The 50 greatest living artists have been chosen because they exalt the human spirit through the creation of elegantly expressive objects and movingly modulated performances.
Lose yourself in these beautiful works and performances.
Each list consists of 10 persons in each of five categories: Dance and Drama; Film; Literature; Music; and Painting, Sculpture, and Related Media.
Within each category, the lists are alphabetical. Each individual’s country and year of birth, as well as primary field of artistic endeavor, are given in parentheses. Note: When the name of an artist’s birth country has changed, we give the name it had in the year of his birth first, with the current name afterwards, in square brackets.
In the performing arts categories (Dance and Drama; Music), not only authors (playwrights, choreographers, composers), but also performers (dancers, actors, singers, instrumentalists) are represented, as well as a few directors and conductors.
Whatever their individual differences, collectively these 50 artists demonstrate that in our day—rumors to the contrary notwithstanding—beauty is not dead.
Greatest Living Dance and Drama Artists
(USSR [Latvia], 1948; ballet dancer)
Below is a video of Baryshnikov in a competition performance of a part of La Bayadère (Moscow, 1969).
Often cited as one of the greatest male dancers of all time, Mikhail Baryshnikov began his dance studies at the relatively late age of 12. In 1967, at the age of 18, he joined the prestigious Kirov Ballet in Leningrad (now the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg).
By his twenties, Baryshnikov was recognized internationally as one of the most singular talents in the world, with a tremendous combination of physical strength, artistic mastery, and stage presence.
In 1974, while on a tour in Canada, Baryshnikov defected, seeking political asylum in Toronto. His first position in the West was with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, but before long he was principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre in New York City. While in New York, he also partnered frequently with the great Russian-American choreographer, George Balanchine, at the New York City Ballet—then as now, the preeminent company in the West, if not in the world. In 1980, he was named Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre, a post he filled until 1989.
Over the years, Baryshnikov has danced in all the great traditional roles, as well as many original ballets created for him by some of the greatest choreograpers of our time, including (in addition to Balanchine) Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, and Twyla Tharp. He has also acted in several roles in the legitimate theater, as well as in films and on television.
(UK, 1925; director)
Below is a video clip from Brook’s own 1967 film adaptation of his own production of the play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (popularly known as “Marat/Sade“), written by the German playwright Peter Weiss. In this clip, an inmate playing assassin Charlotte Corday (played by British actress Glenda Jackson) recounts her infatuation and disillusionment with the idea of revolution.
Peter Brook was born in London into a family of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. He was educated at the Westminster School and Magdalene College, Oxford.
He got his start as a theater director at the Torch Theater in London in 1943, with Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine. In 1947, he worked for a year in various productions of Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon.
From 1947 until 1950, Brook was Director of Productions at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. During this period, he obtained a reputation for controversial staging of classic works. His production of Richard Strauss’s Salome with sets by Salvador Dalí was particularly notable in this respect.
Two decades of critically acclaimed and increasingly talked-about stagings followed. In 1970, Brook formed his own company, the International Centre for Theatre Research, which toured widely, not only in Europe, but in North Africa and the Middle East, as well. This troupe—known by its French acronym, CIRT—has been permanently housed at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris for many years.
Brook is famous for the extremely long rehearsals—lasting many months, and even years—that he engages in with his performers, who in this way come to inhabit their roles in to an unprecedented extent. Over the years, he also became increasingly involved with African and Asian dramatic traditions, culminating in his extraordinary, nine-hour-long, 1985 production of the great Indian national epic, the Mahabharata, at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. This work was filmed as a TV miniseries by Brook himself in 1990.
Brook has also worked extensively as a film director, working from both his own and others’ plays and film scripts. Perhaps the best known of his films is The Lord of the Flies (1963), based on the William Golding novel.
(France, 1943; actress)
Below is the closing scene from the incomparable Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In a coda set several years after the main action of the film, the young lovers, now both married to other people, run into each other by chance.
Catherine Deneuve was born in Paris into a family of actors. Her exquisite beauty won her several small screen parts while she was still a teenager.
