The job of choreographer or dance director for a musical is to develop dances and production numbers that highlight the abilities of the stars and specialty dancers in the slots that the director and writers assign. Some of these dances advance the plot, but many dance sequences appear in performance settings, such as a nightclub, theater, or social event.
Some choreographed sequences involve the characters and the roles they play in the story, and others present performers whose sole function in the film is to dance. Down Argentine Way (1940), a romance with horses that takes place on a hacienda, has dances credited to Nick Castle (1910–1968) and Geneva Sawyer. At various points in the film, the characters attend fiestas that feature group "ethnic" dances and a plot-related vocal and movement specialty by Charlotte Greenwood (1893–1978), a veteran character actress known for her high kicks. The film also features spectacular duets by the tuxedo-clad Nicholas Brothers (Fayard [1914–2006] and Harold [1921–2000]), who just happen to be there, tap dancing and leaping over each other in full split. Most appearances by African American dancers (and musicians) are similarly "accidental," so that they could be deleted for distribution in southern states without marring the plot.
The MGM backstage musical Easter Parade (1948), set in pre–World War I New York, is a good example of how dance sequences could be fit into movies. Choreographed by Charles Walters (1911–1982) and with songs by Irving Berlin (1888–1989), ranging from vaudeville hits of the 1910s and 1920s to new ballads from the 1940s, the film stars Fred Astaire (1899–1987), with Ann Miller (1923–2004) and Judy Garland (1922–1969) as his partners in exhibition ballroom dancing. Astaire and Garland adopt the period style in plot-related exhibition ballroom dances that the viewer sees both in rehearsal and performance. The anachronistic "It Only Happens When I Dance with You" is pure 1940s adagio for Astaire and Miller. The film, which also features dance specialties suited to the stars, opens with a prop-manipulation solo for Astaire, this time dancing with a drum set. The onstage scenes include a special effect act for Astaire, tapping in real time in front of a chorus filmed in slow-motion, and the comic "Walk Down the Avenue" duet for Astaire and Garland dressed as tramps. Miller performs "Shaking the Blues Away," a surrealist solo in which she shows off her signature tap fouettés, surrounded by detached arms playing instruments through holes in the stage floor.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood extended invitations to star choreographers from Broadway, such as Agnes de Mille (1905–1993) and Michael Kidd(b. 1919). De Mille's Oklahoma! finally reached the screen in 1955, with the influential dream ballet intact. Kidd restaged some of his Broadway successes, such as Guys and Dolls (1955), but also choreographed new musicals written directly for film. The Band Wagon (1953) includes a fake ballet, some overdone dances on a fragmenting set for the musical comedy of Faust, and two "improvised" dance-for-the-fun-of-it numbers. It ends in the glorious "Girl Hunt" sequence, a parody of Mike Hammer detective film noir and musical film clichésfor Fred Astaire and a slinky Cyd Charisse (b. 1921), who, as Astaire's character remarked at her entrance, "came at me in sections." The barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) was the surprise hit of the MGM compilation film That's Entertainment (1974). Kidd used social dance and stylized acrobatics with construction props to develop a set piece for the "brides" and their rival gangs of townies and frontiersmen lined up on distant sides of the sound stage. The women, lined up in the center, alternate dancing with the two sets of male partners. Kidd's grasp of the dance possibilities for the wide-screen format was so great that the sequence is used in That's Entertainment to demonstrate the necessity of letter-boxing.
