Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anna Pavlova, and the Bolshoi Ballet: these most famous names are household. Known to most everyone whether they are dancers, love dance or just tune in to a telly channel right at the time Swan Lake is being performed.
Maurice Béjart, Benjamin Millepied, Sergei Polunin: these three names that perhaps mean nothing to you, but they have shaped the history of dance through their talent and hard work.
Knowing these names will not, unfortunately, make you a better dancer.
However, being familiar with these forerunners’ efforts could perhaps motivate you to carry on with your dance lessons, to persevere and even to progress in the art.
To that end, we present the biography of ten most famous dancers, each one more inspiring than the last.
For information on the background of dance culture, take a look at our article!
The legendary choreographer Maurice Béjart directing dancers in Brussels Source: Wikipedia Credit: Jean-Marie Weregne
Maurice-Jean Berger (1927-2007), professionally known as Maurice Béjart, was one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of the twentieth century.
Entranced by the dance at a young age, he opened his first dance school in Belgium in 1960, called The Twentieth Century Ballet, which went on to tour the world.
His approach to dance was considered classic by his contemporaries, which led to challenges throughout his career.
Indeed, Maurice Béjart was inspired by classical and neoclassical representations in dance, incorporating musical, lyrical, theatrical and choreographic elements into his performances.
Today, Maurice Bejart is recognised as one of the most influential choreographers, who established the foundation of modern dance in France and Belgium.
A member of the French Academy of Fine Arts from 1994 until his death, he remains one of the most cited choreographers in the dance community.
A Russian dancer and choreographer of Polish origin, he made a name for himself within the competitive world of dance.
Vaslav Fomitch Nijinsky was born in Ukraine on 12 March 1889 and died on 8 April 1950 in London.
This performer entered the Imperial Dance Academy of St. Petersburg very young. There he garnered his share of attention for his leaps and extraordinary aptitude as a dancer.
It was the impresario Sergei Diaghilev who cultivated that talent, and propelled him to fame.
Launched into Russian high society, this dancer became one of the greatest artists of his time.
After joining the famed Russian ballet company Ballet Russe, he took the principal role in Petrushka, as well as starring in The Spectre of the Rose.
Vaslav Nijinsky developed an unusual system for scoring dances, that he created for his own use.
Interpreting them is how we were able to restore parts of obscure ballets such as The Afternoon of a Faun and The Rite of Spring.
Recently retired after spending years with Opera Garnier, Manuel Legris stands out in the French landscape of the best classical dancers.
Dubbed one of the little rats of the opera when he joined at age 11, Manuel Legris began his career at the Palais Garnier in Paris.
An age at which one enters through the small door: who knew he would become a star?
The small yet selective door in question is a figurative one that allows the best classical dance students access to the best teaching in France.
He was not treated to special privilege; he paid his dues in dance, ultimately becoming a principal dancer – so dubbed by Maurice Béjart.
His farewell performance was the title role in Onegin.
Discovered quite publicly during her performance on Dancing with the Stars, Marie-Claude Pietragalla is widely known in the world of dance for her ambitious and evocative dancing as well as choreography.
In fact, she is one of the top choreographers of France!
Born in 1963 in Paris, she entered the world of dance at a young age to counter a brimming hyperactivity. Those early efforts earned her entrance into the ballet school of the Paris National Opera at the tender age of 9 years.
At 16, she joined the opera’s corps du ballet, graduating to principle dancer on December 22nd, 1990, after a performance in Don Quixote.
In 2004, this dancer turned choreographer launched her own dance company with husband Julien Derouault, called The Theatre of the Corps Pietragalla–Derouault.
Their particular brand of choreographed art is inspired by classical and contemporary dance, peppered with hip-hop influences.
Marie-Claude Pietragalla is now one of the most recognised dancers and choreographers of the profession, who is also well-known by the general public.
Margot Fonteyn dancing with Nureyev, at the Royal London Ballet Source: Wikipedia
Nureyev has often been hailed as the Lord of the Dance – how could we not cite him on our list of ten greatest dancers turned choreographer, and later hailed as director of ballet?
Born in 1938 in the Soviet Union, he died in 1993 in Hauts-de-Seine. Still today, Rudolf Nureyev is recognized both for his close-to-perfection dance technique, and as one of the few male dancers to go en pointe.
He filled the role of director for the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983 to 1989, indelibly leaving his mark on one of the world’s most important operas.
