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Dance’s Johnson Curates First Exhibit, Organizes Symposium

Published: June 3, 2013

CSULB Dance faculty member Lorin Johnson recently curated his first exhibit and organized a symposium as part of the Los Angeles Music Center’s nine-month festival, “LA’s Rite: Stravinsky, Innovation and Dance,” to mark the 10th Anniversary of Gloria Kaufman Presents Dance at the center.

The festival “LA’s Rite” paid tribute to composer Igor Stravinsky’s creative period in Los Angeles and the legacy of Russian ballet. This spirit is reflected in the Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of the 1913 “The Rite of Spring” which celebrated its 100th year anniversary this year and which premiered at the music center in 1987 when the Joffrey Ballet was in residence. Johnson worked closely planning the festival for nearly a year with the Vice President of Programming at the Music Center, Thor Steingraber.

Johnson, a member of the university since 2006, felt honored to curate the exhibit of L.A.’s avant-garde dance scene dating from the 1910s. “The photo exhibition ended consisting of 80 pieces arranged on the music center’s second floor,” he recalled. The Grand Hall, notable for its chandeliers, saw the creation of wall-to-wall tributes to the Russian influence on L.A. dance. The exhibit presented such topics as “Los Angeles a la Russe,” “Stravinsky Conducts LA,” “Dance Innovation 1910s-1930s,” “Adolph Bolm’s ‘The Spirit of the Factory’,” “The Hollywood Bowl ‘Firebird’,” “Lester Horton’s ‘Le Sacre du printemps’,” and “The Joffrey Ballet ‘Rite of Spring’ Reconstruction.”

Curated by Johnson and Mark Konecny, this exhibition of photographic prints and facsimile materials from archives, libraries and private collections explored early dance innovation in Los Angeles resulting from the synthesis of ideas from émigrés and local artists. Stravinsky’s groundbreaking 1913 “Le Sacre du printemps,” choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and with costume and set designs by Nicholas Roerich, provides the lens through which to view dance experimentation in L.A. Many Ballets Russes dancers came to Los Angeles alongside European and American artists to establish influential dance schools and companies.

In 1937, Lester Horton created “Le Sacre du printemps” for the Hollywood Bowl, the sixth production created to Stravinsky’s score (and fourth of international visibility). Bringing Russian modernism back full circle to Los Angeles, Horton’s production was bookended in the exhibition by the Joffrey Ballet’s 1987 reconstruction of the original “The Rite of Spring” by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, which premiered at the Los Angeles Music Center and is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“I was thrilled to discover and display costume designs and photographs from the 1937 Lester Horton production. Most people, including myself, were completely unaware that it had been created,” he said. “The biggest impression from other viewers, besides surprise in the innovative dance in early Los Angeles dance, was pride. Many people expressed to me their sense of pride in L.A.’s dance history.”

The exhibit falls squarely in the center of Johnson’s scholarly research into early 20th century Russian dance avant-garde. “Curating this exhibit enabled me to find many connections between the Russian dance émigrés to L.A. and their work in Los Angeles,” he said. “The exhibition has opened a lot of doors for me. It introduced me to a whole area of L.A. I didn’t know anything about.”

Johnson’s research reached into archives that stretched from L.A.’s Music Center to the New York Performing Arts Library. “What I found astounded me,” he said. “The L.A. dance scene was extremely innovative. There was an avant-garde community in 1920s-1930s L.A. that is today almost completely unknown. It became like a treasure hunt and I feel I have only found the tip of the iceberg of L.A.’s rich dance history.”

Lorin Johnson and others standing in front of the exhibit
Standing in front of the exhibit “LA’s Rite: Stravinsky, Innovation and Dance are (l-r) Lorin Johnson, Millicent Hodson, Thor Steingraber, Lynn Garafola and Kenneth Archer.

Johnson also organized a Saturday afternoon symposium featuring the world’s leading scholars on the Ballets Russes including dance historians Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, internationally renowned for their original reconstruction of “The Rite of Spring.” Also participating in the forum were Barnard College’s Lynn Garafola, the world’s leading expert on the Ballets Russes; USC’s John Bowlt and Sasha Anawalt; and the University of Naples’ Nicoletta Misler.

“The symposium of international dance experts examined the original 1913 `The Rite of Spring’ from numerous sides, revealing the painstaking methods used in reconstructing a work lost to history while delving deeply into the lives and challenges faced by its creators: Nijinsky, Stravinsky and Roerich,” he recalled. “Finally, the day’s talks concluded with a moderated discussion about the role of ‘Rite’ within the context of Los Angeles and its 1987 Joffrey Ballet reconstruction. It was well attended at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion by hundreds of people—I don’t think the music center had ever done anything exactly like this before.”

Johnson is a former dancer with both the San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet theatre, where he worked under the leadership of Mikhail Baryshnikov. He has written articles on dance history and pedagogy for academic journals and magazines such as Dance International and Theatre, Dance and Performance Training. He was a full-scholarship student at the San Francisco Ballet School before joining the San Francisco Ballet and, in 1987, was invited by Baryshnikov to join the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) where he performed until 1995. In the ABT, Johnson worked with some of the seminal choreographers of the 20th century, including Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Glen Tetley. Following his performing career, he returned to academia in his late 20s, earning a B.A. in Russian in 2001 and an M.A. in Slavic literature in 2003 from USC.

Johnson will use his exhibition and symposium research to fuel his first sabbatical beginning this fall to research the Russia-L.A. dance crossroads.

“What I’m interested in are the threads that connect Russia with Los Angeles,” he explained. “I want to look at the last hundred years of dance in L.A. and try to understand it. There is very little written on L.A. dance history in general.”

Johnson believes curating the exhibit and organizing the symposium changed him as a scholar and as an educator.

“I connected with international scholars who are both amazing in their fields and very generous people,” he said. “I have been re-awakened to the rich history of dance in L.A. Here I am, a professor of dance in Long Beach and L.A. County, and I feel well-positioned to delve deeply into an important history close to home. This story really needs to be told.”