about lester horton
From the Preface of Lester Horton: Modern Dance Pioneer, by Larry Warren
It is time to set the record straight - time to look at Lester Horton's achievements and contributions to modem dance, passing over the standard considerations of what might have happened had he chosen to work in New York, and setting aside the damnation with faint praise which appears to have become an intrinsic part of the formula for any discussion of Horton's life accomplishment in dance. The title of one such discussion, Clive Barnes' "Genius on Wrong Coast," * characterizes the attitude of most Eastern critics and therefore helps to explain the need to "salvage" Horton's reputation. That his reputation should need rescuing at all seems inconceivable, since he stands with Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey as one of the three American teachers whose methods have established influential schools and whose choreographies are being revived as modern dance classics.
But Lester Horton had chosen to do his work in Southern California, three thousand miles away from the capital of the modern dance world; and Los Angeles, his home base, was regarded as a bush-league city, notorious for its lack of serious art. It was assumed that nothing original or important could come out of Hollywood and that Horton must, therefore, be attempting to emulate the work of Graham, Humphrey, and Wigman, a charge he was plagued with during his entire professional life. Even when they praised him lavishly, Southern California critics, unable to conceive of an original talent in their midst, too often wrote about him as a pretender to Eastern thrones, and writers in the East were happy to accept their colleagues' evaluations, seemingly anxious to preserve their belief that New York had the only dance of any importance in America.
Horton's casual, offhand manner with interviewers no doubt contributed to his neglect by the press during his lifetime. Where other pioneers in modern dance understandably did what they could to enhance their reputations, maintaining a cool aloofness and an atmosphere of exclusiveness around their studios, Horton's almost obsessive democratic spirit would not allow him to set himself apart from the rest of society or to accept any deferential treatment as an artist. Like his contemporary, Charles Weldman, who also came from the American prairie, he often spoke lightly of his own accomplishments to focus greater attention on his dancers and other collaborators. Unfortunately for his reputation, the press took him at his word.
The roster of artists he trained should on its own, assure his place as a prime contributor to the mainstream of the 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; James Truitte, one of America's outstanding modern dance teachers; Rudi Gernreich, an innovator in the fashion industry; and Alvin Ailey, who lead one of the world's best-known dance companies. There are, of course, many others, including James Mitchell, Janet Collins, Carl Ratcliff, and Joyce Trisler. Through all of these artists and more the work is still going on. Horton's exuberant, free-flowing training techniques are now being taught in cities throughout the United States, and the full impact of his career is yet to be known.
* Genius on Wrong Coast, syndicated in Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, December 3, 1967.