Lester Horton (1906-1953) by Naima Prevots
Lester Horton lived and worked in Los Angeles from 1929 until his death, creating a significant body of concert and movie choreography, and a training technique currently used in numerous studios and schools. Many performers and choreographers have credited their success to working in his company and studying with him, among them Alvin Ailey, Janet Collins, Bella Lewitzky, Joyce Trisler, James Mitchell, Carmen de Lavallade, and James Truitte. He initiated the first theater space devoted to modern dance in Los Angeles, and developed a multi-racial company ahead of its time.
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, he developed an interest in the American Indian as a young boy. In eighth grade he wrote an essay,
“The Indian in his Native Art,” based on experiences visiting nearby archeological sites and studying American Indian exhibits in his hometown children’s museum. Horton became fascinated by dance and theater when, in 1922 and 1923, Ruth St. Denisand Ted Shawn’s touring took them to Indianapolis. He began training with a local teacher, Theo Hewes, who had a background in ballet. After a year of study, he began teaching at her studio. In 1925 he answered an audition call by a former Denishawn dancer, Forrest Thornburg, who was in charge of a touring company.
Horton toured for several months with this group, learning much of the Denishawn repertory and helping with rehearsals, costumes, and general production details. Upon returning to Indianapolis in 1926, he became acquainted with Clara Bates. She was involved in producing and directing theater. She was also a student of American Indian folklore, songs and dances, with a personal collection of related art and artifacts. Their interests merged when Bates developed a pageant based on Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha, performed in 1926 and 1927. Horton arranged the dances, did some of the staging, created costumes, and played the role of Hiawatha.
The West Coast productions of The Song of Hiawatha marked a significant turning point for Horton. In 1928, Bates was invited to bring Hiawatha to the Argus Bowl, a natural amphitheater on the estate of her friend Lysbeth Argus. A repeat invitation was offered and accepted in 1929, and this time Horton was listed as director. Bates went back to Indianapolis, and Horton decided to stay and begin an independent career in Los Angeles.
A formative experience for Horton, in the summer of 1929, was his work with Michio Ito, who had recently arrived in Los Angeles from New York as the result of an offer to work on the movie No, No, Nannette. Ito, born in Japan, was an innovative artist who had a rich background in dance and theatre in Europe and the United States: study at the Dalcroze School (Hellerau, 1912); work with Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats on a Noh based dance/drama, At the Hawk’s Well (first produced in 1916 in England); creation in New York of two works for Adolph Bolm’s Ballet-Intime (1917); and choreography for the Neighborhood Playhouse with a cast including Martha Graham(New York, 1928). Horton’s study with Ito culminated in performances at the Argus Bowl, August -September 2, in which he played a major role in At the Hawk’s Well.
Horton created his first solo concert choreography (Kootenai War Dance) in 1931,and the next year began to develop his training methods with a group of students from Glendale High School. A major breakthrough came that same year when Horton was invited to participate with the same group in the Dance Festival that took place during the Los Angeles Olympic Games.
There were six evenings of dance, featuring over 50 choreographers and performers. Horton contributed two dances: Kootenai War Dance and a new group piece, Voodo Ceremonial. The success of these presentations brought new ventures: two weeks of performances by his group at Paramount Theatre, sharing the bill with Judy Garland and her two sisters; and creation of a new pageant, Takwish, The Star Maker.
It was also in 1932 that Horton began teaching at the studio of Norma Gould, an established dancer and choreographer who had designed her space in Los Angeles as a forum for diverse artists to use for both teaching and performance. Different systems of modern dance and ballet were taught and performed, as well as Indian, African, Native American, and Spanish dance forms. Gould and Horton shared several programs. The most interesting occurred in 1935, when they joined forces for an evening called Sun Cycle. Performers included Gould and Horton’s dancers, and a group of Hopi Indians.
