Dance is a medium packed with professional women: dancers, ballet masters, teachers – but what about choreographers? Several recent studies have shown that today, the high responsibility jobs in the dance world, namely choreographers and company directors, are far more likely to be occupied by men. In 2016, for example, the seasons of the Royal Ballet in London, the Bolshoi and the American Ballet Theatre included barely a single work by woman choreographer. And yet, since the end of the 19th century, a whole raft of schools and companies were founded by women, resulting in many seminal works in dance history. Here are sketches of eight of these remarkable choreographers, from that era up to our own.

Loie Fuller (1862-1928)

Born in the United States in the midst of the Civil War, Loie Fuller makes her career in Paris, where she becomes a symbol of the Belle Epoque, performing most famously at the Folies-Bergère. She was a symbolist choreographer, seeking to use dance to go beyond herself; her original experiments in scenery and the plastic arts fascinated a great number of artists such as the Lumière brothers, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Mallarmé. In 1891, she created the notorious Serpentine Dance, where she pirouettes while spinning large sheets of material lit by projectors in changing colours. Fascinated by working with light, Fuller was the first choreographer to take advantages of the technological advances of her day to create visual effects.

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927)

Far from the tutus and rulebooks of classical ballet, Isadora Duncan pioneers free dance. At the end of the 19th century, the young American combines movement with spontaneity. She then exports her style to Europe, where she is to spend the greater part of her life. She dances in the open air with bare feet, dressed in a flowing tunic that shows her body, and explores space while running and turning. Inspired by the ancient world, she is notable for seeking to recreate the Dionysiac dances found on Greek vases, so she creates jumps and aerial arm movements, facing the sky. Watching her and her dancers, you would swear you were watching the joyous whirlwind of Bacchantes. Duncan is a true muse for European artists of the 1900s (Matisse, Bourdelle, Rodin). Generous and concerned for the education of children, she opens dance schools in Berlin, Moscow, Meudon (near Paris) and even adopts a number of her pupils, dubbed by author Fernand Divoire the "Isadorables".

Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972)

Having started her career dancing at the Mariinsky and with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Bronislava Nijinska starts to choreograph in 1915, in a neoclassical style: she uses classical steps (pirouettes and jumps) but revisits them in a new spirit, bringing in new elements (most notably more angular work with the arms). Too often simply associated with her brother Vaslav Nijinski, Nijinska composes no less than sixty ballets, of whom several have survived to posterity. Her Les Noces, based on music by Stravinsky, inspires numerous choreographers who will later adapt it to their own style, such as Massine, Kylián and Preljocaj. Nijinska has a very individual relationship with rhythm: her dance includes jumps and accents that are highly marked out with the dancer's body, which help to define her style which is both precise and powerful.

Martha Graham (1894-1991)

Martha Graham is one of those who understood how to invent a technique and style so clearly the we still talk about the "Graham technique" today. At the Neighborhood Playhouse, where she teaches since the beginning of the 20th century, she develops her own choreographic language and founds the Martha Graham Group. She bases her gestures on the principle of "Contraction and Release", a highly organic and complex movement related to inhalation and exhalation. It's a movement that is carefully designed, rhythmic and precise, and the intensity that the body produces is remarkable. In the 1950s and 60s, many of her shows appear on New York stages, where they meet with great success. Graham's solos, such as Lamentation and Frontier, are still justly famous, testimony to an unforgettable power of gesture. Marked by her father's phrase "movement never lies", Graham puts her whole being and energy into the service of dance. She continues to create until the age of 96, which sees the superb Maple Leaf Rag set to Scott Joplin's exhilarating music.

Trisha Brown (1936-2017)

Brown created such a torrent of new ideas in choreography that it's hard to focus on any particular one. Her abstract dances fascinate with their fluidity and coordination, making her uncontrovertibly a central figure in post-modern dance. Her life brims with variety: in the 1960s and 70s, she explores public spaces (apartment building rooftops with Roof Piece), builds on everyday gestures, inspired by Anna Halprin, and composes movements starting from verbs (release, take, walk). Brown also works a great deal on the principle of accumulation (series of gestures repeated in time) and uses this principle to create solos with spectacular coordination and quality of movement.

Lucinda Childs (b.1940)

Trained and influenced by the same network as Brown's (New York's Judson Church, Anna Halprin, Yvonne Rainer), Lucinda Childs is fascinated by repetitive minimalism. In her works, she creates sequences which represent geometric forms that the dancers follow. Her most famous work, created in 1979, is entitled simply Dance: it assembles eight dancers who travel across the whole width of the stage while repeating dance phrases. Set to music by Philip Glass, the show unflods in front of a screen which projects a close-up of a horizontal view of the stage, creating an ecstatic effect. She dances in Einstein on the Beach (Glass's opera first staged by Robert Wilson in 1976) and choreographs shows for many companies such as Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Boston Ballet and Ballets du Rhin. Her work becomes one the pillars of post-modern dance.

Pina Bausch (1940-2009)

The German choreographer trains with Kurt Jooss in Essen and later at the Juilliard School in New York. In the 1970s, she sets up her own company at the theatre in Wuppertal, for which she creates dozens of works, all unforgettable and of mythic status. The foundation of Bausch's Tanztheater is the conjunction of spoken theatrical text and dance, interpreted by artists with strong personalities like Dominique Mercy, Jo-Ann Endicott, Cristiana Morganti. She works with these artists by starting with questions about their view of life or their past, and with improvisations. Key themes recur in Bausch's work: relationships between men and women, the gestures of everyday life, identity. Pina Bausch understands how to treat the events of life with accuracy but also humour and derision, from the most serious to the anecdotal, translating everything into physical movement. Many of Bausch's settings are close to nature: a bed of carnations for Nelken (1982), clay ground for Le Sacre du printemps (1975), rain for Vollmond (2006); these present an additional challenge for dancers who are covered in mud or soaked to the skin by the end of the performance.

Crystal Pite (née en 1970)

Canadian Crystal Pite is also fascinated by nature, which forms a recurring theme in her shows. She starts her career dancing at British Columbia Ballet and Frankfurt Ballet under the direction of William Forsthe. She analyses the behaviour of man when placed within an environment which can be violent, which translates into physical movement as a struggle or a fight. She wins over audiences with large scale projects. She puts on massive group pieces, with choreographic sequences for more than fifty dancers and loves to see how movement propagates through the middle of an ensemble, creating waves, flows and arresting visual effects. Her unique choreographic language displays bodies who entwine or repel, allying convulsive movements to lyrical ones.

Create in 2016 for the Paris Ballet, The Seasons’ Canon is a true masterpiece, which earns its choreographer the prestigious Benois de la Danse the following year. Her latest creation, Body and Soul, is one of the last programmes performed by the Paris Ballet before the pandemic, earning it the "Best show" prize of the French critics' union.


Translated from French by David Karlin