Words of Inspiration from the Late Murray Louis

February 1, 2016

Murray Louis (right) with Alwin Nikolais and Mary Wigman at the Henry Street Playhouse. Photo by David S. Berlin from the DM Archives.

Modern dance choreographer Murray Louis passed away at the age of 89 on Monday, February 1. The 1977 Dance Magazine Award winner holds a special place in many dancers’ hearts, as a comedic dancemaker, a captivating performer and the collaborator and companion of Alwin Nikolais for more than 40 years.

Whenever I leaf through old issues of DM to choose selections for each issue’s “From the Vault” feature, Louis’ name sporadically pops up—but not just in reviews of his work. He also wrote a series of columns for the magazine, and I’ve always been struck by how on-point his commentary on the dance world is. He was brutally honest, and at times funny, about the tough realities of choreographing, raising funds and putting on a show—but also about the joy that comes with it. Even in 2016, the sentiments in an essay he wrote for the November 1989 issue, titled “Anatomy of a Production,” resonate.

The initial idea: 
“Like all mysterious things of life, art can begin with a dream, a vision, a sound, a stimulus so subtle it is never identified…
From this cherished depth, the artist begins.”

On fundraising:
“Before creation, there must be cash. This fact is so cold, so hard…Those who cannot face it drop out. The process to raise funds is so brutal, so time consuming, and often so humiliating…There is first of all the choreographer’s own pocket, which can be lined by endless hours of teaching or office work or other exhausting processes…
In the meanwhile, don’t be so bold as to ask what [he] intends to live on.”

Rehearsals and choreographer’s block:
“There the dancers stand, and here you stand—the moment you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived, and nothing happens. You’re dry. But you can’t waste time, especially with the clock ticking and the danger of losing your dancers’ confidence and respect beginning to thicken the air.

The pressure to create genius:
“For the next three weeks, the nightmare consumes your life: the doubts, the indecision, the occasional creative flows, the sleepless nights, the questionings, the lack of feedback from the dancers. Forcing invention, the fear of throwing out what doesn’t work is added to the fear the you can’t replace it with something that will…
You look at what you’ve created not to see what you intended but to see what you’ve got and to try to make that work.”

After the performance:
“It’s over now, and you read the reviews, both of them. 
It seems that a description of the costumes and the spelling of the dance titles have drawn more space than the choreography.
But, while you curse or beam as the outcome warrants, a little spark goes off somewhere and your heart quickens. 
‘What a great idea for a dance,’ you say, as your body lights up and you turn your head like some early spring bud as it follow the sun and prepares to bloom, again.”


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