Considered one of the greatest classical dancers of all time, his trademark style combined classical ballet with contemporary and even baroque repertoires.
A great international dancer and gifted choreographer, he added a page to the history of dance and ballet by putting male ballet dancers at the forefront in the majority of his choreographies.
Pavel Dmitrichenko, of the Russian Ballet, was born in Moscow in 1984. He was destined to become a great artist, as he was born into a family of folk dancers.
In fact, he had long been a part of the Folk Dance Academy, at the time led by Igor Moiseyev.
After graduation from the Choreography Academy, he joined the famous Bolshoi Theatre company, and then attended theatre classes at the Russian Theatre Institute.
A great dancer of world renown, Pavel Dmitrichenko has participated in numerous ballets such as Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and Spartacus.
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As much a dancer as a choreographer, Benjamin Millepied soon became a principal dancer, but that is not where his fame actually lies.
Benjamin Millepied is one of the go-to choreographers sought out when filming stories interpreted through dance.
This most famous title to his credit, Black Swan, involves the rigorous training of a ballet dancer to take the lead in Swan Lake.
Born in 1971 in Bordeaux, he was lead dancer with the New York City Ballet, where his really career took off.
It was there that he learned to blend artistic elements, a talent proven in the above-mentioned dance film.
Fresh off his success in Black Swan, he became dance director of the Opera of Paris ballet corps, a post he held from 2014 to 2016.
He also became the husband of beautiful Natalie Portman, whom met on the set – a lovely story seen in countless Hollywood productions!
Today, Benjamin Millepied is known the world over as one of dance’s greats.
Who today knows nothing of the King of Pop and his famous moonwalk?
International star, singer, dancer, choreographer, director, Michael Jackson has more than one arrow in his quiver.
He is also known for having uttered memorable dance quotes.
Born in 1958 and died in 2009 at the age of 50, the Guinness Book of World Records and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have designated him as the most popular artist of all time, and the most successful recording artist ever.
Michael Jackson did not start his career alone.
With his brothers backing him up, little Michael headlined the Jackson Five. After seeding the musical landscape with his talent for pop, the artist began his solo career in 1971.
He then released great hits like Thriller, Smooth Criminal, Beat it and The Way You Make Me Feel.
His artistic flair outshone the controversial man that he was. Nevertheless, loved or reviled, Michael Jackson is known in virtually every corner of the planet.
His concerts were all-encompassing shows that mix dance, singing and videos. His stage performances are unparalleled to this day.
Michael Jackson knows how to do it in terms of dance.
He popularised dance steps such as: The Moonwalk, The Sidewalk and The Lean: a true prowess of the body that leans at 45 ° and then comes up seemingly effortlessly, a feat that fascinates all his fans and even students of physics!
Michael Jackson was a driven man, the author of many dance songs that, even today, are replayed all over the world.
Michael Jackson is one of the most famous male dancers of contemporary times Source: Pixabay Credit: Tama66
Born in Paris on March 14, 1959, Patrick DuPont was discovered through winning the Varna International Ballet competition in Bulgaria.
The French dancer was subsequently fast-tracked into the dance master’s course, soon becoming principal dancer at the Paris Opera, in 1980.
A classical dancer, he has forged himself a national and international career, collaborating with dance greats such as Maurice Béjart and Rudolf Nureyev, whom he replaced as Director of Ballet at the National Opera of Paris.
A few years later, this Dancer was fired for what he himself termed his refusal to submit to convention and undisciplined approach to the job.
Still, Patrick DuPont has not left the field of dance. He continues to perform regularly around the globe.
Read about the best music for dancing.
His full name is Sergei Vladimirovich Polounin, and he is a Ukranian dancer born in 1989.
In spite of his relatively young age, we count him as a part of the list of greatest dancers of all time. His is an atypical and precocious career that makes him a standout in the art.
Indoctrinated very early into dance, he joined the Royal Ballet of London at the age of 13 and became first soloist at only 20 years old.
He is also the subject of an American documentary, titled Dancer, released in 2016.
The film traces his entire history: a story that details the environment dancers trained in at the time the young man decided to leave the Royal Ballet.
He is now an independent, having opted to reclaim liberties denied a dancer with a ballet company, and start living a life away from intensive training.
He explained his position in an interview for Elle magazine:
“I don’t want people to think of me as a dancer. I’m much more. I am a human being.”