Although many early films featured dance, the sequences were generally preexisting acts or social dances. Choreographers or dance directors were not credited, but as narrative film developed in the silent era, choreographers began to fulfill two functions. Films with plots that centered on goings-on backstage, especially those filmed in the New York studios, often showed celebrities and rehearsals led by Broadway choreographers. Cosmopolitan's The Great White Way (1924) showed a Ziegfeld Follies rehearsal with the real dance director Ned Wayburn (1874–1942) setting choreography on Anita Stewart (1895–1961) as Mabel. In Hollywood, directors hired Los Angeles–area concert dance troupes or schools to provide atmosphere. Occasionally they were identified and even publicized for their contributions to the film. The always media-savvy Ruth St. Denis (1878–1968) and Ted Shawn (1891–1972) led their Denishawn dancers on the steps of Babylon in D. W. Griffith's (1875–1948) 1916 masterpiece Intolerance. The concert dancer Marion Morgan provided appropriate period dances for the multiple flashbacks in Man-Woman-Marriage (1921), and Ernest Belcher (1882–1973), whose Los Angeles studio rivaled Denishawn in popularity, provided dancers for backstage sequences in many films, among them Heroes of the Street (1922). Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959) worked with the former Ballets Russes dancer Theodore Kosloff (1882–1956) in most of his 1920s films, culminating most memorably in the Ballet Mechanique on the dirigible sequence in Madame Satan (1930).
When the studios committed to sound technology after 1927 and began to churn out revues to exploit the new technology, they brought Broadway, Prolog, and vaudeville choreographers west for consultancies or employment. The many women choreographers in these fields were given few feature-length assignments and soon returned to Broadway, although Fanchon, a choreographer and musical sequence director, remained in Los Angeles to take over the West Coast Prolog circuit and worked on more than a dozen films. Albertina Rasch (1895–1967) (who was married to the composer Dmitri Tiomkin [1894–1979]) commuted between Broadway and MGM. She provided period dance for the sound film Devil-May-Care (1929), starring Ramon Novarro (1899–1968), and Marie Antoinette (1938), starring Norma Shearer (1902–1983), and collaborated with the director Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) on the 1934 version of The Merry Widow. One of the most memorable moments from this highly successful version of the operetta is the spiral of waltzing couples as the camera slowly zooms outward. Film stars who were former members of the Albertina Rasch Dancers promoted her for projects in the 1930s, among them Eleanor Powell (1912–1982), for Broadway Melody of 1936 and Rosalie (1937), and Jeanette MacDonald (1903–1965), who requested her for MGM's popular operetta series, including The Girl of the Golden West (1938).
The so-called Broadway Big Four—Dave Gould (1899–1969), Seymour Felix (1892–1961), Sammy Lee (1890–1968), and Busby Berkeley (1895–1976)—all found studio niches. Gould won the first Oscar® for dance for his contributions to Flying Down to Rio (1933), the film that first paired Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (1911–1995). Felix had a long career at Twentieth Century Fox, specializing in period backstage musicals, including the biographies of The Dolly Sisters (1945), Oh, You Beautiful Doll (1949), about the song-writer Fred Fisher (1875–1942), and Golden Girl (1951), about the mid-nineteenth-century actress Lotta Crabtree (1847–1924). Lee spent most of his career at United Artists, staging dances in melodramas and westerns, and he also worked on Abbott and Costello (Bud Abbott [1895–1974] and Lou Costello [1906–1959]) comedies for Universal. Berkeley's films for Warner Bros. earned him the most lasting acclaim. His grasp of art direction and the possibilities of the camera allowed him to develop a style so suited to black-and-white that it epitomized Art Deco. His production numbers open up from their ostensible stage settings, adding depth and mass movement to the core dances.
Each studio had staff dance directors, mostly performer-choreographers from Broadway or popular entertainment. Gould's assistant, Hermes Pan (1909–1990), throughout his long career worked with Fred Astaire, primarily as the credited choreographer. He developed both the celebrated duets with Ginger Rogers and the repertory of solos. Nick Castle specialized in modern dress musicals, primarily for Twentieth Century Fox, among them vehicles for Sonja Henie (1912–1969). He was also known for comedies, among them Abbott and Costello films for Universal and, later, Jerry Lewis(b. 1926) comedies for Paramount. Castle shared credits for many films, such as Fox's Shirley Temple (b. 1928) musicals, with Geneva Sawyer, who reached Hollywood after being the dance director for the Cotton Club, the famed Harlem nightclub.
