Lester Horton was a strong contributor to the world of modern dance, and his legacy lives on today through students just starting to scratch the surface of his technique and unique craft.
Lester Horton's Early Life and Dance Companies
Lester Horton was born in Indianapolis in 1906, and little is known about his early life. The real story begins when Horton moved to California in the late 1920s to begin a full time dance career. As a modern dancer, Horton hit the scene right when modern dance was beginning to thrive and catch an appreciative audience, but Horton did things a bit differently. He took off for California right when New York City was considered the center of the craft.
Despite this location decision, his first dance company was formed in 1932. Known as the Lester Horton Dancers, it was reinvented as the Lester Horton California Ballets as well as the Horton Dance Group. Since they were on the West Coast, they were able to appear in some films, in which they were credited as the original Lester Horton dancers. This went on until around 1944.
Horton was not completely removed from East Coast dance life, as he did develop a company for a dancer named Sonia Shaw. However, the company sadly folded before it was able to give any public shows. This endeavor was followed up with Horton's next venture - the Dance Theater of Los Angeles. He put this together with Bella Lewitzky, who was one of his longtime dance partners.
Making a Dime
To pay for his dance companies and other creative developments, Horton worked as a Hollywood choreographer. This started around the year 1942 and continued on through the following decades. While most of these musicals have long been forgotten, some students may have seen Horton's work in the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera. Besides film making, Horton's dancers earned money dancing in clubs and restaurants. The pieces put together by Horton were self-described as "choreodramas" and they continued to be his most cherished contributions to the modern dance world.
Horton's troupe did make one final attempt to get to the East Coast - performing at an influential theater in New York City. The show got great reviews, but few attended the actual performance and the dancers found themselves unable to get back to Los Angeles due to funding. Once they did make their way home, they went on to work hard and dance at famous locations such as Jacob's Pillow.
An Early Passing
Lester Horton struggled with alcoholism and poor health, and died of a heart attack while still in his 40s. While he has been deceased for over 40 years, his influence lives on - namely through the Lester Horton Dance Theater Foundation. He also is notable for having trained some of modern dance's most famous performers and choreographers, especially Alvin Ailey, whose school is now legendary in New York.
His dance style is integrated into many college and private dance school programs, and is known as the "Horton Technique." When studying, students are encouraged to use their entire body in dancing, including incredible flexibility and full bodied awareness that allows for giant levels of expression.
Dancers who take a Horton class can expect to grow stronger and more flexible, and to utilize their anatomy in a way never before possible. This is considered great career preparation by many, as it primes the body to excel at any form of dance. Horton Technique also challenges dancers to utilize every pocket of space - be it the floor, the air, standing, sitting, etc. Creativity runs deep in Horton classes, and you can take one at studios throughout the nation, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.