On a hot summer day in June as COVID appeared to loosen its grip on New York City, a group of 25 or so Who’s Who in dance gathered in a tiny chapel of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine to celebrate one of their own––legendary choreographer, dancer, director, and all-around talent Louis Johnson, who passed away at the height of the pandemic.
They gathered in the St. Ansgar’s Chapel of the majestic gothic cathedral that towers over a bucolic corner of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. There was the legendary dancer, choreographer, actress Carmen de Lavallade; actress, singer and dancer Chita Rivera; and founder Joan Myers Brown and Kim Bears-Bailey, associate director, of the critically acclaimed PHILADANCO’s. Also in attendance were Joan Peters, Dunham technique teacher and former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer and Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director and former principal ballerina Virginia Johnson and DTH Executive Director Anna Glass. Others present included choreographer, dancer, theatre producer and Tony Award winner George Faison, and dancer, actress, and educator Dyane Harvey-Salaam. Though the group was small, they filled the tiny chapel and spoke volumes about Johnson’s genius and the lives he touched. Sweet Honey in the Rock founding members Dr. Carol J. Maillard and Dr. Louise Robinson filled the church with soulful sounds reminiscent of the Civil Rights era when the group was born. Thanks to the celebratory committal service orchestrated by Dr. Glory Van Scott, everyone was able to share their special memories and pay tribute in a manner suiting the man––upbeat and joyful.
Kicking off a series of heartfelt farewells was de Lavallade, who has danced with such greats as her husband Geoffrey Holder, Alvin Ailey, Donald McKayle, John Butler and Agnes DeMille, and staged musicals, plays and operas. Evoking the aura of the early 1950s when magic was in the air and she and Ailey arrived in New York from California to join the cast of the Truman Capote-Harold Arlen musical “House of Flowers.” There she met husband Holder and audiences met some of the geniuses who would shape the future of dance in America––Alvin Ailey, Arthur Mitchell, Walter Nicks, Donald McKayle, Billy Wilson, Dr. Glory Van Scott, among others. “We were like family. We still are family,” de Lavallade said as, robbing death of its sting, she added, “You know Geoffrey had the most wonderful saying, ‘You know, people in the theatre don’t die, they just go on tour.’” Everyone laughed.
Following de Lavallade, Faison, his voice cracking with emotion, shared warm words and fond memories. “Louis was one of my mentors along with Alvin Ailey, and so many other wonderful people. And I’d like to thank Glory for this in-person, in-your-face moment to celebrate those we’ve lost. We have known a lot of great people––Louis Johnson, Katherine Dunham, Arthur Mitchell, Alvin Ailey, and more. I was touched by these people in the flesh. They taught me. They brought me.” He then thanked Van Scott for “this opportunity for us to say, not ‘Goodbye,’ but ‘Thank you.’”
Chita Rivera, three-time Tony Award winner, who originated the roles of Anita in the hit musical “West Side Story” and Velma Kelly in “Chicago” said, “I guess I’ve known Louis longer than anybody in here and there is so much I could say. Louis and I were like brother and sister. He was my best friend, my buddy, my reason for being. He’s like my mother’s third son.” Recalling their formative years studying at the legendary Jones-Hayward School in Washington, D.C., she added, “Without Louis, the two of us would not have had the scholarships to NYC Ballet school that we won in the early 1950s. NYCB came down from New York and Ms. Jones and Haywood had us audition for them. Louis partnered me. When he danced Louis embodied flight. We were brilliant that day and we won our scholarships to the School of American Ballet.” Pausing, she added, “We haven’t lost Louis. He just went into our hearts.”
PHILADANCO founder Joan Myers Brown and company Assistant Artistic Director Kim Bears-Bailey, shared touching memories of working with Johnson. “When I first called Louis I said, I have this little company in Philadelphia that everybody is raving about, and I’d like to have one of your ballets.” Brown added that she was delighted when he agreed but you see that generation of trailblazing Black artists saw success as a group pursuit: when one got a foot in the door, invariably they opened it wider so others could follow. “You know PHILADANCO is what it is because of Louis Johnson, and George Faison, and people like them.”
Bears-Bailey said her career was a testament to that spirit as telling how the man she called “Uncle Louis” helped her spread her artistic wings dancing the lead in the Scott Joplin opera “Treemonisha.” “Uncle Louis always told us, ‘Take your flowers now. Embrace your craft. Give it everything you’ve got.’”
Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Virginia Johnson testified that you didn’t just learn dances from Louis Johnson, you learned life lessons. “When Louis passed last year, you felt such regret that we couldn’t celebrate the gifts he’d given us at that time.” Recalling working with him on a dance of his that became a DTH stable, “Forces of Rhythm,” she spoke of a rehearsal where she struggled to capture the soulful abandon he was going for in the solo ‘Shout.’ To encourage the elegantly graceful ballerina to loosen up and get down, he sternly said, ‘Look, either you’re going to do this or you’re not.’” The key was tapping into something intangible. Louis Johnson helped her do that, she said, adding, “Dancing teaches you who you are.”
And what memories of Louis Johnson would be complete without a mention of the hit movie “The Wiz.” Van Scott spoke of his work on the 1978, $24 million dollar Motown motion picture adaptation, starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne and a supporting cast of some of the best Black dancers around. Seems the day they shot the workshop scene on a set that included long rows of tables, Johnson wanted them to perform an Olympics-style acrobatic feat. “Louis told the boys, ‘I want you to do cartwheels across all those tables. Boom, boom, boom!’ Well, the dancers looked at him like, ‘You have got to be kidding!’ So, he asked them one more time, ‘Just go ahead and cartwheel across those tables.’ They insisted it couldn’t be done. Well, the next thing you knew, Louis jumped up on the tables and cartwheeled across all those tables. Bam! Bam! Bam! And the room erupted into ‘Hallelujah.’ There was nothing he couldn’t do.”
For those who were unable to attend this tribute to Louis Johnson, another is scheduled for Saturday, March 19, 2022, at 7 p.m. at Symphony Space Theatre on the Upper West Side.