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The American Dance Festival honors Murray Louis

Murray Louis is not at all surprised that this year’s Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award went to him. The $35,000 award was presented on June 18 at the Festival’s home on the campus of Duke University in North Carolina.

Louis always worked with that same assurance that things would come. In his book “Inside Dance” he wrote about his choreographic method, “[I] let the dance identify itself and with my skills [I] bring it to fruition.” His intuitive, very physical process differentiates his work from that of his life partner and mentor Alwin Nikolais. “Being a dancer, my approach is more personal. I see the world through movement. Intuitive judgment has always guided me,” Louis recently told me.

In a Dance Perspectives documentary, Nikolais called Louis “a free spirit [with] his own sense of theatre and musicality. He plays in the interior.” Louis is renowned as one of the world’s great male dancers. His choreographic artistry developed along with that. In autobiographical books he exposed the side of The Life that’s not so pretty. For example—the intense glare of the lights and the air conditioning in the theater—as experienced by the dancer on stage.

For Louis, dance was the way to relive and experience things fully. “It’s all a matter of getting inside the movement, inside of dance… remembering that the greatest treasures are usually worthless to others, and maintaining the faith,” he wrote in “On Dance.” Louis seduced with movement. He wrote that sensuality’s “generous and subtle range can enhance [the dancer’s] poetry of motion, [his/her] art.” In a moment of frustration with costumes and make-up, he penned a utopian dance that included nudity—neither sexualized nor puritan.

“I’ve been out for 100 years,” he told me, “[At] The [Henry Street] Playhouse 1,000 years ago there was always so much talk about [our diversity]… It implied that that was an objective of ours but it was just natural.” Louis’s politics are the natural kind.

He spent his pre-teen years in an orphanage in Brooklyn where he danced in a production attended by Fiorella LaGuardia. LaGuardia was so impressed he begged for an encore. He was just 21 when he met Nikolais in the summer of ’49. Instead of heading for Broadway, he went to train with him at the Henry Street Settlement and then danced in Nikolais’ company. Nikolais was a “blonde Connecticut Yankee” eighteen years his senior. Louis was protective of the giant from early on until his death in 1993.

Nikolais, an innovator of multimedia, abstract dance, pointedly joined the visual with the kinetic. In Christian Blackwood’s tributary film “Nik and Murray” Nikolais remembered post-war times in which, “No one art seemed to speak loudly enough.” He built on Cubism with his own theories of “decentrali­zation” in which bodies were pieces of a puzzle. Some called the work inhumane—the public expected psychological themes or emotion expressed in the new modern dance and that was not Nikolais’ focus. The movement was improvised around principles of space, time, motion, and shape. The look is Bauhaus, fractured, “kooky” (Louis’s word), and is appended in Nikolais’ props and costumes; it’s equally manifest in the music—mostly Nikolais’ compositions.

In his role as Nik’s leading man, Louis was spokesman. He struck up a conversation with the critic John Martin who, impressed with his wit and eloquence, came to the Playhouse and wrote a series of articles in The Times that placed Nikolais’ company on the radar.

Louis choreographed about 150 dances. Dancers from the Boston Conservatory are performing “Index (to Necessary Neurosis)” at the ADF Scripps ceremony. “I couldn’t have been happier,” he said of the revival. “At 80, I prefer to sit and watch other people do the dances.” It includes a solo called “Greed” in which the character gets nasty. Louis sees “Index” as the gutsiest of his works. “Junk Dances,” “Journey,” and his “Four Brubeck Pieces,” a collaboration with the composer, are some of his best loved.

Louis traveled the world, bringing “Brubeck” to Paris. He choreographed dances for Rudolf Nureyev and Eric Bruhn. Louis created an “Homage to the Swedish Ballet” to music by Eric Satie and Darius Milhaud. He reworked “Scheherazade” in his modern vocabulary. “It was a whole different point of view,” he told me with obvious enjoyment.

Gus Solomons jr. was a student in Louis’s 20-week course at the Dance Circle in Boston in the late ‘50s. The young Solomons did a very dramatic solo. He still remembers Louis’s response today. “Why all the suffering? What do you know about suffering?” From this Solomons learned the difference between acting and dancing and how the movement itself could be the vehicle for emotion.

Solomons and the writer David Vaughan went every Saturday night to the Henry Street Playhouse. Louis brought to the Lower East Side enclave a sense of theatricality that complemented Nikolais’ multimedia abstraction. Louis’ dancers also took classes elsewhere whereas Nikolais frowned upon that. Their classical technique improved the quality of the dancing, Solomons explained.

Michael Blake was just 21 when he danced in Louis’s company. “Murray was like a father to all of us,” he remembered. They saw all the sights while on tour. “He really took care of us. He taught us more than just dance steps. He wanted us to see the world, to get the bigger picture.”

Louis created “Isle” for the Limón Company in a studio on lower Broadway on September 11, 2001. It was never finished but has been patched together for an upcoming Joyce engagement. In the aftershock of the destruction, Louis came to the point at which “I had done everything I could do with my vocabulary.”

Today he has several book projects underway, and sounded in our telephone interview as spirited and witty as ever. He’s on his way to accept the 25th Scripps Award. The roster of recipients includes household names like Graham, Cunningham, Taylor, Ailey, Dunham, Nikolais, and Nik’s teacher Hanya Holm. Louis said the award is “for the future.”

Choreographer Doug Varone presented it at the June 18 ceremony.

On the 20-year-old Varone’s first day with the Jose Limón Dance Company, Louis was creating “Figura,” a commission. “For some reason, he chose me [for] a remarkable solo… The list of artists that he has touched and gently pushed forward into the world is endless.”

In Murray’s words “They are my family.”

“When it was announced that I would be presenting the Scripps Award this year, I began getting e-mails from former dancers and colleagues… all filled with such pride and gratitude,” said Varone. “It’s a testament to his vision and life.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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