Although Louis Horst (1884–1964) was neither a dancer nor choreographer, his importance in shaping modern dance is unquestionable. With a career that spanned 50 years, Horst became one of the most highly regarded dance composition teachers of his time, rivaled only by Doris Humphrey. Most closely associated with Martha Graham, who once listed among his attributes “his imagination, his cruelty, his demonic will and his skill,” Horst’s contributions are manifold, from pushing Graham to clarify her technique to giving modern dance a disciplined structure to creating the first literature on dance criticism and theory.
Born on January 12, 1884, in Kansas City, Missouri, Horst’s German immigrant parents soon moved the family to San Francisco. There, his father, a trumpet player, searched for jobs, while Louis observed strict hours of daily piano and violin practice. Leaving home at age 16, Horst played any venue that would pay him: silent movies, orchestras, casinos, brothels—all were part of his bohemian lifestyle.
In 1915, Horst was offered a two-week engagement as musical director for the Denishawn Dance Company, where he got his wife, Betty, a job as a dancer. Horst’s two-week stint turned into 10 years. As he put it, “Once I saw a dance, I felt the movement.” But it wasn’t until Graham auditioned for the company in 1916 that his life’s purpose became clear. Over the next nine years, the two developed a deep and abiding friendship, eventually becoming lovers. And when Graham left Denishawn in 1925, Horst also decided it was time to move on. He studied music composition in Vienna for five months, before returning to the United States to work with Graham in New York City.
Horst demanded of Graham (as he did every student) rigorous discipline. His influence on her choreography and technique for such works as Primitive Mysteries, Frontier and El Penitente is unmistakable. In fact, dance critic John Martin once said to longtime Graham student and group dancer Dorothy Bird: “Don’t you realize that without Louis standing there beside [Graham], day in, day out, adamantly refusing to let her improvise . . . she would have changed the choreography . . . until it finally became diluted . . . No one else could possibly have done this for her, and no one else ever did! It was all Louis!”
Lamenting the lack of theoretical literature for dancers, Horst founded Dance Observer magazine in 1934 to create a resource for dancers and choreographers. (He served as chief critic and editor until his death, and he also wrote two books, Pre-Classic Dance Forms and Modern Dance Forms.) That same year, Martha Hill hired Horst to teach at The Bennington School of the Dance. As the Bennington summers morphed into the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College, Horst (called by his students the festival’s “resident ogre”) remained central to its teaching staff. “Louis insisted that a dance should have a formal structure and a subject: It should be about something. He wanted you to get a theme, manipulate it and develop it,” said Theodora Wiesner, former director of ADF, quoted by Jack Anderson in The American Dance Festival.
In 1951, Hill hired Horst again to teach dance composition in the fledgling dance department at Juilliard. His demands upon the students are legendary. Janet Mansfield Soares, Horst’s last assistant at Juilliard and his biographer, admits that this portly, white-haired man, known to have a cigarette always dangling from his lips, could be very intimidating. “Once in a while a student would cry. They’d run out of the room and he’d turn and say, ‘What did I do?’” she recalls. “If you’re 18 years old and haven’t had a music class, and he’s expecting you to count eight measures of three and know where you are in the sixth measure—well, that’s not so easy.”
Horst’s influence can be seen in the work of modern dance’s first generation of major players—Humphrey, Ruth St. Denis, Charles Weidman, José Limón, Ruth Page, Helen Tamiris, Pearl Lang—and the up-and-comers who followed, including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown. Indeed, Anna Sokolow, Horst’s assistant and demonstrator at the Neighborhood Playhouse, credited him as her greatest encourager: “The way I found out [who I was] was not with Martha Graham, but with Louis Horst.”
Horst died in New York on January 23, 1964, less than two weeks after his 80th birthday, after suffering a series of strokes. During his last hospitalization, Graham was a daily visitor. Today, nearly 50 years after his death, Horst’s ideals are sometimes dismissed as old-fashioned and restrictive. But the body of literature and teaching principles he left behind set the stage for future generations to further develop this expressive artform—even if it meant breaking his rules. DT
Neil Ellis Orts is a regular contributor to Houston’s OutSmart Magazine. He was a 2009 NEA Fellow with the Institute for Dance Journalism at the American Dance Festival.
Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives