Louis Johnson

Ballet Theatre- 1940   (now American Ballet Theater)

New York City Ballet- Guest Jerome Robbin’s Ballade


LOUIS_JOHNSONLouis was born on March 19, 1931 in Statesville, North Carolina and grew up and 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 1940 Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) had their 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.”

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.

Throughout the 1950’s Johnson danced on Broadway in several shows including My Darlin’ Aida, House of Flowers and Hallelujah Baby! He appeared in both the stage and screen versions of Bob Fosse’s  Damn Yankees.

Johnson began making dances in 1953 and achieved his greatest fame as a choreographer who comically combines a continuum of movement styles including social dances to popular music, classical ballet technique, Katherine Dunham-inspired modern dance, spiritual dancing, and acrobatics.


His two most popular ballets are Forces of Rhythm (1972), created for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Fontessa and Friends (1981), first performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.In 1970 Johnson was nominated for a Tony Award for his choreography of Purlie, a musical version of Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorious.He also choreographed the films Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and The Wiz (1978).Johnson staged the Houston Grand Opera’s 1975 revival of the Scott Joplin opera Treemonisha, which included a reconstruction of the “slow drag,” a 19th-century African-American social dance.

Active as an arts educator and teacher since the 1970s, Johnson has conducted black arts symposiums at Howard, Yale, Virginia State, Hampton Institute, and Morehouse College, and in 1986 was appointed as the director of the dance division of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“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.”

Source: I For Color

Link to Interview: https://search.alexanderstreet.com/preview/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C3156571


Play On! [Original, Musical]
  • Creative Consultant: Louis Johnson
Treemonisha [Original, Musical, Opera]
  • Choreographed by Louis Johnson
  • Also Starring: The Louis Johnson Dance Theatre [Treemonisha Dancer]
Purlie [Revival, Musical, Comedy]
  • Choreographed by Louis Johnson
Lost in the Stars [Revival, Musical, Tragedy]
  • Choreographed by Louis Johnson
Les Blancs [Original, Play]
  • Ritual: Louis Johnson
Purlie [Original, Musical, Comedy]
  • Choreographed by Louis Johnson
Hallelujah, Baby! [Original, Musical]
  • Performer: Louis Johnson
    • Ensemble – Replacement
  • Understudy: Louis Johnson
    • Tip – Replacement
    • Tap – Replacement
Kwamina [Original, Musical]
  • Performer: Louis Johnson [Dancer]
House of Flowers [Original, Musical]
  • Performer: Louis Johnson [Townsperson]
My Darlin’ Aida [Original, Musical]
  • Performer: Louis Johnson [Dancer]
Four Saints in Three Acts [Revival, Musical, Opera]
  • Performer: Louis Johnson [Dancer]
  • Dunning, Jennifer. “Louis Johnson: ‘I Love Dance–Any Kind of Dance’.” NEW YORK TIMES, September 28, 1975, Sec. 2, p. 6. Goodman, Saul. “Brief Biographies: Louis Johnson.” DANCE MAGAZINE (August 1956). Source Citation: “Louis Johnson.” ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY. 5 vols. Macmillan, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Gale Group.

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