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Dance Heritage Coalition

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Lester Horton Dance Theater Collection



Dancer-teacher-choreographer Lester Horton (1906-1953) is regarded as one of the founders of American modern dance. He developed a unique style of technique and choreography, established the first permanent theater in America devoted to dance, and organized one of the first integrated modern dance companies.

Born and raised in Indiana, Horton's early interests in art, ballet, theater production, and Native American dance led him to participate in local dance pageants. Settling in Los Angeles in the late 1920s, Horton danced with Michio Ito's company and then formed his own group. His company gave concert performances at major Los Angeles venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theater while Horton continued to teach young dancers. A Los Angeles base and the ability to translate ethnic dances into commercially acceptable formats led to stints choreographing musical numbers for films from the 1940s through the early 1950s.

Throughout his career, Horton combined dance and drama into a total theatrical experience. He was intimately involved in creating all aspects of a production: the costumes, sets, lighting, and music as well as the scenarios and choreography. His fascination with ethnic dance, human sensuality, and cultural history was expressed in a prodigious body of work with themes ranging from the classics to melodrama, social concerns to farce. Horton's "choreodramas" were built on a movement technique that is still taught and used in dance schools and companies.

Horton's company members and students included well-known modern dancers such as Alvin Ailey, Janet Collins, Carmen de Lavallade, Bella Lewitzky, James Mitchell, Joyce Trisler, and James Truitte. Horton collaborated with Lewitzky to develop the foundation of his technique; they joined forces with several other partners to found the Dance Theater in Hollywood in 1946. Dance Theater was the home of the dance company and the school, which featured dance classes for children and adults. The full curriculum developed well-rounded dancers who were also taught art history and theater production. After the partnership dissolved in 1950, Horton maintained Dance Theater with the assistance of business manager Frank Eng, mounting several successful seasons until his death in 1953. Eng sustained the theater for seven more years before closing its doors in 1960.

Summary Table of Contents SCOPE AND CONTENT