A modern dance legend is honored by his peers, students and fans.


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By Joel Benjamin


Many years ago I made my stage debut at the Henry Street Settlement as the back end of the cow—my best friend Phillip Strong was the front end!—in Murray Louis’s kiddie show “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Although this wasn’t a particularly auspicious beginning, Mr. Louis opened me up to the wonders and discipline of dance and theater. Murray had the same, life-changing effect on thousands of performers and millions of audience members who saw him dance over the past seven-plus decades. The presence of so many dance luminaries who came to the Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side—the very site of my triumph!—to honor him as part of the estimable Horse’s Mouth series proved how influential and beloved he is. More than twenty artists spoke—young, old and in between.

Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham’s Horse’s Mouth has honored individual dance notables and dance in general. Past programs paid homage to older male and female dancers, Frederic Franklin and Murray Louis’s colleague, Phyllis Lamhut. They stuck to their long held format here.   A seated speaker, stage center, relates experiences and vignettes while all around them dancers of all ages and genres quietly improvise. Occasionally, a diagonal of brilliantly costumed characters enlivens the event with surreal performance art. The events always end with a grand parade to Nino Rota’s music from Fellini’s 8 ½.

Emiko Tokunaga and Yasuko Tokunaga (both on the mature side) spoke of running from one Boston train station to another to meet the unpredictably mercurial Murray. Meredith Monk, the composer/choreographer, on video, told how Murray slipped her money to get her through a difficult period. Carla Maxwell, artistic director of the Limón Company, was grateful for Murray’s encouragement during the time she faced the difficult task of keeping her troupe together after the death of Limón and the retirement of Ruth Currier.

Carlo Pellegrini who ran away from home to join the circus, found the same sense of wonder in Murray’s work, leading him to work with him and Nikolais in New York City. Tandy Beal, tall and elegant, extolled the dance technique she learned in that very building, a viewpoint on dance that she—and thousands of others—have found both physically and mentally stimulating. Bebe Miller, a dance pedagogue in her own right, warmly thanked Murray for instilling not only discipline but a way of looking at the world that allowed her to develop her own talents her own way. Peter Kyle, one of the younger speakers, told of how he learned to command space in Murray’s classes.

Alberto del Saz, who has been Murray’s right hand man for years, staging his ballets all over the world, still lithe and handsome, was mentioned numerous times during the show, praised for his loyalty and patience.

The three most affecting expressions of esteem came from Murray’s colleagues from the forties and fifties who danced and taught with him in the Alwin Nikolais troupe and with his company, also at the Abrons Center.   Murray’s contemporaries, Ruth E. Grauert, Phyllis Lamhut and Gladys Bailin, three remarkable women whose lives were defined by dance, each had heartwarming stories. Ruth’s first image of Murray was him with his leg on a barre, stretching, while simultaneously smoking with one hand and drinking coffee with the other. Phyllis, whose husband Robert Smalls stood next to her as she handed him the papers she read from, felt the “vibrations” in the space. Gladys fondly remembered long automobile rides with Nikolais and Murray to Athens, Ohio where she taught and where they staged ballets.

Many other Murray Louis/Alwin Nikolais acolytes spoke, among them Janis Brenner, young Robbie Moore, Sara Pearson, Lynn Levine Rico and Janice Rosario.

The complex portrait of the 88-year old Murray Louis that emerged was of a man who is simultaneously grand, yet approachable; a man full of oddball idiosyncrasies and quotable utterances; a man devoted to his art, his colleagues and his friends; but mostly a great man of theater whose philosophy of art and life has been firmly instilled in many others who will continue, in turn, to teach upcoming generations of dance and theater artists.


From the Horse’s Mouth: Murray Louis – May 3, 2015

Abrons Arts Center – Henry Street Settlement 466 Grand St., at Pitt St. New York, NY

For tickets to Abrons Center events call 212-352-3101 or visit www.abronsartscenter.org

For information about From the Horse’s Mouth visit www.horsesmouth.org