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A 70-Year Dance Dynasty

First Family of L.A. modernism continues Horton's tradition.

July 12, 1998|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Exactly 70 years ago this month, a young man from Indianapolis named Lester Horton came West to stage a dance-pageant in Eagle Rock. Fascinated with Southland flora and fauna, he stuck around, got increasingly inspired by the possibilities of movement expression and ended up choreographing an influential repertory, evolving a distinctive modern dance technique and founding a potent creative dynasty.

From Horton in 1928 to dancer/choreographer Michael Mizerany in 1998, that dynasty's line of descent is unbroken, and for sustained achievement alone its members arguably represent the First Family of L.A. modernism.

Yes, other major choreographers worked here before and after Horton--but largely in isolation, with little trace of them remaining on the current dance landscape. And yes, there's also a well known East Coast branch of the Horton family fathered by the late Alvin Ailey.

But in the local community the Horton heritage still looms large and it's no accident that the annual achievement awards for Southland concert dance are named after him, or that they've often been monopolized by such members of the clan as Mizerany, Loretta Livingston and family matriarch Bella Lewitzky.

Along with former Lewitzky dancer Fred Strickler--who took the Horton legacy into the new world of concert tap--this group of active artists represents a kind of maverick dance strain, dead-serious about creativity but insisting against all odds on working here, far from the central marketplace or capital of American modernism.

And other family resemblances link them as well: stratospheric technical standards, for starters; a sophisticated sense of spatial design; and, in particular, what Strickler calls "the clarity of the body in space and its relationship to the architecture of the theater space."

Not to mention originality. "None of these people are imitators," Lewitzky said recently in a conversation about the local Horton family of choreographers. "I think the commonality is the need to invent and a boldness that brings out individuality. That boldness runs right through from Lester to all of us. You imagine it, you do it. You do not imitate."

On Friday, the annual Dance Kaleidoscope series celebrates 10 years at Cal State L.A. with a program of works by Southern California dance pioneers, preceded by the 1998 Horton Awards. Two Horton duets will be danced on that program (one of them newly restaged by Lewitzky) plus an Ailey trio. A Mizerany work turns up the following night on the series and a week later Livingston choreography is scheduled on a Kaleidoscope bill at the Japan America Theatre. On Aug. 21 and 22 Strickler and Mizerany appear on a Feet Speak program in the Keck Theater at Occidental College.

With all this Horton-family activity, plus a legion of unseen ex-dancers and their students prominent in local academic circles or working in the other performing arts, it's a good time to look at the values that each Horton generation took from those who came before--and also what each generation added to the legacy.

But first, the lowdown on Lester Horton himself. Tall, barrel-chested and short-legged, he was not ideally built for dance nor was he notable as a technician. But he was savvy about the theater and design and able to develop in others what he lacked himself.

Back in 1934--the year in which he formed his Dance Group and Lewitzky began taking classes from him--The Times praised him for "dramatic strength" as a performer. And dramatic strength was a quality he focused on through pieces about social injustice, poverty and violence against women.

Moreover, long before "multiculturalism" and "nontraditional casting" became buzzwords, Horton choreographed works based on Asian, African, Caribbean, Latin American and, especially, Native American cultures, mixing dancers of different ethnicities and body types. This was news--the first established multiracial dance company in America--and in 1948 Horton opened on Melrose the first theater in this country created solely for the presentation of modern dance.

By that time, Lewitzky had become both his leading dancer and the instrument through which he developed what is now known as Horton technique.

The process built Lewitzky into a powerhouse virtuoso. "I'm a believer and if he asked me to do something, it never entered my mind that it couldn't be done," she recalls. After she left the company in 1950, Horton technique was codified and then, following his death in 1953, taken East by such resident Hortonites as Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade. Today the Ailey school in New York is the acknowledged international center for it and the Ailey repertory its most widely known showcase.

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