Lester Horton 1906-1953

By Benjamin Feliksdal

img003He was the most influential modern dancer, choreographer, teacher and writer of his time.

His career developed contemporaneously in Los Angeles with the development of the modern dance in the east and paralleled during the middle and late `30s. His themes and his titles in more than one instance prove to be similar to those of Graham, Humphrey and this was happening at the dance landscape in NYC. Horton tastes were eclectic and his activities astonishingly varied and energetic, not only in style, also in dimensions. They ranged from tribal dances of the American Indians (his earlier dance interest) to Ravels Bolero, Le Sacre du Printemps from Stravinsky in the Huge Hollywood Bowl, In his own small dance theatre in Los Angeles he choreographed many solos and duets.

 

 

Is it a Jazz or Modern?
Horton achievement and contributions is connected only with the development of the Modern Dance. His place as a prime contributor to the mainstream of the field of contemporary dance. Was connected with other great dance artists of his time like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. And can the Horton exercises be found in other modern dance techniques? The importance issue to use elements of movements from the Horton’s movement vocabulary within the jazz class structure is to strengthen the upper body, lengthening from the waist down through the spine and arms. The power here is very central within the trunk. It’s all about a combination in order to dance dynamic and explore new shapes for the jazz body. We can find some movement elements within the Horton dance vocabulary from the Graham technique or the Humphrey method. Elements of Horton technique will also be find into the modern jazz techniques of Gus Giordano and Matt Mattox.

 

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The key concepts of the Horton technique
Here we try to describe some the Horton’s key concepts which he used within his method of movement research. A whole class might be built upon the exploration of one movement idea. The movement might be based on some ethnic materials, a balletic idea, or improvisation ideas. Horton was using improvisation as a teaching tool. His movement vocabulary in an early stage was based primarily on upper body movements. The classes were built on progressions. After a warming up, he would show a phrase and the dancers would vary the movement traveling across the room according to his instructions. A favorite position was one with the arms held to the side, shoulder level with elbows flexed to 90 degree angle. Arms might be also held parallel vertical to each other palms of the hand insight to each other. He used hip movements and side inclinations of the torso. The focus was often on the hands and arms. Basic second and fourth positions of the feet and legs were emphasized, but complex gestures were not employed as the dancers moved to space. It was important not to look balletic! His movements gave the impressions of masculinity. So if we call the ballet – water element, Horton’s technique is fire……………………but both they are flowing.

 

Academies don’t have Horton on their curriculum?
As I understand, most academies in Europe, they are not aware of the existence of the Horton technique as a complete modern or Contemporary Modern dance technique. And if there is any interest or knowledge about Horton, then some academies think it is connected with some Jazz Dance vocabulary. Academies are not aware of the valuable movement technique which Horton created through his movement technique and vocabulary, the dancers could move better in a variety of styles.

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Is Horton understand as a modern technique?
Within the USA most dance centers, academies and dance institutions (like Universities) are aware that Horton is recognized as a complete modern dance technique . In Europe there are only a few academies who present Horton in their curriculum. Horton as a teacher or as a Company choreographer, he was never invited to tour intensively with his Company within Europe. During his lifetime, indeed Horton’s work was virtually unknown east Pasadena. In the East we were turning cart-wheels over Graham and Humphrey and their colleges, all together unaware that somebody breaking similar ground on the west-coast and with comparably revolutionary results.

The modern choreography “conquest” was a perfect vehicle for Horton. He was able to combine his fascination with folklore, his interests in ethnic forms and his desire to make a pertinent statement of social significance in one effort. The principle parts in “Conquest” were taken by Bella Lewitsky and Merce Cunnigham (Who later became a known modern choreographer). In 1939 Horton finally organized a new lecture demonstration form. He organized schoolings, the subject of the lecture demonstration was the content of modern dance.

 

Students in Europe think Horton is jazz.
Instead, they should be informed by their Horton teachers that Horton style and technique is and eclectic form of modern dance developed by Horton itself along the lines of Mary Wigman, Graham and the Humphrey Weidman group. Bella Lewitzky said: The Horton students (dancers) had weekly meetings to discuss their ideas with Horton in an effort to clarify their objectives. Where in which category they did fit into the evolving modern dance picture of their time.

