Broadway choreography may seem most closely associated with jazz dance, but as the form evolves, the diversity of styles on a Broadway stage has exploded to include swing, tap, hip-hop, funk, and more—often within a single theatrical work. Of course, as a foundational technique, ballet appears in some of Broadway’s most influential and iconic choreography. In many ways, ballet is ideally suited for musical theatre; it is a form of dance which hinges on the conveyence of clear narrative. In fact, ballet was the first dance vocabulary used to propel story in a musical, transforming the art of musical theatre to what we know and love today.
Ballet continues to be a vital part of Broadway’s dance vocabulary. But more than a style of dance presented onstage or a training ground for dancers, there exists a history of ballet choreographers (be it from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, etc.) who took the leap to musical theatre storytelling on Broadway.
Here, we examine seven people that came from the world of ballet to choreograph a musical on Broadway.
Best Known For: On Your Toes
The Russian-born Balanchine became immersed in ballet beginning at age nine when he started studying at the Imperial Ballet School. He enrolled in the Petrograd Conservatory and danced there as part of the corps de ballet. In 1924, he joined the famed Ballets Russes company as a choreographer and was quickly promoted to ballet master. After his emigration to the States, he founded the School of American Ballet in 1934. He first worked on Broadway choreographing some individual numbers for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, but he truly made his mark with the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes that same year. The show featured two ballets, including the climactic “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” that also found success as a stand-alone piece. In the show, “Slaughter” is a ballet performed by the character of Junior, who happens to be the target of a mob hit. Junior discovers that he’s going to be murdered as soon as the ballet finishes. The police are on their way, but when the end of the ballet nears, the authorities haven’t arrived yet. Junior motions to the conductor to keep playing and starts repeating the end of the ballet—literally dancing for his life—until the police finally arrive. Though the connection to the plot of On Your Toes feels slight, it still earned “Slaughter” the distinction of being the first plot-driven dance piece in a musical.
Balanchine went on to choreograph a string of Rodgers and Hart musicals, including Babes in Arms, I Married an Angel, and The Boys From Syracuse, also working on Louisiana Purchase, Cabin in the Sky, and Where’s Charley?. In the ballet world, he also notably co-founded the New York City Ballet and served there as artistic director for more than 35 years.
Agnes de Mille
Best Known for: Oklahoma!
De Mille also came from the classical ballet world, starting out with American Ballet Theatre in 1939 (called Ballet Theatre at the time) and notably choreographing Rodeo for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1942. Based on that success, she came to Broadway a year later and built upon what Balanchine had started with On Your Toes. Working with Rodgers and Hammerstein on what would become a hit in 1943 (Oklahoma!), de Mille constructed the first choreography wholly integrated with the plot. She brought her classical background to the Act 1 ending dream ballet—a number which portrayed insights into the leading lady’s existential crisis through her dream as opposed to staging a dance routine as an entertaining pause in the action. Even with more traditional Broadway-style numbers like “The Farmer and the Cowman,” de Mille brought an unprecedented storytelling eye to Broadway dance that changed the game.
De Mille went on to choreograph Rodgers and Hammerstein’s next Broadway show, Carousel, which used ballet even more extensively than Oklahoma! had. She became one of the earliest female directors on Broadway when she directed and choreographed Allegro, but most of her career she remained purely a choreographer, creating original dances for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Brigadoon (for which she received the first Tony Award for Best Choreography in 1947), Paint Your Wagon, Goldilocks, and 110 in the Shade.
Best Known for: West Side Story
If de Mille brought story-centered ballet numbers to Broadway, Robbins expanded that idea to create full shows that were as much dance pieces as they were musicals. After working as a soloist with American Ballet Theatre from 1941–1944, Robbins burst onto the choreography scene with his 1944 ballet Fancy Free for the company—which he also performed in—and which featured a score by a then-relatively unknown Leonard Bernstein. This ballet was adapted into the Broadway musical On the Town, which featured extensive ballet sequences throughout.
