Monday, May 22, 2006

Katherine Dunham: Pioneer Scholar; Cultural Director, Was 96 Years Old

Katherine Dunham
Originally uploaded by anovelista.
Dancer Katherine Dunham Dies at 96

Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)

Stephen Chernin, AP

NEW YORK (AP) — Katherine Dunham, a pioneering dancer and choreographer, author and civil rights activist who left Broadway to teach culture in one of America's poorest cities, has died. She was 96.

Dunham died Sunday at the Manhattan assisted living facility where she lived, said Charlotte Ottley, executive liaison for the organization that preserves her artistic estate. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Dunham was perhaps best known for bringing African and Caribbean influences to the European-dominated dance world. In the late 1930s, she established the nation's first self-supporting all-black modern dance group.

"We weren't pushing 'Black is Beautiful,' we just showed it," she later wrote.

During her career, Dunham choreographed 'Aida' for the Metropolitan Opera and musicals such as 'Cabin in the Sky' for Broadway.' She also appeared in several films, including 'Stormy Weather' and 'Carnival of Rhythm.'

Her dance company toured internationally from the 1940s to the '60s, visiting 57 nations on six continents. Her success was won in the face of widespread discrimination, a struggle Dunham championed by refusing to perform at segregated theaters.

For her endeavors, Dunham received 10 honorary doctorates, the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Albert Schweitzer Prize at the Kennedy Center Honors, and membership in the French Legion of Honor, as well as major honors from Brazil and Haiti.

"She is one of the very small handful of the most important people in the dance world of the 20th century," said Bonnie Brooks, chairman of the dance department at Columbia College in Chicago. "And that's not even mentioning her work in civil rights, anthropological research and for humanity in general."

After 1967, Dunham lived most of each year in predominantly black East St. Louis, Ill., where she struggled to bring the arts to a Mississippi River city of burned-out buildings and high crime.

She set up an eclectic compound of artists from around the globe, including Harry Belafonte. Among the free classes offered were dance, African hair-braiding and woodcarving, conversational Creole, Spanish, French and Swahili and more traditional subjects such as aesthetics and social science.

Dunham also offered martial arts training in hopes of getting young, angry males off the street. Her purpose, she said, was to steer the residents of East St. Louis "into something more constructive than genocide."

Government cuts and a lack of private funding forced her to scale back her programs in the 1980s. Despite a constant battle to pay bills, Dunham continued to operate a children's dance workshop and a museum.

Plagued by arthritis and poverty in the latter part of her life, Dunham made headlines in 1992 when she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest U.S. policy that repatriated Haitian refugees.
Quick Facts: Katherine Dunham
- Born: Joliet, Ill.
- Studied at the University of Chicago
- Merged Interest in Anthropology and Dance
- Lived in the Caribbean; Studied Dance There
- Was Civil and Human Rights Activist
Brought African Movement to American Modern Dance
Performed on Broadway in 'Cabin in the Sky'
Produced 90 Single Dances and Five Revues
Won an Honor From the Kennedy Center
Trained Disadvanted Kids in East St. Louis, Ill.
"It's embarrassing to be an American," Dunham said at the time.
Dunham's New York studio attracted illustrious students like Marlon Brando and James Dean who came to learn the "Dunham Technique," which Dunham herself explained as "more than just dance or bodily executions. It is about movement, forms, love, hate, death, life, all human emotions."

In her later years, she depended on grants and the kindness of celebrities, artists and former students to pay for her day-to-day expenses. Will Smith and Harry Belafonte were among those who helped her catch up on bills, Ottley said.

"She didn't end up on the street though she was one step from it," Ottley said. "She has been on the edge and survived it all with dignity and grace."

Dunham was married to theater designer John Thomas Pratt for 49 years before his death in 1986.

Associated Press writer Herbert G. McCann in Chicago contributed to this report.

May 23, 2006

Katherine Dunham, Dancer, Is Dead at 96

New York Times

Katherine Dunham, the dancer, choreographer, teacher and anthropologist whose pioneering work introduced much of the black heritage in dance to the stage, died Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 96.

