Monday, March 2, 2009

Lester Horton

Lester Horton

Lester Horton was a choreographic individualist on the West Coast and did not bring his Los Angeles company to New York until shortly before his death in 1953. Born in 1906, Horton studied art and ballet and became involved in little theatre activities in his native Indianapolis. American Indian culture fascinated him, and in 1928 he was invited to California to stage a pageant based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. As a young Bohemian, Horton kept his hair long and bushy and favored Indian shirts and huaraches. He directed plays and pageants and worked with Michio Ito, then organized his own Lester Horton Dancers in 1932.

Horton explored the black, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican communities of Los Angeles and made friends in all of these districts. He staged dances on Mexican, Haitian, and American Indian themes. He also choreographed his own version of Le Sacre du Printemps in 1937. One dramatic subject that obsessed him all his life was the story of Salome. He created his first Salome in 1934; other versions followed in later years, one under the title Face of Violence. Under any title, Salome was forceful and macabre.

Also in 1934, Horton began his association with Bella Lewitzky, a strikingly dramatic performer who for the next fifteen years served as his choreographic guinea pig and leading lady. Together, they began to develop a systematized plan of teaching, laying the groundwork of what came to be known as "Horton technique."

Just as modern dancers often took work in the commercial theatre in order to earn money, so Horton's dancers appeared ill stage shows and Hollywood films. Horton struggled to make ends meet. Yet he managed to survive and, by doing so, he demonstrated that New York did not have to be the only home for modern dance in America.

Until his death in 1953, Lester Horton remained active in Los Angeles. His later works included further revisions of Salome, as well as The Beloved, a savage portrait of a stern, religiously bigoted husband who kills his wife when he suspects her of infidelity. Horton welcomed dancers of all races into his company and, a generous man, offered a multitude of scholarships. Among the dancers who worked with him in the years before his death were Alvin Ailey, Carmen de Lavallade, Joyce Trisler, and James Truitte.

Excerpted from Art Without Boundaries: The World of Modern Dance
By Jack Anderson

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