Loyce Houlton's Legacy
“…loving the thing one is doing is the most beautiful thing in life, I think.” Loyce Houlton, 1972
Building an exceptional artistic career requires a combination of embracing one’s unique vision, obtaining guidance from excellent instructors and mentors, recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities, committing to one’s values, not allowing anything to interfere with the goal, and working tirelessly to achieve a legacy of exceptional work. Loyce Houton, founder of the Minnesota Dance Theatre, received an excellent education in dance instruction, studied under some of the most influential choreographers of the 20th Century, committed to her vision of establishing an exceptional regional dance company, and perservered through a variety of obstacles to create an influential regional dance company and school and, more importantly, to provide opportunities in creative dance for Minnesota youth. Validation of her vision and influence is evident in the trove of archived letters from former students and community leaders expressing gratitude for affording an excellent opportunity for young dancers at all levels.
However, Houlton’s early work, which eventually culminated in choregraphing Tachaikovsky’s “Nutrraccker Fantsy” locally shows that her initial efforts focusedon creating dance piecws that were both dramatic and culturally poignant, and her legacy includes a stunning set of choreography, an excellent school and dance company, and a community rich with opportunities for young dancers to learn, grow, and discover their creative passions.
Loyce Houlton was born Loyce (maiden name) in Proctor, MN, in 1926. After studying with (insert names here) at Carleton College she graduated in 1946. Upon graduation she moved to New York City where she earned a Master of Arts in dance education at New York University. In New York, she studied choreography under 20th Century dance luminaries such as Martha Graham, Jose Limon, George Balanchine, and Anna Sokolaw. She returned to Minnesota in 1958. Here she served on the faculties at the University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and St Catherine’s College.
“I have always sought an American dream of energy, of movement, of space, and of heritage,” Houlton once wrote. “I wanted whatever we taught to represent movements that have crept along the Mississippi and were Indian, Black, primitive and cubistic, pioneer and classic, and all of those things that have been called American." Several pieces that achieve this intent include Swan Lake Minnesota, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Earthsong, and Wingborne to name a few.
While this was an intense time in her professional life, Loyce’s personal life was also exceedingly busy. She married William Houlton after returning to Minnesota and eventually had four children (the youngest is an acclaimed dancer whose daughters are now members of the MDT). It was during this extraordinarly busy time in her life that Loyce started the Contemporary Dance Playhouse. In 1969 the company changed its name to the Minnesota Dance Theatre, but continued to reside in the original studio in Dinkytown on SE 4th st. A major fire in 1973 razed the studio. Two years after the devastating fire, Loyce was diagnosed with nephritis – an extreme form of diabetes which eventually attacked her eyesight. However, these obstacles hardly slowed down the Loyce, who remained committed to building an excellent Minnesota dance company.
Perhaps the most enduring, notable, and locally-recognized of Houlton’s accomplishments as a choreographer and instructor is her interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Fantasy.” It has been performed annually during the holiday season in Minneapolis since 1964, with the exception of a few years during the 1980s. During her tenure, Houlton adjusted the choreography each year, challenging her dancers to help create its magic. As the piece evolved and grew in popularity in the community, James Gunther was eventually commissioned to create the enchanting set design that is still used today. The history, however, that followed the Gunther commission reveals some difficulties Houlton faced to sustain her vision despite some temporary financial obstacles suffered by the dance company. By 1985, after having commissioned the Gunther set, the company was in serious financial crisis. The MDT Board apparently had a different vision for the future of MDT – one that did not include Houlton, but did include a merger with Seattle’s Pacific Northwest (DANCE COMPANY?). Houlton reluctantly resigned after 24 years, but not without much controversy in the local community. Many students withdrew from the school and several of the company dancers left in protest. On October 30, 1986, one letter from a student written to the Board stated strongly that she chose to take classes at MDT “…because of Loyce Houlton’s reputation, esthetic sense, and her creative and inspiring genius of dance.”
The merger ultimately failed and Houlton continued her career as a Twin Cities-based choreographer. In 1995, under the leadership of Houlton’s daughter, Lise, MDT was revived, and since remains a widely-respected regional dance company with a strong national reputation.
It wasn’t until after she discovered she had to battle diabetes that she eventually admitted and spoke freely of her revelation that she was born to choreograph. What was more obvious to her from the beginning was her how she believed her vision and her company could succeed: It “must be based on love and commitment,” Loyce Houlton once said. And that indeed was the magic behind the woman, the successful fulfillment of her vision, and her legacy for the dance community.
Deborah K. Ultan Boudewyns, Curator
Art History & Performing Arts Librarian
University of Minnesota