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Louis Johnson, 90, genre-crossing dancer and choreographer, dies
A photo provided by Marbeth shows Louis Johnson and Cassandra Phifer-Moore rehearsing “Forces of Rhythm” at Dance Theater of Harlem. Johnson, an acclaimed choreographer, dancer and director whose career spanned Broadway, ballet and modern dance, died on March 31, 2020, in Manhattan. He was 90. Marbeth via The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Louis Johnson, an acclaimed choreographer, dancer and director whose career spanned Broadway, ballet and modern dance, died on March 31 in Manhattan. He was 90.

The cause was pneumonia and renal failure, said Glory Van Scott, a dancer, actress and director and his friend and health care proxy. He recently tested positive for the coronavirus, she said.

As a dancer and choreographer, Johnson was known for his extensive range. He performed in Broadway shows like “House of Flowers” and “Hallelujah Baby!” and in the screen and stage versions of Bob Fosse’s “Damn Yankees.” An African-American who was influenced by black mentors, he created works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Dance Theater of Harlem. He was the choreographer of the 1978 film adaptation of “The Wiz.” And he was nominated for a Tony Award in 1970 for his choreography for the musical “Purlie.”

“Very few blacks have had all the experiences I’ve had,” Johnson said in an interview with The New York Times in 1975. “There haven’t been that many opportunities. I’ve performed and choreographed all kinds of dance, so that’s how I can go from ‘Treemonisha’” — an opera by the ragtime composer Scott Joplin — “to the Metropolitan Opera.”

At the time, he was choreographing the dances for “Aida” and “La Gioconda,” which featured Allegra Kent, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. “He was at one with the music,” Kent said in a phone interview. “The adagio section just poured out of him in a gentle dramatic way. It was very individual.”

As a dancer, movement flowed out of him, too. Dancer and actress Carmen de Lavallade, who appeared with him in the 1954 musical “House of Flowers,” always loved watching him.

“You know those hard rubber balls that bounce?” de Lavallade said, also in an interview. “He reminded me of that because he had such elevation, and he was quick and tough. He was low to the ground, but he could get off the floor, and he could jump high.”

“My goodness, he was strong,” she added. “And there was always a sense of humor in his movement — the jauntiness that he had.”

Louis Johnson was born on March 19, 1930, in Statesville, North Carolina, 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,” 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.”

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 Johnson never joined City Ballet, the choreographer Jerome Robbins featured him in 1952 as a guest artist with five City Ballet dancers in “Ballade.” He was an inspiration for Robbins’ 1953 work “Afternoon of a Faun.”

But Johnson’s training extended beyond ballet. He 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.”

One of his most famous pieces was “Forces of Rhythm,” a signature work of Dance Theater of Harlem set to classical and contemporary music, including Tchaikovsky and Donny Hathaway.

The work “is a choreographic approximation of a quick turn of the radio dial,” Jennifer Dunning of The Times wrote in a review of a Dance Theater performance of it in 1988. “But its staging is ingenious and its message heartfelt. One’s roots must be acknowledged and honored.”

Virginia Johnson, who is the artistic director of Dance Theater (and not related to Louis Johnson), said: “The story that he tells in ‘Forces’ was exactly what Dance Theater of Harlem was all about. He could bring together all those different languages in that one work to say, ‘Yes, it belongs to us.’”

When he was choreographing the work, Johnson was demanding and exacting, Virginia Johnson said. “He was not like, ‘You have to do this the way I told you to do it, exactly the way I told you to do it,’” she said. She added, “He didn’t want you to parrot what he was doing. He wanted you to be painting inside the lines in the most beautiful colors that you could imagine.”

Johnson was also a dance educator. He started the formal dance department at Howard University in Washington and was the director of the dance division of the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan.

Van Scott, who played Rolls Royce Lady in “The Wiz” in a cast that included Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, recalled a moment during filming when Johnson asked the male dancers to cartwheel over several high wooden tables.

“The boys are looking at it him like, ‘huh?’” she said. “All of a sudden, he runs over, does these cartwheels — flip, flip, flip, flip, flip — across the tables. It was gorgeous. He said, ‘If I did it, you can do it.’"

“He would never give you something that couldn’t be done,” she added. “He would never give you something you couldn’t do.”

While Johnson left no immediate survivors, he did have a dance family, one born from “House of Flowers,” which featured a stellar cast including Alvin Ailey, Arthur Mitchell, Geoffrey Holder, de Lavallade and Van Scott.

“Somebody asked me, what did they feed you guys?” Van Scott said, adding: “We were all achievers. We were on a path and none of us veered from that path. We kept going and doing what we were doing: to do our work. Louis was like that.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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