Lester Horton: The Social Conscience of the Modern Dance World

Horton relaxing after rehearsal with Sondra Orans, left, and Joyce Trisler. Photo by Bob Willoughby, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

One of the first choreographers to have a racially integrated dance company, Lester Horton (1906–1953) developed a series of movement exercises that have now been codified as the Horton technique. He also introduced modern dance to the West Coast: His Dance Theater in West Hollywood was the first modern dance venue for performance and teaching in Los Angeles.

The Indiana native's introduction to dance might have occurred with a Denishawn performance, a touring Wild West show with Native American dancing or Anna Pavlova's company, depending on what story he chose to tell. (Horton had a flair for the dramatic.) After briefly studying ballet, he teamed up with director Clara Bates to choreograph, star in and design the costumes for The Song of Hiawatha, which put him on the dance map while still a teenager. A short stint with Japanese dancer Michio Ito led to the formation of the first of Horton's several dance companies, the Dance Repertory Group.


As a choreographer, Horton was known for broaching unusual topics, like political strife and multiculturalism. He welcomed Alvin Ailey, Bella Lewitzky, James Truitte, Joyce Trisler and Carmen de Lavallade, among others, into his fold, all of whom would go on to create their own work. Today, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is most famously rooted in his technique.

MOVEMENT VOCABULARY

Essentials of Horton technique include:

• FORTIFICATIONS: 17 movement studies (such as the Achilles stretch and lunge stretch), designed to strengthen and stretch the muscles; each targets a specific body part or quality of movement.

• LATERAL T: Hallmark movement of Horton technique; correct execution of this movement resembles the letter T. While standing on one leg, tilt torso 90 degrees, extending opposite leg for counterbalance.

• DIMENSIONAL TONUS: Also known as the “yawn stretch," this combination includes parts of all 17 fortifications and acts as a warm-up summary, with ascents, descents and dramatic directional changes.

Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives, courtesy of Ailey archives, by John Dady, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

THE WORK

Horton introduced a new genre of performance: the choreodrama, which skillfully intertwined dance movement and theater. Though his choreography is seldom performed today, notable works include:

- Salome (1934): Based on Oscar Wilde's salacious play of the same name, this piece exists in at least six different versions—Horton liked to keep it fresh.

- Le Sacre du Printemps (1937): Horton's rendition of Nijinsky's original work, set to Stravinsky's music, was the first the West Coast had seen of this iconic piece at its Hollywood Bowl premiere.

- The Beloved (1948): Horton's inspiration for this duet came from a newspaper article in which a man bludgeoned his wife to death with a Bible.

THE LEGACY LIVES ON

After Horton's death, the Lester Horton Dance Theater in West Hollywood continued to exist for seven more years. When Ailey moved to New York in 1954, several dancers followed him, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, rooted in Horton's style, was soon born. Companies and schools that utilize Horton technique include:

• Alonzo King LINES Dance Center

• The Ailey School

• Philadanco

• Dayton Contemporary Dance Company

• Dallas Black Dance Theatre

• Cleo Parker Robinson Dance

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