Her breakout role was that of Geneviève in Jacques Demy’s 1964, through-sung, filmed opera, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Geneviève is a young girl from a middle-class family fallen on hard times, who is in love with a working-class boy who gets drafted to fight in Algeria. A highly artificial confection that left not a dry eye in the house, Umbrellas was at the same time an inspired, sui generis classic, and Deneuve’s simple, unaffected performance was what made it all work. At age 21, Deneuve proved she could carry off a leading role, in varying registers from comedy to tragedy, with the unquestionable authority and effortless aplomb of a genuine star.
While other film actresses have perhaps possessed greater range than Deneuve, none has had a more brilliant career. In addition to making three more films for Jacques Demy, she has played in many major works by some of the greatest filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century, including Roman Polanski (Repulsion, 1965), Luis Buñuel (Belle de Jour, 1967; Tristana, 1970), François Truffaut (Le dernier métro, 1980), André Téchiné (Ma saison préferée, 1993; Les voleurs, 1996), Leos Carax (Pola X, 1999), Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, 2000), Manoel de Oliveira (I’m Going Home, 2001), François Ozon (8 femmes, 2002; Potiche, 2010), and Arnaud Desplechin (Rois et reine, 2004; Un conte de noël, 2008), to name only a few.
(USA, 1961; playwright)
The video clip below contains a flashback to the heroine, Vivian’s, student days. The present of the play is set in Vivian’s hospital room, where she is being treated for cancer.
Margaret Edson is perhaps the most unusual entry on this list. A public school teacher by profession, she has published and had produced only one play so far.
But what a play! Wit is without doubt one of a handful of the greatest plays to be written in the English language during the past 30 years.
Not that the genius of this work was immediately apparent to everyone. Edson sent the manuscript to over 60 theatrical companies before it was finally accepted by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. Originally running to two acts, the play was refined through the production process into its current, highly potent one-act form.
While Wit enjoyed a successful run in California, winning the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Award for 1995, few other companies showed much interest in picking it up at first.
The play finally opened on the east coast in 1997, at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. It was not long before it began to win rave notices from nationally known critics. In 1999, it transferred to the Union Square Theater (off-Broadway), where it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, among many others.
That same year, Edson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—a nearly unheard-of accolade for a playwright on her rookie outing.
Over the past 15 years, Wit has had hundreds of revivals, and been translated into dozens of languages. A film version starring Emma Thompson was shot in 2001, and in 2012 the play finally made it to Broadway, in a Manhattan Theatre Club production.
What is Wit about? In a phrase, it is about the power of art—in this case, poetry (more specifically, the Holy Sonnets of John Donne)—to provide spiritual sustenance to human beings under the greatest possible duress.
(UK, 1938; actor)
Below is a video clip of Jacobi performing Hamlet’s famous third soliloquy (“To be or not to be”), from a film version of the play made in 1980 for the BBC.
With the passing of the generation of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Alec Guinness, Derek Jacobi remains in the eyes of many the finest living English-speaking actor.
Jacobi caught the acting bug in high school. He went on to act at Cambridge University, and upon graduation joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
Spotted there by Laurence Olivier and taken under his wing, Jacobi returned to London and Olivier’s new National Theatre in 1963, where he set about transforming himself into one of the best interpreters of Shakespeare of his generation, with the occasional foray into Chekhov and other more contemporary classics.
Although principally a stage actor, Jacobi is probably best known to the general public for his unforgettable role as the Roman Emperor Claudius, in the 1976 BBC television adaptation of the Robert Graves novel, I, Claudius.
With his stutter and his limp, with his intellectual distance from the carnage surrounding him and his despairing knowledge of his own complicity in it, Jacobi’s Claudius springs off the television screen and into life. Two thousand years peal away as if by magic, revealing an unmistakable man of flesh and blood in all his contradictions.
Jacobi has also appeared in a number of films (notably Kenneth Branaugh’s 1989 version of Henry V), as well as in the popular British TV series, Cadfael, and other television productions.
Over the years, Jacobi has returned again and again to Hamlet, once taking the play on a world tour of countries from Sweden, to Greece, to Egypt, to Australia, to China and Japan.
6Bill T. Jones
(USA, 1952; choreographer)
Below is a video clip which combines highlights from two of Bill T. Jones’s most beautiful and mysterious works.
Bill T. Jones was born in Florida, but his family moved to western New York State when he was a child.