Does Lester Horton use different styles of jazz and modern in his work?
Horton was not concerned about jazz styles. His interest and focus was to explore modern dance. He was inspired by the Company of that moment “Denishawn” (Ruth St. Dennis & Ted Shawn), the company dancers were Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham. Who were with Horton to become cornerstones of American modern dance. Horton 1922 took classes in aesthetic dance (Greek) and two years ballet training with Theo Hewes Ballet. The year 1925 marked Lester first modest personal contact with the professional world of dance. Lester, the nineteen years old dancer got his first contact with Denis/Shawn teacher and choreographer Fornest Thornburg.

The dance style/technique used by Horton dancers?
I would describe the technique as an evolution of experiences which only Horton was exposed too. Horton read about and was deeply impressed by the work of the Dutch physical culturist Dr. Bess Mensendieck, who regarded the body as architecture and was exploring the relationship between posture and good health. From then on Horton turned his serious attention, at last to a consideration of the structure of the human body and define his new aims. Horton, from now on he created a dance technique based entirely on corrective exercises, created with a knowledge of the human anatomy, a technique which will correct physical faults and prepare a dancer for any type of style he may wish to follow. A technique having all the basic movements which govern the actions of the body. Combined with a knowledge of the origin of the movement and a sense of artistic design.
Youtube: Horton Class&Lester Horton Technique

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To compare the dance style&technique used by Horton to my own pioneering?
From my own experience I cannot compare my style of technique and dancing with Horton’s. But there are similarities of experiences, as a young child I started at the age of 8 with tap dance continued with acrobatics. I experimented acrobatics with popular Rock’n Roll dances during the early 50’s. By the age of 15 I serious became involved with ballet (1954-1960) I studied at the school of Florrie Rodrigo in Amsterdam, with Peter v.d. Sloot in Rome (Balleti di Roma 1957) and with the ballet Rambert school in London 1958. From then on I developed in a serious ballet dancer. By the end of 1960 I was 20 years old I received my first contact with the Netherlands Ballet with director Sonia Gaskell which became the National ballet in 1961(www.50yearsnationalballet.com)

Within the framework of the Dutch National Ballet (see bio – www.benjaminfeliksdal.com) we were exposed to modern dance by teachers from the Graham group. Furthermore by Russian specialist teaching methodic ballet. We were taught by international famous polish mime teachers, intensively coached (choreographies) by Balanchine’s ballet masters . After my dance career I got the chance to go to USA. Specialized myself further by such teachers as Luigi, Matt Mattox, Gus Giordano (jazz dance); Tap teachers like Phill Black, Henry le Tang, Jerry Ames and Mary Jane Brown; Ballet teachers such as Hector Zaraspe (private teacher of R. Nureyev), Karel Shook (former ballet master of Het Nationale Ballet, one of the creators of Dance Theatre of Harlem) and Robert Joffrey (Creator of Joffrey Ballet). To finalize my experience with the Alvin Ailey school and Dance Theatre of Harlem where I became a guest teacher (Jazz&Ballet) in both schools in 1972-1974. I could describe my technique and style as eclectic fusion, I use forms and shapes from different sources, influenced by Luigi, Giordano, Mattox, used elements from Horton and Graham, Ballet, Tap and ethnic movements ( Afro, Oriental). All connected and integrated with dynamic style&technique of modern Jazz Dance. My eclectic background and techniques are documented in several books: Jazz Ballet, Dancercise, Modern Tap Dance, Moderne Tapdans, Moderne Jazz Dance Techniken, Hedendaags Ballet, Urban Dance – Jazz Dance.

We should consider Horton as one of the modern dance pioneers of the United States. The roster of artists he trained should alone assure his place as a prime contributor to the mainstream of the modern dance field. Among those were: Bella Lewitzky, whose phenomenal career has spanned forty years of dancing, choreographing and innovative teaching. Carmen de Lavallade, who has had a distinguished career as a dancer. And James Truitte, one of America’s outstanding modern dance teachers.

Sources: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre by Joseph H. Mazo, William Morrow Company 1978, Larry Warren – Professor of Dance in The university of Wisconsin. Marcel Dekker, inc. 1977. John Martin Book of Dance