In the history of film, choreographers from ballet or modern dance have been offered only occasional work. The most successful transition from ballet (without the intermediate step of a career on Broadway) was made by Eugene Loring (1914–1982), best known for the Ballet Caravan company's Billy the Kid. His film work includes spectacular numbers for Cyd Charisse in the musical Silk Stockings (1957) and the biopic Deep in My Heart (1954), about the American composer Sigmund Romberg (1887–1951), most notably her sultry "One Alone" duet with James Mitchell (b. 1920). The Dr. Seuss fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) brilliantly represents his creativity and ability to fit movement to visual style, especially in the dungeon ballet for the jailed musicians of banned instruments.
Fame (1980) focused on adolescent dancers at New York City's High School for the Performing Arts. Louis Falco (1942–1993), a modern dancer, choreographed classes, performances, and the film's spectacular "improvised" numbers. The modern dance choreographer Twyla Tharp (b. 1941) adapted her stylized movements to different periods for collaborations with director Milos Forman (b. 1932) on Hair (1979), Ragtime (1981), and Amadeus (1984). Lester Wilson (1942–1993), whose dance career encompasses modern dance and Broadway, found success as a choreographer for films focusing on contemporary social dance, from disco for Saturday Night Fever (1977) to hip-hop for Beat Street (1984). He has also worked on comedies, among them the Hot Shots! parody series (1991, 1993).
George Balanchine (1904–1983), the Russian-born choreographer who brought ballet to the United States, was also known in the 1930s for his Broadway work. He created ballets for Vera Zorina (1917–2003) that were interpolated into The Goldwyn Follies (1938), On Your Toes (1939), and I Was an Adventuress (1940). His most successful work for film, the gangster ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, had been created for the stage version of On Your Toes (by Rodgers and Hart), and then expanded for the screen. The World War II Paramount all-star 1942 revue Star Spangled Rhythm featured a Zorina ballet by Balanchine set to "That Old Black Magic" and a specialty dance by the African American choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham for her troupe and a zoot-suited Eddie Anderson (1905–1977).
For Jerome Robbins (1918–1998), a Broadway choreographer who then became a ballet choreographer for Balanchine's New York City Ballet, the transition to film was more difficult. The "Little House of Uncle Thomas" sequence in The King and I (1956) is stage-bound and distant, as if it were filmed from the audience's perspective. He brought camera movement to the gang warfare in West Side Story (1961) with the long opening sequence of alternating skirmishes between the Jets and Sharks, the dance at the gym, and the rumble. But the dream ballets from the stage musical were eliminated.
Bob Fosse (1927–1987), who had danced in film for Jack Cole (1911–1974), opened up stage choreography well in The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees! (1958), especially in the "Once a Year Day" picnic and "Shoeless Joe" baseball practice sequences. The classic dance with hats, "Steam Heat" from Pajama Game, was presented in a show-within-a-show setting—in this case, a union rally—and was replicated from the stage. His most acclaimed film was the 1972 Cabaret (which he had not staged or directed on Broadway), which epitomizes the slow, sexual, and confrontational dance style of his later work.
Most of the remaining musicals filmed after the 1960s were restaged for vast choruses by Onna White (1922–2005) (The Music Man, 1962; Oliver!, 1968; Mame, 1974) or the team of Mark Breaux and Dee Dee Wood (The Sound of Music, 1965). The latter team also choreographed many new projects aimed at family audiences, among them the hugely popular Disney films Mary Poppins (1964) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
b. Robert Fosse, Chicago, Illinois, 23 June 1927, d. 23 September 1987
Recognized as an auteur late in his career, Bob Fosse was one of the few choreographers whose moves and poses were popularly recognized. After a successful but conventional career as a choreographer and director for stage and screen, Bob Fosse gained his reputation as an innovative stylist in the 1970s and 1980s. The Fosse signature style was a jazz dance made more angular by emphasizing the back and hips.
