Bisexual American dancer Isadora Duncan based her career on a rejection of the highly technical ballet popular in the 19th century and the embrace of a more freeform, natural style inspired by Greek artwork. She began teaching dance as a child before moving to Britain after limited professional success in the United States. Although her attempts to found her own dance schools floundered, her influence did spread, bringing a new aesthetic to American and Western European dance; what troupe she did forge she called the Isadorables. Her memoir was published soon after her accidental death, and was written due to a sharp decline in her fortunes as age made performing less of a possibility and her sympathy for the Soviet Union left her unpopular. A dance company named after her now performs her pieces with an all-female troupe.
Known worldwide by her family name alone, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was among 20th century France’s most respected novelists. Her style, characterized by the liberal use of punchy metaphors and semi-autobiographical details, vividly sketched out the complexities of her protagonists’ love affairs and failures. In between writing stints and husbands (her first would lock her in her room as a motivational technique) she took work in Paris’s dance halls, becoming infamous for a performance at the Moulin Rouge in which she shared a kiss with another woman.
For her accomplishments as an author Colette was awarded first membership in and then the presidency of the prestigious Académie Goncourt, a French literary society, and was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor. She was given a state funeral (the first for a woman) and buried at the Père-Lachaise cemetery.
From childhood tap dancing lessons to pioneering the integration of computers and dance (such as his webcast series Mondays with Merce), choreographer Merce Cunningham spent his whole life on the move. His work was defined by innovations, the most famous of which was his partnership with composer John Cage. The two men met when Cunningham was first beginning to create his own independent works and remained romantically and artistically involved for nearly fifty years until Cage passed away. As part of their collaboration the two pioneered a new relationship between music and dance that suited Cunningham’s abstract, narrative-less style: separating the two entirely to the point where Cunningham’s dancers would rehearse in silence. Their shared love of chance and Cunningham’s original steps were controversial, but the end result was a lifetime of accolades for Cunningham and posthumous recognition of his invaluable contributions to the modern dance scene.
Although American composer John Cage is best known now for 4’33” (a piece lasting the listed duration during which the performer produces no intentional sound, and which has its own TEDx. talk), he first found his musical footing as a dance accompanist, adding percussive pieces to a “prepared” piano. His love of unusual projects took him through the philosophical 4’33” and into music composed through the flip of a coin. He employed the same chance-based approach in his paintings and other works as well.
At least some of Cage’s fruitful, creative career can be credited to his romantic and professional partnership with modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham. While Cage never officially came out, he described his relationship with Cunningham thusly: “I cook and Merce does the dishes.”
Rudolf Nureyev was one of several world caliber gay and bisexual ballet dancers to come out of the Russia/the Soviet Union in the 20th century. He is credited with establishing an elevated role for male ballet dancers who had previously been used more as a support system for the female leads.In addition to numerous modern dance and ballet pieces, Nureyev had roles in several films, as well as a comedic guest appearance on The Muppet Show. Although he was raised in the Soviet Union he impulsively defected while on tour in France, an incident which led to a decades-long grudge from the KGB that kept him from returning to his home country until he was dying from AIDS and in a poor state to perform.
It is uncertain whether Nureyev would be better described as gay or bisexual. His on and off partner of 25 years was a fellow dancer, a Dane named Erik Bruhn, but he did have heterosexual relationships in his younger years.
Shi Pei Pu (Chinese: 时佩璞), a 20th century Chinese opera singer and dancer specializing in female roles, is better known now for his unusual espionage saga than for his art. His fluent French was put to use when he met a diplomat at a party, igniting a nearly twenty year (sometimes long-distance) romantic and sexual relationship built on his requests for confidential French documents. Both he and the other man were later caught, and he served several years of prison time before being pardoned. After his release Shi remained in Paris as an opera performer; his death warranted a mention in Time. His story was loosely adapted into the play M. Butterfly.
Shi’s espionage case achieved notoriety due to the gender dynamics involved. Although reports on how it started vary between outright lying and insinuation, one way or another Shi’s lover was convinced that he was a woman for the duration of their relationship, including through a faked pregnancy. Although Shi was reluctant to speak on the details to the press, he did explain that he “used to fascinate both men and women” and that “what [he] was and what they were didn’t matter”.
Near the end of her life at the age of 74, San Franciscan Vicki Marlane was known as “possibly the oldest living, continuously performing, transgender entertainer in the country.” She began her career dancing in Minnesota before cycling through assorted gigs and ending her journey in the Bay Area. Her act at the bar Aunt Charlie’s earned her the nickname “the girl with the liquid spine.” Although she considered herself a transgender woman since at least the 1980s, she continued performing drag until the year of her death.
Marlane’s interview with the New York Times and a documentary about her life brought her national attention. In 2014, a block in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood was renamed after her following a petition by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club; she is the first transgender person in the city to be given such an honor.
Marlane’s old Facebook group contains photographs and footage of her act.