Rachel Caldwell graduated from the University of North Texas with a BFA in Dance and from Mills College with a MFA in Dance Performance and Choreography. She is from Houston, Texas, where she grew up studying ballet, tap, jazz, modern, hip hop and Scottish highland dance. Rachel is a Contributing Editor for Dance Teacher and writes the History and K-12 columns.
As you assemble your gratitude list for this Thanksgiving, stop and consider some of the works that paved the way for the diverse dance world we enjoy today. Whether they introduced a radical new style of movement, controversial subject matter or a particularly poignant message, these five works broke choreographic barriers and have withstood the test of time.
Halprin in her work The Prophetess (1947),about Deborah, the only female judge in the Bible. Halprin's Jewish heritage guided her morality and, early on, her choreography. Photo by Ernest Braun, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
In both Anna Halprin's workshops and choreographic ventures, the postmodern choreographer used improv-based exercises that brought dancers' own individual movement impulses to their attention. Halprin made use of the environment surrounding her home, having dancers hike and tumble in nature. Now 98, she still teaches from her home in Marin County.
Though Asadata Dafora isn't widely known today, he blazed a trail for countless African-based dance companies who enjoy a firm foothold on the concert dance stage today. He reworked the spatial orientation of various cultural dances to fit a proscenium stage and made them more presentational to appeal to Western audiences.
Dafora influenced many dance artists directly, most notably Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Charles Moore, and heads a rich African-dance lineage that includes such luminaries as Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and the late Chuck Davis. In 1977, Davis founded DanceAfrica, an annual festival that celebrates African culture through dance, music, art and film.
Alonzo King Lines' LeeWei Chao with dancer Hayley Bowman. Photo by Chris Hardy
The piqué arabesque is a ballet staple that looks deceptively simple. At Alonzo King LINES Dance Center, LeeWei Chao uses the image of standing on the edge of a cliff to inspire correct alignment, emphasizing a strong supporting side so that dancers avoid tilting and dipping forward. "Your body energy goes up," he says. "Stay on that edge of the cliff. You sense the danger there, but that's the most beautiful moment."
Peter Martins and Farrell in Chaconne (1976), performed for PBS' "Great Performances." Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
With her superb musicality, dramatic skills and go-for-broke speed and risk taking, Suzanne Farrell inspired Balanchine to push the limits of a dancer's physical capabilities. Together, the pair helped shift ballet into more creative, athletic and abstract territory.
On June 12, 2016, after a day of teaching for Music 'n Motion dance camp in Orlando, high school dance teacher Stephanie Kersten went out to the Pulse nightclub with her co-workers. "I was only there for an hour before the shooting took place," she says. "We were stuck inside for a good 30 minutes before, thank God, I was pulled out. I was actually on my hands and knees praying in a closet: 'Please just get us out. I just want to get home to my kids.'"
Morris in 1984. Photo by Peggy Jarrell Kaplan, courtesy of MMDG
For the past four decades, few names in dance have stirred up as much reaction as American choreographer Mark Morris. Unique for his outsize persona, superb musicality and taking on themes related to gender and sexuality, Morris is one of the most prolific and lauded choreographers of his generation. At his Brooklyn-based dance center, the former enfant terrible continues to create for his company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, and set work on ballet and modern companies worldwide.
Morris has choreographed close to 150 works for his company. In addition to being inspired by music, many have narrative roots in mythology and literature, including the following.
Deborah Vogel is a neuromuscular educator and director of The Body Series. Here, she works with Mariah Aivazis. Photo by Jim Lafferty
Turnout—the outward rotation of the hips that dancers are constantly striving to improve. Yet few actually have the 180-degree outward rotation that is so idealized. In her 40-plus years of working as a movement analyst, Deborah Vogel has only come across a handful of dancers who have it. "That's structural," she says. "They have a shallow hip socket, so the head of the thighbone can move in a greater range. The rotation at the hip for the general population, though, is 90 degrees—about 45 degrees in each direction."
Although a dancer's range of motion depends on her structure, Vogel says she can still improve her turnout. "They're not going to get to 180. But if they have good muscle balance, they can improve their ability to stand in greater than 90-degree turnout."