Louis Johnson

Louis Johnson

 Ballet Dancer, Choreographer, Professor of Dance, and Legend!


In 1940 Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) had their premiere opening season at the Center Theater (across the street from Radio City Music Hall). On the program was a black group dancing in Agnes de Mille’s “Black Ritual.”
That was the last time black dancers danced with Ballet Theatre until 1965 when Agnes de Mille choreographed “The Four Marys” for ABT with: Carmen de Lavallade, Glory Van Scott, Judith Jamison, and Cleo Quitman and
Paul Sutherland.
Louis Johnson was one of thefew African Americans to squeeze through the barricade, dancing in Jerome Robbins Ballade with the New York City Ballet

Louis Johnson (1952) – Dancer, choreographer, and teacher.  Louis Johnson makes his debut with the New York City Ballet as a soloist in Jerome Robbins’ “Ballade” before appearing in Broadway musicals.


Louis was born on March 19, 1931 in Statesville, North Carolina and grew up and spent most of his childhood in Washington D.C.  The Johnson family lived two blocks from the YMCA, and Louis took advantage of all the activities the “Y” had to offer. He was a great athlete, and became a champion wrestler and noted acrobat. When the YMCA had to close for repairs, the YWCA offered them space. The ballet teacher at the YWCA noticed Louis and gave him a scholarship at the Doris Jones-Clara Haywood School of Dance.  After initial study at the Doris Jones-Clara Haywood School of Dance he moved to New York in 1950 to accept a scholarship at the School of American Ballet.



In 1952, Johnson performed with the New York City Ballet in the premiere of Jerome Robbins’ Ballade.  Robbins also used Louis to create the role in Afternoon of a Faun, but because Louis was black he was not allowed to dance the role. In 1953 George Balanchine didn’t think New York City Ballet was ready for a racially mixed pas de deux.

Throughout the 1950’s Johnson danced on Broadway in several shows including My Darlin’ Aida, House of Flowers and Hallelujah Baby!

Photos – Hallelujah, Baby! (The Official Masterworks Broadway) Site
Image Source Page: http://www.masterworksbroadway.com/artist/images/13305
“The original Broadway production closed after 9 months of performances. Hallelujah Baby had been closed for several months when it won the Tony for Best Musical, beating out The Happy Time, How Now Dow Jones and Illya Darling. (The Happy Time and How Now Dow Jones were both still running at the time.)”

Louis Johnson appeared in both the stage and screen versions of Bob Fosse’s  Damn Yankees.

Johnson began making dances in 1953 and achieved his greatest fame as a choreographer who comically combines a continuum of movement styles including social dances to popular music, classical ballet technique, Katherine Dunham-inspired modern dance, spiritual dancing, and acrobatics.

The Louis Johnson Dance Theater Ensemble in Mr. Johnson’s “Forces of Rhythm” in 1999. The New York Times * December 11, 2005 Ahiram Malveaux lifts Paunika Jones; at right, Chantler Townsend.(photo)-Tom Brazil

Louis’ choreographic style was a combination of ballet technique, social dancing, Katherine Dunham-inspired modern and acrobatics.”


His two most popular ballets are Forces of Rhythm (1972), created for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Fontessa and Friends (1981), first performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Let my people go * The AVODAH Dance Ensemble

“The New York-based Avodah Dance Ensemble is a modern dance company rooted in the Jewish tradition and committed to work that advances principles of social justice, multicultural and interfaith collaboration, and forgiveness. In 1989, Avodah Founding Director JoAnne Tucker, along with guest collaborator Louis Johnson, created “Let My People Go,” a retelling of the Exodus story from both a Jewish and an African-American point of view. Avodah has incorporated into its repertoire Helen Tamiris’ classic “Negro Spirituals.””

Duet for Noel Pointer (Excerpt) – Choreography by: Louis Johnson

In 1970 Johnson was nominated for a Tony Award for his choreography of Purlie, a musical version of Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorious.

Purlie – Sherman Hemsley, Melba Moore, Novella Nelson and Clevon Little

“Opening number “Walk him up the stairs” – PURLIE

He also choreographed the films Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and The Wiz (1978).