Fosse performed in national companies and on Broadway before a contract with MGM brought him to Hollywood as a dancer. Young looking, he was cast as chorus boys and college students in B musicals such as Give the Girl a Break (1953) and The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953). These films gave him the opportunity to learn about film and movement from colleagues and future choreographers like Gower Champion, Tommy Rall, Joan McCracken, and Carol Haney. His most memorable appearance was with Rall, Haney, McCracken, and Ann Miller in "From This Moment On" in Kiss Me Kate (1953). He returned to New York to choreograph The Pajama Game, which opened in 1954. The show was a huge success, and the way Haney and two male dancers manipulated black hats in the sultry "Steam Heat" number brought Fosse fame. He won six Tony awards for choreography for, among others, Damn Yankees! (1955) and Sweet Charity (1966), starring his then-wife Gwen Verdon. Fosse returned to Hollywood to choreograph the film versions of The Pajama Game (1957), Damn Yankees (1958), and Sweet Charity (1969), which he also directed.
Fosse's breakthrough was the film of Cabaret (1972), in which, as director-choreographer, he shifted the musical's focus to its young adult characters in 1930s Germany. As played by Liza Minnelli, Sally Bowles was changed from an untalented wannabee into a vibrant star with such memorable scenes as "Mein Herr," danced on, around, and through a chair, with fishnet-stockinged legs extended. He also staged Minnelli's television special, Liza with a Z (1972), and the stage show Liza (1974).
His stylization of dancers' bodies continued in the musical Chicago (1975), starring Verdon, which was later revived on Broadway and turned into a 2002 film. Fosse's only nondance film was Lenny (1974), a semi-abstract study of the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce. He continued his experiments with musical genres with the stage revue Dancin' (1978), which he developed, directed, and choreographed, and the film All That Jazz (1979), which he directed, choreographed, and co-wrote. Widely believed to be semi-autobiographical, it is a backstage musical interrupted by the health crisis of the director. Although there had been stage experiments with this conventional plot line before, Fosse's stylistic approach earned comparisons to Federico Fellini. Like his version of Cabaret, All That Jazz meshes reality and stage performance while playing games with chronology and audience expectation.
As Choreographer: The Pajama Game (1957), Damn Yankees! (1958), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967); As Director and Choreographer: Sweet Charity (1969), Cabaret (1972); As Writer, Director, and Choreographer: All That Jazz (1979); As Director: Lenny (1974)
Gottfried, Martin. All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.
A slew of pop-music musicals were produced in the disco era, following the popularity of Saturday Night Fever. The best of these were Grease (1978) and Grease 2 (1982), both staged by Patricia Birch, which updated the early 1960s dances without losing the period flavor. Birch also contributed social dances to the Teatro Campesino's study of Los Angeles race riots, Zoot Suit (1981), and to many comedies, such as Big (1988) and
The First Wives Club (1996). Fosse's Broadway musical Chicago finally reached the screen in 2002, directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall (b. 1960).
For a dramatic film, a dance director's task is to develop period-appropriate movement, most often for social settings. For example, in costume dramas characters might be seen meeting each other at balls, and in film noir in nightclubs. In the studio era credit for work was not consistent, even when crucial elements of the plot occur in a dance setting. Agnes de Mille was named as choreographer of George Cukor's (1899–1983) Romeo and Juliet (1936), but no one is credited for the 1938 Jezebel.
In action films the responsibilities of dance directors, fight directors, stunt coordinators, and special-effects staff often overlap. According to contemporary press for The Warriors (1979), each group of actors developed signature movements to distinguish it from the rival gangs. The monumental impact of Hong Kong film-making on Hollywood has elevated the role of the fight choreographer, who stages stunts but maintains each character's individuality. The most influential fight choreographer is Yuen Woo Ping (b. 1945), a veteran whose Hong Kong credits go back to the 1970s. His period work has been seen in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), both volumes of Kill Bill (2003, 2004), and the Matrix trilogy (1999–2003). In the latter films he created spectacular hand-to-hand combat, leaps into nowhere, and fights with "cloned" copies of actors that were then computer manipulated for pace. Corey Yuen performed similar tasks in the X-Men films in 2000 and 2004, developing individual movement styles for each character's personality and mutation. The House of Flying Daggers (2004) credited action directors, a martial arts coordinator, and the choreographer Zhang Jianming.
Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. Revised ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.
Thomas, Tony, and Jim Terry, with Busby Berkeley. The Busby Berkeley Book. New York: NY Graphic Society, 1973.
Education and Training: Varies—see profile
Salary: Median—$33,670 per year
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Choreographers create and arrange original dances, combining steps and movements to form an artistic whole. They also develop new interpretations of traditional dances. Choreographers usually audition performers and teach them a dance at rehearsals. They often stage and direct presentations of their own works.
Choreographers work in all forms of dance, including classical ballet, modern, tap, jazz, folk, ethnic, and ballroom. They must be knowledgeable not only about dance techniques but also about music, costumes, lighting, and drama.
Many of the major full-time professional dance companies have resident choreographers under contract. These companies also invite guest choreographers on a seasonal basis. Some choreographers work for small, regional dance companies. Others find work with opera companies and in musical theater, television, movies, music videos, and commercials.
Education and Training Requirements
Choreographers are usually former dancers with years of experience working in the theater and with dance companies. A college degree is not required for professional choreographers, but high school courses in speech, drama, music, and the visual arts are highly recommended. It is very important for choreographers to develop their sense of rhythm and their understanding of music. They must have strength, flexibility, grace, and coordination. Other characteristics vital to a successful choreographer include self-discipline, patience, commitment, and perseverance.
Getting the Job
Choreographers start out as dancers. Prospective choreographers should seize every opportunity to gain experience and polish their dancing skills by performing frequently. Performing with or creating dances for local groups is a good way to begin a career. Trade magazines contain announcements for auditions. Dancers can move into choreography by becoming assistants to established choreographers or by creating brief pieces for their own dance companies.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Better choreographic commissions and higher pay for choreographers come with recognition. Some choreographers form their own dance companies. Others become directors, as well as choreographers, for the musical theater and film industries. Still others become college teachers, usually after obtaining a degree.
Employment opportunities for choreographers will be good through the year 2014. The field is highly competitive, however, and a choreographic career does not necessarily provide long-term security. The best job opportunities are expected to be with national dance companies and in the field of music videos.
Choreographers must have physical stamina to endure long hours of dance creation and the subsequent rehearsals needed to perfect a new work. Although employment may be intermittent, choreographers often work every day, including weekends and holidays, when staging a new work. They travel often. Success in the performing arts requires frequent personal sacrifice. The hours are long, the stress rate is high, and creativity is expected on demand.
Where to Go for More Information
1111 16th St. NW, Ste. 300
Washington, DC 20036
National Dance Association of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance
1900 Association Dr.
Reston, VA 20191-1598
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings of choreographers vary greatly depending on experience and job type. The median annual earnings for salaried choreographers is $33,670. Established choreographers can earn more than $70,000 per year. Many choreographers enjoy the benefits of union contracts, but freelancers do not receive these benefits.
cho·re·og·ra·phy / ˌkôrēˈägrəfē/ • n. the sequence of steps and movements in dance or figure skating, esp. in a ballet or other staged dance. ∎ the art or practice of designing such sequences. ∎ the written notation for such a sequence. DERIVATIVES: cho·re·o·graph·ic / ˌkôrēəˈgrafik/ adj. cho·re·o·graph·i·cal·ly / ˌkôrēəˈgrafik(ə)lē/ adv.
cho·re·o·graph / ˈkôrēəˌgraf/ • v. [tr.] compose the sequence of steps and moves for (a performance of dance or ice skating). ∎ fig. plan and control (an event or operation): the committee choreographs the movement of troops. DERIVATIVES: cho·re·og·ra·pher / ˌkôrēˈägrəfər/ n.
1. The system of describing dances, esp. in ballet, by signs for the steps, written alongside the melodies. An early method was Arbeau's, described in his Orchésographie (1588–9). The term choreography was introduced by Lefeuillet in 1699. Today one speaks of a ballet having been ‘choreographed’ by its creator.
2. The visual comp. of the ballet.