Louis Horst

Ruth St. Denis and Louis Horst

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!”

 

Louis Horst and Hanya Holm at The Bennington School of the Dance circa 1930s

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

 

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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