Louis Johnson


Dancer ~ Choreographer ~ Director ~ Professor 

 Legendary Artist 👑

by Dale Ricardo Shields

Page 1 of 10

Born: March 19, 1930, Statesville, NC

Died: March 31, 2020

Louis Johnson was born on March 19, 1930, in Statesville, N.C., and grew up in Washington. He started out as an acrobat before being discovered by Doris Jones and Claire Haywood; they gave him a scholarship to their dance school in Washington.

“His body worked in such a way,” Ms. Van Scott said. “He did gymnastics. He also was at the point where they wanted him to be an Olympic swimmer. He swam like a fish. So he came with these gifts already part of his body.”

Louis Johnson in Variations, no. 11
The New York Public Library

At the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet, one fellow student was Chita Rivera; both earned spots at the School of American Ballet and moved to New York City in 1950.

Black students were a rarity at the school, which is affiliated with the City Ballet. Although Mr. Johnson never joined City Ballet, the choreographer Jerome Robbins featured him in 1952 as a guest artist with five City Ballet dancers in “Ballade.” Mr. Johnson was an inspiration forRobbins’s 1953 work “Afternoon of a Faun.”

But his training extended beyond ballet. Mr. Johnson studied with Katherine Dunham, a pioneering black choreographer and anthropologist who influenced his work. “I am a dancer who loves dance, any kind of dance,” he told The Times in the 1975 interview. “In choreographing, I don’t think of dance as ballet, modern or anything, just dance.” – NEW YORK TIMES

Louis Johnson in Variations, no. 11
The New York Public Library

“I had started out at the beginning and worked my way up the class levels… I was in advanced classes with Jacques d’Amboise, Eddie Villella, Melissa Hayden, Andre Eglevsky, Tanaquil LeClercq, Maria Tallchief. They were my peers at the time… It was a learning experience like no other.” 

“Most renowned for his choreography in the timeless film, The Wiz, Johnson was one of the first African Americans to appear in a Broadway ensemble.  Having been featured and learning from some of the dance greats, including Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, Johnson began creating his own art in the 1950s.  In addition to commissioning some of his most notable works for the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he also received a Tony Award nomination for his choreography in the 1970 musical Purlie.” – Broadway Black

Johnson’s honors include the Pioneer Award from the International Association of Blacks in Dance and honor from the California chapter of the NAACP for his work with the original Negro Ensemble Company. – Wikipedia


“Dance Theatre of Harlem mourns the loss of our dear Louis Johnson, artist, choreographer, friend. A brilliant ballet dancer, he gained his greatest acclaim as a choreographer, creating “Forces of Rhythm” for the young DTH in 1971. Forces went on to become a signature work that remained in the repertoire for many years. Louis Johnson also choreographed such films as “The Wiz” and “Cotton Come to Harlem,” the operas, “La Gioconda” and “Aida” and was nominated for a Tony for his choreography for the Broadway production of “Purlie.” Always down-to-earth, he challenged the artists he worked with to find their individuality even as they strived for excellence. He is greatly missed.”
Photo by Idris Solomon


In 1940 Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) had its 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, Cleo Quitman, and Paul Sutherland.
“Louis Johnson was one of the few African Americans to squeeze through the barricade, dancing in Jerome Robbins Ballade with the New York City Ballet” 


Courtesy of Smokey Stevens


 “I Love Dance—Any Kind of Dance”


Louis Johnson: ‘I Love Dance—Any Kind of Dance’
September 28, 1975, Page 122
The New York Times Archives 
Very few Blacks have had all the experiences I’ve had. There haven’t been that many opportunities. I’ve performed and choreographed all kinds of dance so that that’s how I can go from ‘Treemonisha to the Metropolitan Opera,” says choreographer Louis Johnson, who created the much-acclaimed dances for Scott Joplin’s opera, “Treemonisha” and is about to become only the third Black choreographer at the Met. “Treemonisha” came to New York this month after enthusiastic receptions in Houston and Washington, D.C.
Johnson will choreograph the dances for this season’s “Aida” and “La Gioconda” at the invitation of John Dexter, production supervisor at the Metropolitan. He is already working on the “La Gioconda” ballet. “Dance of the Hours,” which will feature City Ballet star Allegra Kent and will be danced on pointe as pure ballet. “It’s so funny,” Johnson sighs. “When I was into classical ballet all those years, I couldn’t get hired or fired. There were just no outlets for Blacks. And now, all of a sudden, here I am doing ‘Dance of the Hours.’ “
Johnson is a cheerful, 43year‐old man who talks about his work with enthusiasm and looks back without a trace of bitterness on the years of struggle that led to his current triumph. A native of Washington, D.C., Johnson was the first “ Black” at the School of American Ballet, the official school of
Jennifer Dunning is a contributor to The Times and Dance Magazine. the New York City Ballet. He was not taken into the company and like many Black dancers at that time, made the rounds of Broadway musical auditions, even though he knew Blacks were rarely hired. “They were always going to write something in for you, but it never materialized.”
Since most performing opportunities were closed to him, Johnson began to pour his energies into choreography in the mid-fifties. He put together a number of small companies, which were made up of members of Katherine Dunham’s ethnic company and Black and White ballet dancers, some of whom were former classmates. “I am always overwhelmed to think I was in class with people like Alicia Alonso, Nora Kaye, Jerry Robbins, Igor Youskevitch, Maria Tallchief.”