Her death was confirmed by Dr. Glory Van Scott, a friend and former Dunham dancer. Miss Dunham also had homes in East St. Louis, Ill., where she had run inner-city cultural programs for decades, and in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

By creating popular and glamorous revues based on African and Caribbean folklore, Miss Dunham acquainted audiences, both on Broadway and around the world, with the historical roots of black dance.

In the late 1930's she founded the nation's first self-supporting black modern-dance troupe, one that visited more than 50 countries on six continents. Her achievements came at a time of racial discrimination, which she fought against, refusing to return to segregated theaters in the South. "We weren't pushing 'Black Is Beautiful,' we just showed it," she once wrote. One of her works, "Southland," depicted a lynching.

Miss Dunham also became attached to Haiti and its culture, first arriving there as a young anthropologist. She later became a priestess of the Vaudun religion. In 1992, at the age of 82 and suffering from arthritis, she staged a much-publicized 47-day hunger strike to protest repatriation of Haitian refugees.

In East St. Louis, she found talented young people living in one of the nation's most destitute areas and turned them into dancers. Describing her work there, she said her aim was "to make the individual aware of himself and his environment, to create a desire to be alive."

Miss Dunham was a recipient of some of the most prestigious awards in the arts, including the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Albert Schweitzer Prize (presented at Carnegie Hall), Kennedy Center Honors and decorations from the French and Haitian governments.

In her dance technique, Miss Dunham emphasized the isolation of individual parts of the body. Some of her concepts continue to be taught at modern-dance schools across America. Her work was an important influence on Alvin Ailey, among other contemporary choreographers.

George Balanchine cast Miss Dunham in a major role in "Cabin in the Sky," a Broadway musical starring Ethel Waters, which he staged and choreographed in 1940. She then went to Hollywood and danced in and choreographed the movies "Carnival of Rhythm" (1941), "Star-Spangled Rhythm" (1942) and "Stormy Weather" (1943), among others. It was in the 40's that Miss Dunham developed the fast-paced shows for which she was celebrated. "Tropical Revue," successfully produced on Broadway in 1943, also toured the nation to much acclaim. Its sensuality also drew complaints, and it was cut, and finally closed, in Boston.

Miss Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Her father, Albert Millard Dunham, was a descendant of slaves from Madagascar and West Africa. Her French Canadian mother, Fanny June Taylor, died when Miss Dunham was young. Her father then married Annette Poindexter, a schoolteacher from Iowa, and moved his family to predominantly white Joliet, Ill., where he ran a dry-cleaning business.

Always interested in the theater, Miss Dunham shocked neighbors when, at 15, she announced she would stage a "cabaret party" to aid a Methodist Church. Later, she confessed that she had scarcely known what "cabaret" meant.

Miss Dunham attended Joliet Junior College and the University of Chicago, where she received her bachelor's degree, going on to a doctorate in anthropology there. She also studied dance in Chicago with Ludmilla Speranzeva and Mark Turbyfill, a choreographer and poet, with whom she established the short-lived Ballet Nègre in 1930. Ruth Page, a prominent Chicago choreographer, cast her in "La Guiablesse," a ballet based on Martinique folklore that was performed at the Chicago Civic Opera House in 1933.

The following year, Miss Speranzeva helped Miss Dunham establish the Chicago Negro School of Ballet and a company, the Negro Dance Group, which evolved into the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. She did her anthropological field work in the Caribbean as a graduate student in 1935, receiving a Rosenwald Fellowship to study traditional dances in Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Haiti, where she became close to Haitians and took up the Vaudun religion. Over the years Miss Dunham spent much time in Haiti and in 1961 established a medical clinic there.

In the United States, she worked with the Federal Theater in Chicago, where she met John Pratt, an artist and designer to whom she was married from 1941 until his death in 1986. He also managed her career. Their daughter, Marie Christine Dunham Pratt, of Rome, who survives her.

Miss Dunham took her Negro Dance Group to New York in 1937 but did not attract wide attention there until 1939, when she choreographed "Pins and Needles," a satirical revue produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Her popular appearance on Broadway as Georgia Brown in "Cabin in the Sky" at the Martin Beck Theater led to Hollywood and her celebrated revues of the early 40's. Later revues included "Carib Song" (1945), "Bal Nègre" (1946), "Caribbean Rhapsody" (1948) and "Bamboche" (1962). They consisted of brief, vivid numbers inspired by African, Caribbean or African-American dance forms. In 1945, she founded the Dunham School of Dance and Theater in New York. Until it closed a decade later, it offered courses in dance, acting, psychology, philosophy, music, design and foreign languages.

