American dancer, choreographer, and teacher Lester Horton, whose commercial and most popular work as dance director can be seen in the 1946 film “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman,” was born in January 23, 1906 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
He was a gutsy artist-founder of his own dance company, “The Lester Horton Dancers,” in 1932, which he established in California, at a time when most serious dance artists converged in New York City. This dance company survived Horton’s death in 1953, and which lasted until 1960 primarily through the efforts of his friends and partners, including Frank Eng. The memory of Horton, and his recognized “Horton Technique” (watch it demonstrated here) continue to be celebrated annually through the non-profit “Lester Horton Dance Theatre, Inc.” in Los Angeles, California, a testament to his invaluable contribution as among the founders of American Modern Dance.
Horton struggled just like most known pioneering artists in order to develop and share his vision on dance. He would be financing his dance endeavors through creative engagements in doing choreography for a number of early Hollywood musicals. They include “Moonlight in Havana” (1942), “White Savage” (1943), and Arthur Lubin’s “The Phantom of the Opera” (1943), “Tangier” (1946), “Bagdad” (1949), “Siren of Atlantis” (1949), and “South Sea Woman” (1953).
Horton is known, too, for his “choreodramas” in his body of work. They include “Salome” (based on Oscar Wilde’s play) and “The Beloved” (1948, based on a newspaper article Horton read about a man who bludgeoned to death his wife with a bible). The first, being a work where Horton directed in 1934 at the Little Theatre of the Verdugos, Glendale, California. In it, “design in movements” came to be descriptive of his “Salome” work, and was also described as “verbal ballet” by another reviewer. The play won, in competition against 70 other local productions, a Los Angeles County Drama Association Tournament award. In it, Horton’s work strongly stood out in coordinating all theatrical elements, most specially dance.
By 1937, Horton had adroitly demonstrated his work on transforming a play (“Salome”) into a total dance event. He did this in the staging of Salome in the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Heavily pantomimic with the dancers’ facial expressions kept blank, the dance successfully interpreted a dramatic story from an original play, which was not seen often and lauded during that period.
Horton’s among the first choreographers who insisted on racial integration in his company. A student of his, Alvin Ailey (himself, a known dancer and teacher), described Horton’s approach as: “What it came down to was that, for Lester, his art was much more important than the color of a dancer’s skin.”
Horton died November 2, 1953. His body of work continues to be appreciated, studied, and taught by a number of influential dancers whom he personally trained, to date.