West Side Story marks Robbins’ masterwork, a 1956 re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in New York City’s Upper West Side. Robbins conceived, choreographed, and directed the piece, which integrated dance into the fabric of its storytelling to such a level it became one of the first musicals to dispense with idea of separate ensembles for dancers and singers—the performers in West Side Story all had to be able to sing, dance, and act. Robbins won the Tony for his choreography of West Side Story, his second win after High Button Shoes in 1958. A multi-hyphenate, he won for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography in 1965 for Fiddler on the Roof.
Robbins spent much of his career alternating between the worlds of concert ballet dance and Broadway, where he directed and choreographed shows like Gypsy, Peter Pan, and Bells Are Ringing. A retrospective of his Broadway work made it to the Main Stem in 1989: Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the 1989 Tony-winning Best Musical.
Best Known for: Cats
In the ’60s and ’70s, ballet took a back seat on Broadway, as choreographers like Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett made their jazz-based dancing reign, but it came roaring back when Broadway opened the most successful dance show in its history: Cats. Gillian Lynne had been making a name for herself as a ballet dancer and choreographer working in the worlds of European opera and ballet when she was tapped to choreograph this unusual plotless musical based on a book of children’s poems by T.S. Eliot. Despite this, Lynne translated the physical vocabulary of cats onto human dancers. Combined with John Napier and Candace Carell’s iconic costume and make-up designs, respectively, Lynne helped make Cats Broadway’s longest-running show in history, a distinction it held until January 2006 when it was beat out by the still-running The Phantom of the Opera (also choreographed by Lynne).
Best Known for: Movin’ Out
Before she came to Broadway, Twyla Tharp had already made a name for herself with her Twyla Tharp Dance company, known for groundbreaking movement set to contemporary pop music. Tharp made an early Broadway musical foray in 1985, directing and choreographing a short-lived stage adaptation of the film classic Singin’ in the Rain. She didn’t return to Broadway for more than 17 years, but when she did, she wowed critics and audiences with a piece true to her roots. The 2002 Movin’ Out featured a live band perched above the stage playing the greatest hits of Billy Joel, while a company of 22 dancers crafted a story of five friends and lovers over three decades of love, war, and loss—exclusively told through dance. Tharpe, who concieved, directed, and choreographed the piece, won a Tony Award for her choreography and the show became a long-running hit on Broadway.
Tharpe followed up Movin’ Out with two additional original Broadway dance pieces, 2006’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ (with a score of Bob Dylan songs) and 2010’s Come Fly Away (a tribute to songs made famous by Frank Sinatra).
Best Known for: An American in Paris
Wheeldon began as a young ballet dancer at Britain’s Royal Ballet School before joining the Royal Ballet as a company member in 1991. Just two years later, he joined the New York City Ballet and was named a soloist in 1998, though he began choreographing for the company a year prior. A contemporary ballet choreographer, Wheeldon’s association with Gershwin’s An American in Paris began in 2005, when he premiered his 21-minute original ballet to the Gershwin score at New York City Ballet. Ten years later, Wheeldon returned to the work by adapting the 1951 film by the same name into a full-length Broadway musical. With songs from the catalogue of George and Ira Gershwin, An American in Paris featured the most-extensive ballet choreography in a new show on Broadway in years. Wheeldon, who directed and choreographed the new Broadway musical, won the 2015 Best Choreography Tony Award for his work. The show opened in London in 2017, where it was filmed for screenings set to land in movie theatres later this year.
Best Known for: Carousel
Broadway’s newest ballet choreographer is Justin Peck, currently working on the Broadway revival of Carousel. Only 30 years old, Peck has quickly become one of the country’s preeminent choreographers, working with companies like New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and even Paris Opera Ballet. He began as student at the School of American Ballet (remember, founded by Balanchine) at the age of 15, and started dancing as an apprentice with New York City Ballet in 2006. Having been a full-time dancer with the company since 2007, he was appointed Resident Choreographer of New York City Ballet in 2014. Carousel marks his first outing on Broadway. He carries on the tradition of ballet’s place in this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, following de Mille’s original choreography in the show’s 1945 premiere production.