Murray Louis was a major force in 20th century American modern dance who achieved distinction both on his own and with his longtime partner Alwin Nikolais. Born in Brooklyn as Murray Louis Fuchs in 1926, he was the son of an impoverished baker who was forced to place Louis in an orphanage at the age of 8 during the Depression. After graduating from high school, he served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946. Settling in San Francisco after his discharge, he began his dance studies there with Anna Halprin. It was Halprin who encouraged him to pursue his studies with Hanya Holm at Colorado College, where he met Nikolais and became a lifelong disciple of Holm’s. Moving to New York with Nikolais, he soon became an integral part of Nikolais’s dance experiments at the Henry Street Music Settlement, simultaneously studying speech and theater at New York University. He also began choreographing, and established his own company in 1953 while continuing to perform with the Nikolais troupe. Murray Louis & Company made its Pillow debut on a shared program in 1965 when he performed his solo, Transcendencies
, and a signature group work, Junk Dances
. The company was so well received that they returned the very next season to reprise Junk Dances
along with a different solo and a duet on another shared program. Three full-program engagements followed in 1970, 1975, and 1978, all featuring performances by Louis himself. Concurrent with these Pillow appearances, Louis was one of the busiest and most prominent creative forces in the dance world, creating new works for companies such as the Royal Danish Ballet, the Hamburg Ballet, the Scottish Ballet, the Limón Dance Company, and the Batsheva Dance Company. In 1975 and 1978, Rudolf Nureyev appeared as a guest artist with the Louis company, and Louis created a solo especially for Nureyev. During the 1980s, the company engaged in several high-profile collaborations with jazz legend Dave Brubeck, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet performed one of the works commissioned by the company in a “Jazz at the Pillow” concert in 1987. Louis returned to the Pillow one last time in 1996 as the director of a combined company known as Nikolais & Murray Louis Dance, but his own work wasn’t included because the program was a tribute to Alwin Nikolais, who had died three years earlier. Highly regarded as a writer and lecturer with a distinctive wit, Louis wrote two collections of essays, Inside Dance
and On Dance
. In the first, he described memorable theaters throughout the world where he had performed, including the Ted Shawn Theatre: “There are three dressing rooms that remain vividly with me. When I return to them, I feel as if I were returning home. One of them is at the Pillow. Partitioned in rough siding, and crudely constructed, it is viewless unless you open the toilet door, which opens directly into the woods and the home of three pushy chipmunks waiting for handouts. To protect myself from the usual chill, I’m always swathed in layers of warm-up clothes. But somehow I love that place. I usually arrive hours before I’m due, to walk about, stare at the woods, write, smell the pine and decaying leaves and cleanse my lungs, my mind, and my ambitions.” At age 89, Murray Louis died in February 2016 in the New York City home that he had shared with Nikolais for more than 40 years.
Source of Biography
Written by Norton Owen for Jacob's Pillow Remembers.