Louis Johnson, the legendary choreographer, dancer, director who did it all—ballet, modern, jazz, Broadway, opera and film—even as he generously taught and mentored countless young, gifted and aspiring talents, passed away March 31, at the age of 90.
Johnson’s biography is filled with historic milestones beginning with early days at Washington, D.C.’s Jones-Haywood School of Ballet, headed by two Black women determined to offer excellent training and encouragement to aspiring dancers of color who often found other dance studios’ doors barred to them. Later, Johnson and fellow student Chita Rivera came to New York to study at the School of American Ballet (SAB), training ground for George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. In addition to Balanchine’s mentorship, Jerome Robbins also offered encouragement. Johnson once recalled, “I loved Jerry Robbins. I was very young when I first came to New York. I didn’t know him that well but he was very kind to me.” Johnson later appeared in Robbins’ ballet, “Ballade.”
It was at SAB that the Philadelphia native and aspiring young Black ballerina Delores Brown first met Johnson. “It was 1953. I was 17 years old and fresh out of high school and, after years of studying ballet with Marion Cuyjet, I literally got my diploma, got on the bus and came to New York to study at SAB. There were only six or seven of us there. At the time, the classes were ranked by letters: A, B, C, and D and D was company class. Louis and Arthur Mitchell were in D. I was the only Black in C. We didn’t see each other often because the class schedules were packed. I was pretty lonely cause I didn’t know anybody in New York. Well, one day, after one of my classes ended, I looked up and there in the doorway I see this man. It was Louis standing there with this gorgeous, gorgeous physique. He was leaning against the doorframe with his legs crossed and his arms folded. I didn’t think he was there for me so I started for the door. He stopped me and said, ‘What’s your name? Who are you?’ Well, my little fresh 17-year-old self. I was full of myself so I pulled myself up and said, ‘Well, who are you?’ He smiled and asked me to come to a rehearsal at his studio.” The friendship began then and lasted a lifetime.
And, what a life it was. Remember, it was the 1950s and as the song says, the times they were a-changin’. It was a time when the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown V. Board ruling declared “separate but equal” was NOT equal and public school segregation was unconstitutional. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements exploded onto the streets of America and spilled over into the dance world, sweeping it onto the frontlines of the most dramatic social, political and cultural revolution since the Civil War. It was an era when giants walked the earth, sat in at lunch counters, refused to relinquish their seats in the front of the bus and inspired change from main street to Broadway.
Johnson was one of the legendary Black performers in the vanguard of that change when he joined the Truman Capote-Harold Arlen musical “House of Flowers,” starring Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll, that opened on Broadway Dec. 30, 1954. The stars had to be aligned because, in addition to Johnson, the cast included future dance legends Alvin Ailey, Arthur Mitchell, Carmen de Lavallade, Geoffrey Holder, Walter Nicks, Donald McKayle, Billy Wilson and Dr. Glory Van Scott, among others.
As one historian noted, critics have praised Johnson’s performing abilities as “breathtaking in virtuosity,” and “expert and virtuosic,” but his talent as a choreographer brought the greatest success. His works have been included in the repertories of numerous dance troupes, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Joan Myers Brown’s Philadanco. Critics praised his seamless blend of ballet and modern in “Forces of Rhythm,” his deft composition of “Wing,” and his brilliant sense of humor and theatricality in “Fontessa and Friends.” His Broadway credits included serving as assistant choreographer for the 1950s Broadway musical that followed in the footsteps of “Flowers,” “Jamaica,” starring the legendary Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban. Other dancing, directing and choreographing credits include “Damn Yankees,” “Hallelujah Baby,” “Treemonisha,” “Lost in the Stars,” and “Purlie” (the 1970s musical version of “Purlie Victorious”), for which he received a Tony nomination. Always, the chorus was packed with jaw-dropping talent. Johnson also made history as one of the few Blacks of that era to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera when he created the dances for “Aida” (starring Leontyne Price) and “La Gioconda.” He also choreographed the revival of Virgil Thompson’s “Four Saints and Three Acts.” Johnson’s movie credits include “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and the star-studded 1970s film “The Wiz,” with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor and Lena Horne, and an equally impressive who’s who of dancers.
Recalling the loveable bear of a man who, when asked how he was doing, would greet you with a smile and the words “Holding on,” Philadanco’s Joan Myers Brown recalled his long association with her company. “I got to know him years ago and when Dance Theater of Harlem went on hiatus and I asked Louis if he would put ‘Forces of Rhythm’ on my company. We remained friends from then on. We still always say, ‘Run, boy, run. Don’t you know how to run yet,’” reflecting his playful way of coaxing dancers to do more. Brown says, “When he started doing projects like for Aretha Franklin and other performers he would call some of my kids up and get them involved. He was so generous that way.”
Former dancer and Philadanco Assistant Artistic Director Kim Bears-Bailey recalls, “Uncle Louis, as I affectionately called him, was an incredible human being. When I was a young dancer, he set ‘Treemonisha,’ the Scott Joplin opera, on the company and gave me the lead. It was an amazing opportunity. He had a way of knowing your capabilities and pulling things out of you that you didn’t even know existed. He pushed you to your limit but did it with love and in a way that made you feel you could do anything. He had so much passion and drive so how could you not go into the studio with the same kind of commitment!”
Dancer, producer and director Dr. Glory Van Scott recalled the decades-long friendship with Johnson and their work on her play “Miss Truth” for CBS-TV. In her memoir “Glory: A Life Among Legends,” she recalls the special generation that came out of Broadway’s “House of Flowers.” “Folks have asked me, ‘What kind of water were you guys drinking?’” The truth lies both in their unique talent but also their sense of camaraderie. “You know we were close then and all through the years. We helped each other and all through the years we helped each other, cared and loved each other. You can’t beat that. Look at what all of us accomplished. I was talking to a friend and I said, ‘You know something, in heaven now Louis and Talley, Alvin and Joe Nash are all together, dancing.’ We were the first ones who got a chance to do what we wanted to do and there was no stopping us.” Louis Johnson’s life is testimony to that.