Celebrating Greatness: Remembering Dance Legends

August 21, 2007
They were groundbreakers, risk-takers, and leaders, and we will always remember them. As part of our 80th-anniversary celebration, we asked current artists what these icons meant to the dance world.
Donald McKayle on Martha Graham

When I first saw her I was bowled over by the power of this woman. She brought so much, with her actions, with her need to be onstage. She’s left a legacy. She’s left a technique. She’s left a lot of works.
In 1948 when I was an apprentice in the company, I was watching from the wings as she was dancing
Cave of the Heart
. She did this stalking movement and these turns, and her eyes would glow with a kind of fury. As she ran offstage Mark Ryder would have to catch her because she was coming so fast.
Many people make their mark, but hers is not going to be made again that way. What dancers today don’t have is the presence. Like many things that are unique and special, you live in that time and it’s over. Only a few people leave that kind of resonance.
Donald McKayle is a choreographer who teaches at University of California, Irvine.

Savion Glover on Gregory Hines

What he meant to the dance world was inspiration, pure inspiration on a humane level. He was everything to me and had a powerful impact on the way I conduct myself as a man. Gregory was peaceful at all times. A never-let-’em-see-you-sweat kind of man. In his dancing you can see the sophistication, down to the shoes he designed. You don’t wear those shoes with a pair of jeans; you have to wear Armani when you’re wearing those tap shoes because that’s what he represented—elegance.
He was a creator. Like Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis Jr., and Bojangles—now you say Gregory Hines. These people will be with us forever. As long as there is air, these names will have impact. He is one of the greatest entertainers that we have had the opportunity to witness.
Savion Glover is a dancer, choreographer, and director.

Carolyn Brown on Margot Fonteyn

It has to do with her purity of movement and letting the choreography speak through her. Her musicality was extraordinary. She never pushed to lift her leg higher or turn more. She was the consummate dancer. In today’s amazing world of technical prodigiousness, she is even more an example of someone who contributed something to dancing beyond herself, beyond her technique. She moved me to tears over and over and over again.
Carolyn Brown, a former lead dancer of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, is the author of
Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham.
Eliot Feld on Jerome Robbins

It was maniacal—and instructive—that somebody could devote themselves so entirely to perfecting an idea. He was always looking for the quintessential, absolute, perfect, irreproachable version. You never danced for Jerry without it being implicit that there was a motivation, however abstract that idea might become in the choreography. One always felt that Jerry did not want gravity to be denied. Pushing yourself through air gave dancing a kind of verisimilitude. I never knew Jerry to do just any steps. The steps were tied to character or motivation, or something real.
Choreographer Eliot Feld performed in the original musical and film version of
West Side Story.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar on Alvin Ailey

The first time I saw
, it was so breathtaking! I saw the company in ’71 or ’72 and John Parks and Judith Jamison were dancing. Ailey was putting African American life onstage in a way that I hadn’t seen before. Revelations brought in African American spiritual life, and he pulled in contemporary and traditional points of view too. You see the influence of Dunham in “Wading in the Water”—the umbrella, the water. At the same time it wasn’t a copy; it was his own. The Ailey company is about beautiful and elevated experiences. As a young dancer, particularly someone outside of New York City (I was in Kansas City), not seeing a lot of dance, it was “Wow! This is what’s possible!” The dancers were like gods and goddesses to me.
Ailey’s vision to make a repertory company and not a single-choreographer company was a generous one. He wanted to make Ailey a home for other people to choreograph on. It was a unique vision at the time.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is artistic director of Urban Bush Women.
Mark Morris on George Balanchine

Balanchine’s work was extraordinary and thrilling and varied and funny and impractical and gorgeous. The first time I saw
Concerto Barocco
I was 13. I saw Pennsylvania Ballet in Vancouver and it made me laugh. I love Busby Berkeley and there’s a lot of Busby Berkeley in Balanchine. I was surprised and delighted by the polyrhythms of the corps. If Agon is done right, there’s nothing more harrowing and exciting and challenging. If you’re doing Symphony in C accurately, it’s a giant surprise and relief when new people come in the finale, and you remember them from before. Four Temperaments is so dangerous; but if the partnering is too close, it doesn’t work. The structures are not perfect, that’s why they’re so great. The genius of Square Dance: When it’s done with a caller it’s a funny sad joke. Tambeau de Couperin is a fabulous conceptual enlightening experiment. Symphonie Concertante reminds me of my own work. It’s so specifically and doggedly one person per solo line. It’s not cold but a very analytical approach to Mozart that I find thrilling. It’s as strict and dogmatic as I am. I’ve seen loads of Balanchine ballets. I can’t get enough.
Mark Morris is artistic director of Mark Morris Dance Group.
Bill Irwin on Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire is a hero to me. The use of the twist and torque in his body, the use of the coiled spring, is one of the things I admire. He was Mr. Elegance, but he was virile at the same time. He was delicate and small but powerful, and that’s a hero’s equation. Other dancers seemed to will you to admire them, whereas Astaire made you sit forward to hear a compelling story that somebody was whispering to you. He was an auteur. He had a way he wanted the numbers filmed; and he choreographed them with Hermes Pan. They were beautiful dance numbers. There was not just a show of emotion, but an emotional arc to each number because he was a great storyteller.
Bill Irwin is an actor, dancer, and comic performer.