After studying classical ballet and modern dance at SUNY Binghamton, Jones teamed up with the late Arnie Zane to create a series of widely admired solo and duet dance performances. In 1982, they formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, based in New York City. The Company has performed in over 200 cities in 40 countries on every major continent.
The Company collectively, and Jones individually, also collaborate with many renowned guest dancers, choreographers, directors, composers, conductors, string quartets, and other musical ensembles from around the United States and the world.
Jones has choreographed many works for others, including Sir Michael Tippett’s New Year (1990) and Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain (1992).
However, he is best known for his original creations, including Infinite Momentum (1983), Virgil Thompson Études (1986), D-Man in the Waters (1989), Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1992), Still/Here (1994), Spent Days Out Yonder (2000), Chapel/Chapter (2006), A Quarreling Pair (2006), and Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray (2009), to name only a few.
Jones’s signature style is to imbue modern dance’s essentially abstract movements with the gracefulness, fluidity, and thematic power that one usually associates with narrative classical ballet.
Jones has won practically every award the dance world has to offer, including several Tony Awards for Best Choreography. In addition, he has won the Gish Prize—given annually to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life”—as well as Ohio State University’s Wexner Prize and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
In 2013, Jones received the National Medal of Arts.
(Canada, 1957; director)
Below is a short documentary which includes Robert Lepage discussing his groundbreaking production of the Ring cycle.
Robert Lepage was born and raised in Quebec City. He studied in his home town’s Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique, as well as in Paris.
Returning to Canada, Lepage worked for about a decade in Quebec City, writing and staging numerous plays, before being appointed Director of the Théâtre Français of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, a post he held from 1989 until 1993.
In 1994, Lepage formed his own theatrical company in Quebec City, Ex Machina, a multidisciplinary company which collects under one roof actors, writers, singers and other musicians, set designers, computer graphics and video artists, puppeteers, and even circus performers.
Earlier in his career, Lepage focused on writing and producing his own plays, including Vinci (1986), Needles and Opium (1991), Tectonic Plates (1992), and The Far Side of the Moon (2000).
More recently, however, Lepage has concentrated his energies on mounting increasingly spectacular productions of classical works, as well as contemporary plays by others. Among the most celebrated of these have been his productions of Strindberg’s A Dream Play in Stockholm (1994), Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust in Japan (1999), a double bill consisting of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung in Toronto (2001), Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Brussels (2007), and Stravinsky’s The Nightingale in Toronto (2009).
In a class by itself, however, is the three-season-long production that brought Robert Lepage to international fame beyond the confines of the cognoscenti: his audacious, unprecedented, and breathtaking staging of Wagner’s complete Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 2010 through 2012.
Lepage has also directed films based on some of his own plays, as well as acted in films directed by others, notably Denys Arcand’s Jésus de Montréal (1989). Since 2005, he has collaborated with Cirque du Soleil on their circus-spectacles in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
(Czechoslovakia[Czech Republic], 1937; playwright)
The video clip below consists of a compilation of scenes from Arcadia.
Tom Stoppard was born Tomáš Straussler in the town of Zlín in Moravia, which then belonged to Czechoslovakia and today forms a part of the Czech Republic.
The family, which was Jewish (though non-observant), left one step ahead of German occupying troops in 1939, traveling first to Singapore and then to Australia, before finally settling in Darjeeling, in British-run India.
The future playwright’s father was killed in the war fighting for the British. Thereafter, the boy’s mother remarried a British Army major named Kenneth Stoppard whom she met in India.
Stoppard has noted that his personal history has had an important impact on his psyche, and hence on his art, stating that
I fairly often find I’m with people who forget I don’t quite belong in the world we’re in. I find I put a foot wrong—it could be pronunciation, an arcane bit of English history—and suddenly I’m there naked, as someone with a pass, a press ticket.
After the war was over, the boy and his family finally relocated to the UK, where young Tom (as he was now known) attended high school in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. He left school without finishing. In later year he would express regret for his lack of a university education—a delicious irony coming from what is without a doubt the brainiest playwright of his (or any other) generation!
The reason why Stoppard left school early was to take a job as a newspaper reporter in Bristol. He would work there for five years before being promoted to theater critic, in which capacity he began attending performances at the Bristol Old Vic, a well-regarded regional repertory company. There, became friends with the director John Boorman and the actor Peter O’Toole, when they were just starting out.
