Horton (23 January 1906 - 2 November 1953) was an American dancer, choreographer,
Lester Iradell Horton was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on January 23, 1906. His parents were Iradell Horton and Pollyanna Horton.
His interest in dance was stimulated by his fascination with the American
Indian after watching tribal dances in a Wild West show. He studied the
Iroquois and Red River Indians, and Penobscot and Ojibway tribes.
He studied ballet for two years with Mme. Theo Hewes in Indianapolis. At that time he also took classes at the Herron Art Institute and worked with the Indianapolis Little Theater. Seeing a performance of the Denishawn company had a great impact on him.
Horton arrived in California in 1929 to perform The Song of Hiawatha at the Argus Bowl in Eagle Rock, CA. He took a job with the Stuberghs, with whom he remained close for his lifetime. They produced wax figures and Horton painted faces on the window mannequins.
He chose to work in California instead of New York City, which was considered the center of modern dance at the time.
Horton formed his first dance company, the Lester Horton Dancers, in 1932. That company evolved into what was briefly known as the Lester Horton California Ballets (1934) and then the Horton Dance Group (1934). The Horton Dance Group, billed in its film appearances as the Lester Horton Dancers, lasted until early 1944. Later, Horton attempted to develop a company on the East Coast for dancer Sonia Shaw, but Shaw's husband stopped underwriting the venture and the company collapsed before it could give any public performances. After a brief hiatus, Horton formed the Dance Theater of Los Angeles with his longtime leading dancer, Bella Lewitzky; their partnership ended when Lewitzky left in 1950. Horton's final company continued until 1960 under the direction of Frank Eng.
In order to finance his school and various dance companies, Horton choreographed a number of early Hollywood musicals, beginning with Moonlight in Havana (1942). Most of the films, like the Maria Montez vehicle White Savage (1943), were B-movie musicals; the most notable was Arthur Lubin's Phantom of the Opera (1943). Horton's dancers also frequently worked at clubs, including the Folies Bergère in New York and Earl Carroll Theatre and Restaurant in Los Angeles. Horton's best-known works, which he called "choreodramas," are Salome (which occupied Horton for nearly two decades) and The Beloved.
Dance Theater made only one appearance in New York, during the last year of Horton's life. The troupe was scheduled to perform at the reputation-making theater of the Young Men's and young Women's Hebrew Association on East Ninety-second street in New York City. Upon arriving the troupe discovered the venue did not provide publicity and so the performance was largely unknown and not well attended. Only about 300 people showed for the Saturday night performance and only about 200 tickets were sold for the Sunday matinee. This netted the company a total of 100 dollars. All but one of the reviews was good. One magazine praised the "superb dancers" but complained that "one technical and effective stunt follows another with hardly ever any sustained choreographic continuity." There was not enough money to return home to New York and Horton had doubts about the company's financial ability to attend Jacob's Pillow later that summer. Horton's agent wired Horton the money to get the troupe home. At the time, Horton was drinking heavily and was emotionally and physically ill. Upon returning to Los Angeles he moved into a house on Mulholland Drive where he was attended to by his parents and friends.
Determined to perform at the Jacob's Pillow festival, the group travelled the Berkshiresby car. The show was a success, though Horton could not afford to accompany the troupe to the festival. Riding on their success at the festival, the troupe was asked to open for Johnny Desmond in the Fall; they were so popular that they were invited back for another two-week engagement. Horton died of a heart attack at his home on November 2, 1953.