Obituary: William Louther

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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM LOUTHER was an unusually talented individual whose powerful but brief impact helped shape the beginnings of British contemporary dance.

His image as a performer remained fixed in the mind of anyone who saw him dance. He possessed not only a sensational, impeccable athleticism, but also a fine-drawn beauty and magical theatricality.

In Britain he is most identified with Peter Maxwell Davies's Vesalii Icones, premiered in 1969 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and written for Davies's own music ensemble, the Fires of London, a solo cello (Jennifer Ward Clarke) and a dancer. Davies specified images inspired by the anatomical drawings of Vesalius and the Stations of the Cross, and found in Louther an ideal choreographer and performer. Louther's powerful geometries recalled Graham's precept about the importance of gesture, the gesture that is pure and does not lie.

Louther began to train as an actor at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, but switched to dance after seeing a concert by the school's dance department. Later, he went to the Juilliard School, studying ballet with Antony Tudor and Graham technique with Martha Graham. In 1958 he joined a company headed by May O'Donnell, a former dancer with Graham, then danced with the mostly black Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and with Martha Graham's own company, creating roles in both.

In 1964 he danced in London with Ailey's company. Reviewers noted his lithe elegance and intensity and were particularly impressed by a solo in Talley Beatty's The Road of Phoebe Snow, which contained, as Clive Barnes wrote, "a series of jetes in which Louther reverses his body at the top of the jump". In 1969 he was back again with Graham's company, and a few months later with Donald McKayle's show Black New World, which traced the black American experience through song and dance.

London became a home. He was a founder member of London Contemporary Dance Theatre and appeared in the company's first London season in 1969 at The Place, dancing Graham's seminal trio El Penitente and Ailey's strenuously virtuosic solo Hermit Songs in which, as the critic John Percival recorded, he displayed "such modesty, such involvement and such perfection that it almost looks easy".

During the early Seventies, Louther toured with LCDT, creating roles in works by Robert Cohan and Barry Moreland. Steeped in Graham technique, he also acted as a teacher to his fledgling British counterparts; he was an immense inspiration, reminding them in his classes and his performances that dance was about theatre and communication.

Yet the dazzling comet of Louther's career soon fizzled out. Deep within his genius were destructive seeds and colleagues found it hard to work with his demands and reliance on alcohol. He himself wanted to continue choreographing and found performing too much of an additional burden.

Later, developing arthritis, he was also to say that he preferred not to sabotage the memories of his sensational virtuosity. In 1972 he took up an invitation to direct and choreograph in Israel, with the Batsheva Dance Company, which he did for two years; in 1975 he directed Welsh Dance Theatre for a year.

Thereafter he dropped largely from view, re-emerging on occasion for one-off performances, either in his own or other small companies' productions. He taught at many vocational schools and earned a reputation as a remarkable, exacting teacher with a gift for pinpointing precisely what he wanted from his pupils. Because his own training had covered a broad span, he liked dancers to be rounded performers, able to combine speech and song as well as movement, and he founded Dance and Theatre Corporation, a part- time company that mirrored this. He himself was an accomplished singer and had studied the piano to professional level at the Juilliard School.

His final years were happier. He met a journalist, Sharon Atkin, when she interviewed him for the Caribbean Times, and they married in June 1996. The same year in Israel, as a wedding present for Sharon, he choreographed a duet called Obsession for himself and the Russian ballerina Galina Panova; and before falling ill last year he had been busy making another work with Panova.

Nadine Meisner

William Louther, dancer, choreographer and teacher: born New York 22 January 1942; married 1996 Sharon Atkin; died London 7 May 1998.