The young reporter and theatrical hanger-on had the ambition to write. After several false starts, in 1964 Stoppard produced an early version of his first mature and characteristic play—Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—which would take its final shape two years later at the Edinburgh Festival. When the National Theatre mounted a production at the Old Vic in London the following year (1967), the play—and its young playwright—became overnight sensations.
No one had ever seen anything quite like Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead before. It is, of course, broadly a part of the “theater of the absurd” movement of Beckett, Ionesco, Albee, and many others, then in its heyday. But whereas those plays hearkened back to surrealism, Stoppard’s confection looked forward to a more “postmodern” form of existential unease.
Essentially retelling the story of Hamlet from the point of view of two minor characters, the play is hilariously funny—in the time-honored tradition of slapstick—while at the same time strangely unnerving.
It is as though through these two uncouth minor characters, we are vouchsafed a glimpse of the cosmic insignificance—the “spear-bearer” or “extra” quality—of our own lives. And yet the characters of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are at the same time oddly lovable. Stoppard seems to sweeten the bitter pill of his existential nihilism with a saving, very-English decency.
But this was only the start. Stoppard did not dwell for long in the camp of postmodernism. Rather, he invented a genre entirely his own: the erudite romp, the intellectual laugh-fest.
A string of plays on arcane topics flowed from his pen—Jumpers (1972—epistemology), Travesties (1974—revolutionary politics and art), Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (1979—Wittgenstein’s theory of language), and Hapgood (1988—quantum physics).
Beginning with The Real Thing (1982—about a failed love affair), Stoppard began to open up his art from his trademark stew of frenzied farce and deep thinking into a somewhat clearer and calmer dramatic world in which—for the first time in his oeuvre—strong feeling finds room to breathe.
A string of masterworks followed, each still focused on particular topics (frequently historical), but in which the verbal and conceptual pyrotechnics have now moved from center stage to assume their proper role as means to an end.
This new style led to a string of innovative masterpieces, combining traditional dramatic delights with thoughtful probing of a wide variety of serious intellectual subjects: Arcadia (1993—Romantic poetry, chaos theory), The Invention of Love (1997—the poetry of A.E. Housman), The Coast of Utopia (2002—early 19th century Russian intellectuals), and, most recently, The Hard Problem (2015—the science of consciousness).
Stoppard has also written screenplays for the cinema, notably for Shakespeare in Love (1998).
(India, 1956; Indian classical dancer)
Below is a short video clip of one of Valli’s early works from the 1980s.
Born in Chennai (then known as Madras), in Tamil Nadu, Alarmel Valli’s training was focused on Bharatanatyam, a form of dance that originated in the Hindu temples of South India more than 2000 years ago.
Her training also included intensive study of Indian classical music and Tamil classical poetry.
Valli won her first dancing competition in Chennai at the age of nine. She went on to win a prize at a prestigious international competition organized by the Sarah Bernhardt Theater in Paris in 1972, and subsequently garnered honors in many other international competitions.
Equally popular with critics and with the general public, Valli’s tautly disciplined yet deeply moving performances have been the subject of numerous film and television documentaries over the years.
Today, Valli teaches Bharatanatyam at the Dance India Faculty of the Milapfest international arts organization in Liverpool in the UK.
(USSR [Ukraine], 1979; ballerina)
Here she is in Mikhail Fokine’s classic 1905 ballet, The Dying Swan, set to Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan,” from his Carnival of the Animals (1886).
If ever there were a Platonic form of the death of a noble creature, this performance surely approaches as near to it as mortal flesh will allow.
Svetlana Zakharova was born in the provincial town of Lutsk, in what is now Ukraine. She was educated in Kiev and at St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy, before being admitted to the prestigious Mariinsky Ballet (also in St. Petersburg), where she debuted in 1996. There she rose to international stardom, before moving to Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet in 2003.
Over the years, Zakharova has made an indelible impression with magnificent performances in most of the great classical ballets, including Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and La Bayadère.
Zakharova has it all, combining brilliant technical mastery (especially her exquisite footwork and exceptionally high extensions) with superb musicality and a commanding stage presence. A frequent guest performer at Milan’s La Scala theater, she has been recognized as a “prima donna assoluta“—one of only three in the world, currently.