The Wall Street Journal has noted her “shrewd use of new digital platforms,” and Gaga is one of the few figures able to connect the “narrowcast” cultural fragments of the media age. She considers herself an extension of Andy Warhol’s pop culture universe: “Pop culture is art,” her website states. “It’s sharable fame.” The spectacle that is Lady Gaga is well choreographed and relentless. “Every day, in the mirror, on the stage. . . I’m always in the boxing ring.” Of her carefully constructed fame, she has explained, “It’s about the performance, the attitude, the look: it’s everything.” (Bravado Merchandising, 2009)
Suzanne Farrell, born in 1945 in Cincinnati, joined the New York City Ballet (NYCB) in 1961 and was George Balanchine’s great muse early in her career. He created such roles for her as Dulcinea in Don Quixote and many new works, including Jewels, Vienna Waltzes, Symphony in C and Chaconne (depicted here). Peter Martins, born in 1946 in Copenhagen, joined NYCB in 1969 and became an inspired partner for Farrell. One critic wrote that they were “perfect instruments for . . . Balanchine’s choreographic testing of the dance.” Martins once said that dancing with Farrell made him feel “the steps could only be this way. We were literally dancing the music. I felt like a violin.” Farrell retired after more than 2,000 performances with NYCB and founded the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in 2000. Following Balanchine’s death in 1983, Martins became co-director of NYCB with Jerome Robbins. He has been sole director there since 1990. (Max Waldman, 1976; gifted to National Portrait Gallery)
Fueled by a series of hit records and head-spinning short films, Michael Jackson, born 1958 in Gary, Indiana, was an entertainment phenomenon. His scintillating dance style helped catapult him to fame: the release of his 1983 short film Thriller coincided with the rise of MTV as an important medium—much as the Ed Sullivan Show had been a generation earlier. Thriller’s mass-market popularity not only made Jackson a galactic star but had a resounding cultural impact by breaking down color barriers in both video and radio formats. MTV was the perfect medium to showcase Jackson’s staccato bursts of movement. Leading dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote, “The moonwalk . . . is an apt metaphor for his dance style. . . . He is a great illusionist.” Thriller set a record for Grammy nominations and awards (12). One critic wrote that Jackson showed “if you have the energy, you can do anything. It’s the American Dream.” (Unidentified Artist, 2009, Bravado International Group)
Singer-dancer Liza Minnelli was born in 1976 in Los Angeles into entertainment royalty: her mother was Judy Garland and her father was Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli. Liza made her film debut as a toddler in her father’s In the Good Old Summertime (1949), which starred her mother. Launching her own Broadway career in 1965, she received a Tony Award for her performance in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Flora the Red Menace. Her greatest success came onscreen, however, portraying nightclub singer Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s 1972 movie version of the musical Cabaret. This movie showcased her strengths as a singer-dancer-actress, and her Best Actress Academy Award was among the film’s eight Oscars. That same year, the scintillating Minnelli-Fosse-Ebb team collaborated on a high-energy television special, Liza with a “Z,” which won the Emmy for Outstanding Single Program—Variety and Popular Music. (Alan Pappe, 1972; gifted to National Portrait Gallery)
When he defected from the U.S.S.R. while the Bolshoi was performing in Toronto in 1974, Mikhail Baryshnikov was considered the greatest dancer produced by Russian ballet. Born in 1948 in Born Riga, Latvia, his electrifying presence in America would supercharge a passion for dance that Nureyev had sparked a decade earlier. He soon appeared at the American Ballet Theatre and created a sensation. Time magazine described how “for 25 semi-hysterical minutes, Baryshnikov and his partner, Natalia Makarova . . . were dragged back again and again for curtain calls.” Under Baryshnikov’s spell, dance became America’s most vibrant art form. He danced in a wide variety of styles, exploring the works of George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp. He appeared in hit movies (The Turning Point, White Nights), and beginning in 1990 he collaborated with Mark Morris on the White Oak Dance Project. In 2005 he organized the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City. (Max Waldman, 1975; gifted to National Portrait Gallery)
One of the most popular performers on the planet, Beyoncé is a megastar whose talent embraces singing, dancing, songwriting, acting, and entrepreneurship. Born in 1981 in Houston, Texas, Beyonce's music is generally R&B, but also includes pop, electropop, funk, hip-hop and soul. The Recording Industry of America has recognized her as the Top Certified Artist of the 2000s. As of 2013, Beyoncé was the most-nominated woman in Grammy Award history, winning 17 awards. She has also won 12 MTV Video Music Awards, a Billboard Millennium Award, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. An electrifying performer, she is known for highly choreographed dance routines that are as eye-popping as her costumes. The New Yorker has described Beyoncé as “the most important and compelling popular musician of the twenty-first century. Right now, she is the reigning national voice.” (Markus Klinko and Indrani Pal-Chadhuri, 2003; gifted to National Portrait Gallery)

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The pioneers of American dance—from Bob Fosse to Beyoncé—are showcased now through July 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery

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