STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you're a dancer and you make a living at it, you're tough because there is so much competition. For one Broadway musical, as many as 1,000 dancers can show up for auditions for maybe 20 spots. We wanted to find out what makes a dancer or choreographer stand out among the rest.

So NPR's Elizabeth Blair asked a handful of tastemakers in the dance world to nominate exceptional artists who they believe will emerge from the crowd in 2008.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: As editor in chief of Dance Magazine, Wendy Perron figures she sees about 20 dance performances a month. And she is constantly identifying special talents. She and her staff recently finished Dance Magazine's annual "25 to Watch" issue, from tango to hip-hop.

But it was Pittsburgh Ballet's Kumiko Tsuji who made the cover.

Ms. WENDY PERRON (Editor in Chief, Dance Magazine): She has this look like a little doll, like a little springy doll so you just can't miss her on stage.

BLAIR: This past year, Perron saw Kumiko Tsuji give an impromptu performance of a jazzy piece by Dwight Rhoden called "Smoke 'n' Roses."

Ms. PERRON: She just kind of slithered through it. She would do this little twist in her hips and then the leg would extend and then she'd be pirouetting, and you wouldn't really know what happened but you'd see this very detailed, fluid movement. It just fascinated me.

(Soundbite of song, "I Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues")

Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD (Singer): (Singing) Ain't got a dream that is working. I ain't got nothing but the blues.

BLAIR: Kumiko Tsuji is now a principal dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet.

A choreographer is to dance what a writer and director are to movies. He or she comes up with ideas or storylines, works out all of the movements and often designs the entire look of a dance.

Shen Wei is a choreographer who won a MacArthur genius grant this year. He has a background in Chinese opera. He's also a painter. Those influences make him one of today's most exciting artists, according to Jodee Nimerichter, artistic director of the American Dance Festival.

Ms. JODEE NIMERICHTER (Artistic Director, American Dance Festival): When you go to see one of his works, which I have seen many, you will be really taken to a world that is a dreamlike fantasy, someplace you haven't gone before. The dancers are incredibly technical, but there is a visual element that transcends just the technical so you are seeing a very theatrical production beyond I think anything that we have seen before.

BLAIR: This coming year, Shen Wei Dance Arts performs "Re" as in revisit or rediscover. It's a work inspired by Shan Wei's travels to Tibet.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (Speaking in foreign language)

BLAIR: Like Shen Wei, American choreographer Alvin Ailey also crossed boundaries. An African-American, he founded what became one of the most iconic modern dance institutions in the world. Years after Ailey's death, his company continues to churn out stars.

Lula Washington, founder of the Lula Washington Dance Theater in Los Angeles, singles out Ailey alumnus and choreographer Christopher Huggins as someone to watch for in 2008.

Ms. LULA WASHINGTON (Founder, Lula Washington Dance Theater): Christopher came out of the Ailey tradition. So his work is very rooted in ballet, in modern and jazz. He has a unique way of putting it together so that it's breathtaking when you see it.

BLAIR: In the spring, the junior company Ailey II premieres Christopher Huggins' newest work, "When Dawn Comes," a lyrical piece about searching for something better.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: A choreographer needs dancers in the same way a painter needs lines and colors. At some companies, the creative process is a collaboration. At the wildly imaginative company Pilobolus, everyone contributes ideas. And what they come up with is a stunning mix of intertwining bodies, muscular leaps, choreography that looks like you're watching a moving sculpture change shape seamlessly.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: Pilobolus co-founder Robby Barnett nominates the equally adventurous choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak from Israel.

Mr. ROBBY BARNETT (Co-founder, Pilobolus): When I first saw Inbal and Avshalom's work, I was struck immediately by what I can only call their metabolism. It's a quick, very content-rich body of work. They dart from one idea to another. They create wonderful images that make a kind of dream logic.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: This year, Pilobolus and the Inbal Pinto Company collaborated on an absurdist work called "Rushes." One writer said it's like what would happen if Samuel Beckett met the Three Stooges.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: The most lucrative jobs in the dance world are on TV - music videos, commercials and the like. Dance coach and Tony winner Grover Dale runs answers4dancers.com, an information clearinghouse from Los Angeles. For him, the hottest young dancer in Hollywood is a 20-year-old from Fort Collins, Colorado, named Tony Testa, who is currently choreographing for Janet Jackson.

(Soundbite of song, "Show Me")

Ms. JANET JACKSON (Singer): (Singer) You know, I've heard every line. No baby, not this time…

BLAIR: Grover Dale says Tony Testa had formal training in tap, jazz and ballet.

Mr. GROVER DALE (Choreographer, answers4dancers.com): And it's interesting because his hip-hop moves while there's a freedom in it and it has this vibe of the street, he installs moments in it that show real line and real technique. Hip-hop itself is morphing into so many different styles. And it's getting influenced by people like Tony who come from a background of real, true dance training.

BLAIR: Tony Testa's breakthrough career move was making a homemade video of himself dancing his own choreography, a DVD that wound up in the hands of Janet Jackson. That made all the difference in a world where talent alone is not enough to get noticed.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to load this video of 2008's most promising dancers and choreographers. You can see it and listen to the music you heard in this piece by going to npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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