Director and choreographer Louis Johnson was born on March 19, 1930, in Statesville, North Carolina, but moved with his parents to Washington, D.C., at an early age. Although Johnson became quickly known in the Washington, D.C., school system for his outstanding artistic talents, he also developed a strong following for his gymnastic and dancing talents. In high school, he enrolled and trained at the Jones Haywood School of Dance, where he and such notable students as Chita Rivera blossomed under the tutelage of Doris Jones and Clair Haywood.
After being advised to move by his teachers to New York City, Johnson found himself at the famed New York City School of American Ballet, where he was mentored by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. These associations led directly to a performance with the New York City Ballet Company and then on to Broadway shows such as Four Saints in Three Acts, House of Flowers (choreographed by George Balanchine), Damn Yankees (by Bob Fosse) and Hallelujah Baby. His public acclaim in these Broadway performances led to an offer to choreograph his ballet, Lament for the New York City Ballet Club. That success, in turn, led to him receiving an offer to choreograph the Broadway production Black Nativity by Langston Hughes. Johnson also choreographed Lost in the Stars, Treemonisha, and Purlie, for which he received a Tony nomination.
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 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.
Up in The Air
“What if racism were never a blunting force to the rise of men? Would great men have been greater? What barriers remain in the world of dance, and what impact has the life of Louis Johnson and his contemporaries had on breaking these barriers? What’s in store for today’s generation of dancers and choreographers and how can Louis’s journey inform their actions toward a more pure and unimpeded expression of their creative potential? These are among the many questions that Up in the Air aims to address and explore.
Up in The Air is a feature-length documentary, currently in development, surrounding the life of dance world legend Louis Johnson, age 84. Johnson’s trail of accomplishments is too long to list in one breath. His groundbreaking works have influenced the movements we see in many contemporary productions and he was able to create such works at a time when America was in the midst of racial conflict.
The issue and impact of race and discrimination in the United States have been given tremendous attention in the last year. Barack Obama’s presidency has caused many to trumpet the end of an era of racism, meanwhile national tragedies like the murders of Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown remind us that this is far from the truth and that America is long overdue for a frank conversation about racism.”
David Robertson, Director/Producer
Up in the Air Documentary