Dunham - Matriarch Of Modern Dance
Dr. Rebecca Tortello
NOW 93 years old, Katherine Dunham's life is the stuff of legend. Widely recognized as the matriarch of black American dance, in the 1930s Dunham skillfully blended the discipline of cultural anthropology with the medium of dance to create an entirely new form of movement. With a professional troupe she formed in the 1940s, she helped to establish black or African-American dance as an art form, paving the way for other such luminaries as Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones.
In the late 1920s Katherine moved to Chicago to join her brother in taking classes at the University of Chicago. She began to take dance classes and to perform in local theatres. She joined with choreographer Ruth Page and ballet dancer Mark Turbyfill to open a dance studio called "Ballet Negre." At school she was greatly influenced by the work of cultural anthropologists and learned to see dance as a cultural symbol. She applied for and received not one but two prestigious Rosenwald Fellowships to study the anthropological roots of African-American dance which took her on her first field trip to the Caribbean. Dunham lived alternately in Haiti and Jamaica for over a year and a half and learned aspects of Haitian vodoun and Jamaican Maroon dance rituals.
Early on Dunham encountered denials as to the existence of these dances and she began to despair that she would ever see any performed. Then, when she was becoming convinced she was doomed never to witness what she had come to see, she got a glimpse of the dances when she attended the funeral services for a Miss Mattie Cross who Dunham says had "joined her ancestors in that happy land which is a sweet confusion of Scotch-Presbyterian and Gold Coast hereafter" (p. 85). While at the graveside, for the first time, she heard strains of Koromantee songs she had read about sung by men who were drinking rum and digging Miss Mattie's grave. She became hopeful, but unfortunately for her she soon realized no dancing was going to take place there and so she left to return to Miss Mattie's house with the other women. Later on, when the men returned to the house, still singing the songs, she got her first taste of the dance, when as they stumbled into the tiny hut they did a few turns of the Koromantee dance, shouting and clapping (p. 90).
few weeks later, near the end of her stay, Dunham heard the strains
of the goombay drum, an instrument she knew was used in the Koromantee
dances and she became instantly intrigued. She followed it into a hollow
behind pimento, breadfruit and coconut trees to encounter a circle of
dancers lit by kerosene torches. Faces flickered in the smoky light
and the dancers faced each other in the middle of the circle. Dunham
watched entranced as they performed dance after dance. The
first she learned involved an old man playing the part of a myal doctor
who was enticing a duppy (evil spirit) played by an old woman into his
power. When that dance ended, the mood became livelier and more dancers
entered the circle, hopping about, mimicking two cocks in the thick
of a fight: "They switched their middles, bobbed their heads, wrinkled
their faces and stuck their necks far out crowing a challenge" (p. 134).
Then the strains of the Koromantee war songs Dunham recognized from
Miss Mattie's gravedigging were heard and she joined in the dancing
with the steps she had seen danced at Miss Mattie's funeral. Dunham
would take this unique experience and use it as inspiration to create
an entirely new dance form. The Koromantee dance began with an introductory
walking around in a loose circle. Partners then faced each other and
began to do a step much like an Irish reel, hands on hips, hopping from
one foot to the other, feet turned out at right angles. They came together
and separated then they grabbed each other at the waist and ran circles
around each other first one way, then the other. That then gave way
to what is called 'bush-fighting' "crouching down and advancing
in line to attack an imaginary enemy with many feints, swerves and much
pantomime" (p. 135). Finally Dunham found herself face to face with
the old woman who had played the duppy in the first dance and they re-enacted
a dance connected to a battle between the Maroons and the British. As
Dunham describes: "She grabbed me by the
DANCER BACK IN THE US
In 1940 she produced the ground-breaking "Tropics and Le Jazz Hot From Haiti to Harlem" which established Dunham as one of American's most talented choreographers. This led to her first Broadway musical, "Cabin in the Sky" a production staged by American Ballet Theatre's famed master George Balanchine and on which she and Pratt worked on together. All of Dunham's productions involved lavish costumes, staging and orchestral arrangements often based on Caribbean folk rhythms. Meanwhile, in 1945 she established Dunham's School of Dance and Theater in New York which became a major training facility for young dancers some alumni include actors Eartha Kitt and Marlon Brando. In 1948 she toured Europe with her own company and appeared in "Caribbean Rhapsody" at London's Prince of Wales Theatre. It was the first time elements of American modern dance appeared in Europe, and also the first time black dance was seen as an art form on a European stage.
During the 1960s Dunham toured the world with her own dance troupe and continued to choreograph for stage, television and the movies. Returning to her roots, in the late 1960s Dunham accepted a post as Visiting Artist in the Fine Arts Division at Southern Illinois University. While there she funded a Performing Arts Training Center to offer inner-city youth alternatives to violence.
Dunham was a staunch civil rights activist, staging protests against segregation in public spaces in the US and elsewhere and filing lawsuit after lawsuit accordingly. One of her major triumphs was the successful staging of a suit against a Brazilian hotel which eventually prompted the Brazilian president to apologize and outlaw discrimination in public places. She once refused to sign a lucrative Hollywood studio contract when the producer indicated a desire to replace some of the darker-skinned members of her repertoire.
the years Dunham has choreographed over 90 individual pieces, including
Scott Joplin's opera "Treemonisha" in 1972 and 5 revues, 4 of which
played on Broadway and toured worldwide. Her 1946 revue, "Bal Negre"
was her most critically acclaimed work, including "Shango" based on
a Haitian Voodoo
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted February 24, 2003
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