The 9 Greatest Choreographers of the 20th century

This article is our attempt to describe the basic agenda for immersing in the 20th century's global choreographic context. What did Balanchine do for classical ballet? Why did Martha Graham prove to be the main face of modern dance? How did Merce Cunningham reform the movement? What is Pina Bausch's dance theater? Here we will explore these and other questions about the really great modern dancers famous of this era.

It will briefly describe the creative biographies of nine equal in importance, but absolutely different in creative handwriting of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century. Each of them is worthy of conversation for more than an hour - but here you can start an inner conversation with all these masters, and continue - for a long time - in theater, books or movies.

Martha Graham

1894-1991, USA

- founder of the modern dance style. She created the contraction-release technique.

Martha Graham.


  • It' s done on an exhalation...
  • A characteristic movement towards the center
  • Rounding of the shapes


  • On the inhale
  • Moving from the inside out

The contraction-release technique is still considered basic for modern and other styles of dance.

What new things has Martha brought to the choreography and dance:

  • Emotion provokes movement
  • Impulsive nature of movement
  • Use of space by moving on the floor
  • Graphic poses
  • The fabric increases the amplitude of the movement

She was the first to try structuring movements into a kind of system, something that neither Duncan nor Saint-Denis had done before her. As a visionary, she was constantly looking for new ways to dance. Her creative search determined that movement is subject to three basic constants: time, space, and energy. Since, as Martha herself said, she was not interested in dancing and creating productions about non-existent characters and heroes of former eras, she staged and told in her work about contemporary women and people, as well as contemporary issues. Thus, the great Martha Graham was the first to show that non-classical dance can also be intellectual. Without Martha Graham, the entire history of modern dance would have turned out very differently.

In 1926, Martha founded her own troupe – Martha Graham Dance Company – it still exists to this day.

George Balanchine

1904-1983, USA

- founder of neoclassical ballet. He created his own ballet school and professional company in the United States, which is now called New York City Ballet and is the largest company in America.

George Balanchine.

Balanchine's choreography is characterized by:

  • Classical poses, BUT hips, knees and feet turned inward while classical ballet's legs are turned outward
  • Classical movement, but the hips are characterized by forward movement, whereas the classical ballet hips are always tucked
  • Neoclassical passes between poses with hips and knees turned inward

He was born, studied and started working in Russia. But he found his place for art and work when he moved to the United States.

Today, Balanchine's ballets are performed on all of the world's greatest stages. The Balanchine Foundation, which was created after the choreographer's death to preserve the technique and performance skills that Balanchine himself laid down, is very picky about the level and quality of the dancers - they have to be able to dance ballet really well. Although ballet is progressing, Balanchine's performances are still quite difficult to dance.

One-act storyless ballets are the most original part of his oeuvre. Besides, it''s likely that a modern ballet without Balanchine would not exist at all, the kind without specially written music, without 4-hour productions and complicated hierarchies.

Merce Cunningham

1919-2009, USA

- collaborated with John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and other avant-garde artists. He is sometimes counted among the creators of postmodern dance.

Merce Cunningham.


  • Using classical poses, but toes do not go outwards and with the addition of non-classical hand or foot positions
  • Combination of classical poses and modern techniques, such as contraction-release
  • Changing planes with the body
  • The dancer's position does not depend on the location of the audience (the dancer can dance with his back to the audience)

He was born, studied and started working in Russia. But he found his place for art and work when he moved to the United States.

Merce Cunningham is one of those who also worked a lot with Martha Graham. However, unlike Martha, he believed that the human body is already beautiful itself, and that each movement is already interesting enough to capture the viewer's attention. With the help of the Theory of Randomness (where the order of movement is determined not by the choreographer, but by the dice) Cunningham sought to break the movement patterns within which dancers were accustomed to exist.

One more striking feature of Cunningham's creativity was his conviction that all the arts - music, dance and scenography - are equal and should not "adjust" to one another. Therefore, all of these arts often "met" already on stage in the choreographer's performances.

Pina Bausch

1940-2009, Germany

- the most famous member of the "dance theater" movement. She created Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.

Pina Bausch.


  • Spiral motions
  • Impulse into the spiral - following the hand
  • Speed changes
  • Natural foots position
  • Loose body
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Start of movement on breath

Pina Bausch is one of the most popular choreographers among the masses. The most important theme for her was human relationships. She believed the idea that the dancer should move of improvisation and get inspiration from own experience. She could ask the dancer a lot about his parents, childhood, how he feels in different life situations, what he loves and does not love, what hurts him, his aspirations. The drama of human experiences and relationships was the theme of her art.