Watch Emerald City Sequence – Green, Red, Gold in Music | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

Johnson staged the Houston Grand Opera’s 1975 revival of the Scott Joplin opera Treemonisha, which included a reconstruction of the “slow drag,” a 19th-century African-American social dance.

Active as an arts educator and teacher since the 1970s, Johnson has conducted black arts symposiums at Howard, Yale, Virginia State, Hampton Institute, and Morehouse College, and in 1986 was appointed as the director of the dance division of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“Johnson has received the great acclaim for choreographing operas performed by the New York Metropolitan Opera.  Those operas include La Giaconda, starring Martina La Rowa and Aida, which starred Leontyne Price.  In movies, he choreographed Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Wiz, starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.  In addition to his work in New York City, Johnson has mounted ballets for the Cincinnati Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, Philadanco Dance Company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the Atlanta Ballet Company.  In 1980, he started Henry Street Settlement’s Dance Department in New York City.  He continued to work there until 2003.  He also taught the first Black theatre course at Yale University and started Howard University’s Dance Department in Washington, D.C. . Johnson’s honors include: the Pioneer Award from the International Association of Blacks in Dance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; an honor from the California chapter of the NAACP for his work with the original Negro Ensemble Company; and a special night honoring him from Ashford and Simpson.  His directorial credits include Porgy and Bess, Miss Truth, Jazzbo Brown, Time in the Wind and Ebony Game.”



~ ***** ~

Louis Johnson and Maurice Hines

Maurice Hines and Louis Johnson


Lee Summers, Franz Jones, Leslie Dockery, Bruce Hawkins, Louis Johnson, Jeffery V. Thompson, Maurice Hines Jr and Natalie Carter-Prince.

Lee Summers, Franz Jones, Leslie Dockery, Bruce Hawkins, Louis Johnson, Jeffery V. Thompson, Maurice Hines Jr and Natalie Carter-Prince.

~ ***** ~

Productions Dates of Productions
Play On! [Original, Musical] Mar 20, 1997 – May 11, 1997
  • Creative Consultant: Louis Johnson
Treemonisha [Original, Musical, Opera] Oct 21, 1975 – Dec 14, 1975
  • Choreographed by Louis Johnson
  • Also Starring: The Louis Johnson Dance Theatre [Treemonisha Dancer]
Purlie [Revival, Musical, Comedy] Dec 27, 1972 – Jan 7, 1973
  • Choreographed by Louis Johnson
Lost in the Stars [Revival, Musical, Tragedy] Apr 18, 1972 – May 21, 1972
  • Choreographed by Louis Johnson
Les Blancs [Original, Play] Nov 15, 1970 – Dec 19, 1970
  • Ritual: Louis Johnson
Purlie [Original, Musical, Comedy] Mar 15, 1970 – Nov 6, 1971
  • Choreographed by Louis Johnson
Hallelujah, Baby! [Original, Musical] Apr 26, 1967 – Jan 13, 1968
  • Performer: Louis Johnson
    • Ensemble – Replacement
  • Understudy: Louis Johnson
    • Tip – Replacement
    • Tap – Replacement
Kwamina [Original, Musical] Oct 23, 1961 – Nov 18, 1961
  • Performer: Louis Johnson [Dancer]
House of Flowers [Original, Musical] Dec 30, 1954 – May 21, 1955
  • Performer: Louis Johnson [Townsperson]
My Darlin’ Aida [Original, Musical] Oct 27, 1952 – Jan 10, 1953
  • Performer: Louis Johnson [Dancer]
Four Saints in Three Acts [Revival, Musical, Opera] Apr 16, 1952 – Apr 27, 1952
  • Performer: Louis Johnson [Dancer]
  • Dunning, Jennifer. “Louis Johnson: ‘I Love Dance–Any Kind of Dance’.” NEW YORK TIMES, September 28, 1975, Sec. 2, p. 6. Goodman, Saul. “Brief Biographies: Louis Johnson.” DANCE MAGAZINE (August 1956). Source Citation: “Louis Johnson.” ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY. 5 vols. Macmillan, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Gale Group.
 Photo Credit: Tom Scott
(C) Dale Shields – iforcolor

LINKS & References



www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/biographies/ljohnson.html (Thomas F. DeFrantz)





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