Horton was rapidly becoming an important dance artist, and in 1934 gave the first full evening of his own work at the Shrine Auditorium. During the next three years, Horton and his company gave concerts at Gould’s Dance Theatre, Figueroa Playhouse, Tuesday Afternoon Club of Glendale, Philharmonic Auditorium, Pasadena Playhouse, and Hollywood Concert Hall. During the years 1929-1937, he had been exposed to many influences through the artistry of more mature artists who were living or working in Los Angeles, such as Michio Ito, Benjamin Zemach, Muriel Stuart, Adolph Bolm, Theodore Kosloff, Jose Fernandez, Albertina Rasch, and Manuel
Perez. Many of these artists came initially for movie work, and while not all became permanent residents, some stayed for sufficient periods of time to have an influence through their teaching and choreography.
A significant mark of recognition for Horton came in 1937, when he was asked to create a ballet for the Hollywood Bowl. On
August 5, at that prestigious venue, his choreography to Stravinsky’s score for Le Sacre du Printemps was premiered. There, on a large stage for an audience of almost 20,000, Horton emerged in the public eye, creating a mature and sustained work that showed his style, use of music, theatricality, and integration of varied artistic influences. Over the next years, he became a well-known teacher, choreographed many new works, and developed a strong company. In 1938, the company made its San Francisco debut and Horton was invited to teach a summer session at Mills College. In 1942 he began work in the movies, and through 1953 was involved in creating the dances for nineteen Hollywood films, among them Moonlight in Havana, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Salome, Where She Danced, Bagdad, and South Sea Woman.
Horton’s dream was to create his own modern dance theater in Los Angeles, and a 4,000-square-foot building was purchased in West Hollywood. Dance Theatre, as it was called, opened in May, 1948, and it became a center of activity for performance and teaching. The concept was to have a school and theater side by side. The school would allow for systematic development of dancers. The theater would provide a venue for regular performances by the company, with tickets at reasonable prices. Although there had been many studios in Los Angeles, this was the first time there was a building devoted to teaching and choreography in the arena of modern dance. After Horton’s death, his partner Frank Eng kept Dance Theatre open for seven more years, producing several seasons of dance. Since 1960, there has not been a full concert of Horton’s work.
In 1996, the Library of Congress purchased the Lester Horton archives, and American University (Washington, D.C.) was asked to be a partner in a unique venture: the Library would be the repository for the choreographer’s notes and pictures, and the university dance program would bring his work to life with a week of performances. In December of that year, three of Horton’s choreographic works were reconstructed: The Beloved, Dedication to Jose Clemente Orozco, and Another Touch of Klee; there was also a demonstration of his technique. As of 2011, Horton’s work is not often reconstructed or performed, and there are no commercial recordings of his choreography.
Horton’s legacy resides in a range of accomplishments: the creation of a unique training technique still used today; a visionary belief that modern dance in Los Angeles was viable, at a time when artists were gravitating to New York; the development of a company that brought together young people of different cultures and ethnicities, when this was exceptional; the purchase of a building that would house a company, a theater, and school for modern dance; a dedication to ensuring that young artists working with him learned not only dance, choreography, and improvisation, but also all aspects of production; and success in staking out an original choreographic voice in the concert field, and in his work for the movies.
The technique that Horton developed is often reflected in Alvin Ailey’s choreography. It is marked by strong thrusts of extended arms, legs, and torso; broad strokes of the body in space; hips used as accents and motivators; lunges and deep second-position pliés that emphasize power and space; swings of the legs and torsos, leaps and jumps into space. His concert choreography is primarily acknowledged today through occasional reconstructions and historic footage, and shows a mastery of solo and group interactions, as well as social commentary. He is remembered as a very special mentor, whose gift was not only to demand extraordinary commitment, accomplishment and performance, but also to demand individual development and exploration from all those who worked with him.
Naima Prevots, Professor Emerita, American University, Washington, D.C., has been a performer, choreographer, writer, administrator, educator, and critic. She has written three books, several monographs and many articles. Honors include: National Endowment for Humanities Fellowship; six Fulbright Fellowships, and awards from CORD, and other groups. She is currently working on a book about American dance, 1953-2010.
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