After Pina's death, the Pina Bausch Creative Legacy Foundation was founded, which sees its main task as making the Dance Theater's legacy available to the public.

Mats Ek

1945, Sweden

- collaborated with the world's leading dance companies. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sylvie Guillem have danced in his productions.

Mats Ek.
  • Hands set the movement direction, the movement follows the hands
  • Using classical jumps, but with a loose body and movable arms and legs;
  • Bent knees and pulled feet
  • Ridiculous movements
  • Working with facial expressions

Many consider him a genius who shook the world of the classics by making us look at it in a different way. Others see his art as blasphemous. Mats Ek is one of the most recognizable choreographers of our time. Mats Ek's style of choreography is characterized by its parody and tendency toward the theater of the absurd. He has formed his own choreographic "handwriting", which has grown out of an original symbiosis of classical, modern, and minimalist gestures.

Mats has combined a lot of knowledge with his sensuality, emotion and talent. He keeps the plastics and choreography simple enough, but very effective.

In 2007 he staged Gluck's Orpheus at the Royal Swedish Opera.

William Forsythe

1949, USA – Germany

- one of the main living experimenters in the dance industry. He developed a popular computer program for teaching dance called "Technology of Improvisation”.

William Forsythe.


  • Working with geometry (line, point, line from a point, semicircle from a point)
  • Working with lines: "drawing" lines with body parts and with the help of joints
  • Working with memory: coming out of the classical/non-classical pose - recalling the pose - returning to the original position

Forsythe's works demand from the viewer a more active emotional and intellectual perception. The avant-garde Forsythe pushed the boundaries of the conventional: as opposed to classical ballet the choreographer gives freedom to the movements of the arms and legs. His main approach to dancers was improvisation, which also aimed to free not only the dancer's body, but also his head.

Ohad Naharin

1952, Israel

- creator of modern dance techniques and improvisation gaga. Since 1990 he has been the director of the Batsheva troupe.

Ohad Naharin.


  • Dance based on improvisation (sensations are set)
  • Moving and other manipulations of different imaginary objects (cubes, balls, etc.) with different parts of the body
  • Shaking
  • The impulse for movement comes from within
  • Muscles are relaxed

Ohad Naharin is one of Israel's most famous choreographers. Today Ohad Naharin is called a star of contemporary choreography. Naharin is often involved in creating the music for his works. Naharin invites the best stage designers in the country to participate in his productions. He also encourages the dancers with whom he works to open up their own creative resources, giving them the opportunity to improvise. Naharin participates in a number of his works as a performer.

According to the choreographer, the main thing a dancer has to learn is the ability to listen to and understand their own body, and this means much more than obeying the choreographer who tells them how to move. The search for a deep interaction is what gave birth to gaga, both as a choreographic language and as a pedagogical system.

The New York Times and a number of other publications have elevated Naharin to the rank of one of the five best choreographers in the world.

Wim Vandekeybus

1963, Belgium

- one of the representatives of the "Belgian wave" of modern dance. He founded the experimental dance group Ultima Vez.

Wim Vandekeybus.
  • “The Tiger's Leap” (movement behind the hand, and then roll over)
  • Jump tending to parallel with the floor
  • Running in different directions (including back)
  • Emphasized physical strength, brutality
  • Hair increases amplitude

Wim Vandekeibus's art is characterized by radicality and challenging in the beginning of his career and conservatism in the process of evolution. For example, at the beginning of his career the choreographer urged his dancers to go to every performance as if it were their last. His dancers worked on the verge of human limitations: they dodged bricks thrown at them and descended from dangerous heights without safety equipment. Vandekeibus liked to explore the body's reflexes in extreme situations, and the audience loved Wim for his recklessness. Now it is in the past. The productions of recent years are characterized by conservatism and even a derision of former radicalism.

The choreographer says that he never thinks only about choreography, it is just a tool for him to tell about something. It has to be said that together with his company Ultima Vez he does this incredibly successfully and accurately.

Crystal Pite

1970, Canada

- a student of William Forsythe; one of the youngest choreographers to gain international fame. In 2002 she founded the Kidd Pivot dance company.

Crystal Pite.
  • Movement in a spiral with a change of levels and going to the parterre (movement is initiated by the hand)
  • Manipulation ("foreign hand")
  • Slide

In 1990, she made her debut as a choreographer with the British Columbia Ballet. Since then, Crystal Pite has created more than forty works of choreographic art. Pite's choreography is known for its quirky humor and fearless


Hopefully you have been inspired to explore the work of these great choreographers in greater depth and detail.

Without them, there would be no modern choreography as we see it now: experimental, sophisticated, diverse, free, thinking and questioning, exploring movement and the human body.