After World War II, her dance company toured constantly, visiting more than 50 countries in 30 years. "Judging from reactions," she said at one point, "the dancing of my group is called anthropology in New Haven, sex in Boston and in Rome — art!"

She also continued to choreograph in New York. In 1963 she became the first African-American to choreograph at the Metropolitan Opera since 1934, startling audiences with her lusty dances for a production of Verdi's "Aida." Writing in The New York Times, the critic Allen Hughes said: "There is 'modern' in it, belly-dancing, the foot-stamping and hip-and-shoulder shaking of primitive African dancing and much more. All pure Dunham."

Miss Dunham began an association with Southern Illinois University in 1964 when she choreographed Gounod's "Faust" at the Carbondale campus. In 1967, she moved to its Edwardsville campus and founded the Performing Arts Training Center in nearby East St. Louis.

She did more than offer courses there. Her collection of African and Haitian art became the basis for the community's Katherine Dunham Dynamic Museum, which opened there in the late-1970's. She also counseled disadvantaged young people, and her colleagues noted that she could calm the angriest of them through the sheer power of her presence, making her ordinarily soft voice even softer — yet always firm — as the counseling session proceeded. Miss Dunham was also the author of many books, some published under the pseudonym Kaye Dunn. Her books including "Journey to Accompong" (1946), "A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood" (1959), "Island Possessed" (1969) and "Dances of Haiti" (1984).

Miss Dunham remained relatively active in her last years. On May 11, she appeared at the Morgan Library in Manhattan for a screening of "Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball," an ABC special, broadcast on Monday, celebrating Ms. Winfrey's personal heroes, Miss Dunham among them. She was resplendent in a kente-inflected robe set off with a large paisley scarf.

Earlier in the month she had appeared at La Boule Blanche (the White Ball) at Riverside Church, an event organized by her friend Dr. Scott to celebrate the publication of an anthology of writings by and about Miss Dunham. The book, "Kaiso!," edited by VèVè A. Clark and Sara E. Johnson, was recently released by University of Wisconsin Press. The title is a Calypso expression meaning, "Bravo!"

May 23, 2006

An Appreciation

How Katherine Dunham Revealed Black Dance to the World

New York Times

Whatever else Katherine Dunham was in her long and productive life, which ended on Sunday at 96, she was a radiantly beautiful woman whose warmth and sense of self spread like honey on the paths before her.

How could anyone be stopped by the color of her skin after her invincibly lush sensuality and witty intelligence had seduced audiences on Broadway, in Hollywood films and in immensely popular dance shows that toured the world? And how could anyone cram black American dance into one or two conveniently narrow categories — or for that matter ignore the good strong roots that would one day grow green stems and leaves — with the vision of her company's lavishly theatrical African and Caribbean dance revues in mind?

Miss Dunham was one of the first American artists to focus on black dance and dancers as prime material for the stage. She burst into public consciousness in the 1940's, at a time when opportunities were increasing for black performers in mainstream theater and film, at least temporarily. But there was little middle ground there between the exotic and the demeaning everyday stereotypes.

Ms. Dunham's dance productions were certainly exotic, and sometimes fell into uncomfortable clichés. But a 1987 look at her work, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's "Magic of Katherine Dunham" program, confirmed that she also evoked ordinary lives that were lived with ordinary dignity.

Miss Dunham, as she was universally known, was by no means the only dance artist to push for the recognition of black dance in the 1940's, when Pearl Primus pushed, too, though a great deal less glamorously. But though Miss Dunham's academic credentials as an anthropologist were impeccable, including a doctorate from the University of Chicago, it was her gift for seduction that helped most to pave the way for choreographers like Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty and Alvin Ailey, who were the first wave of what is today an established and influential part of the larger world of American modern dance.

Ailey's first encounter with her, as a newly stage-struck boy in his mid-teens, says a great deal about Miss Dunham's appeal. Intrigued by handbills advertising her 1943 "Tropical Revue," he ventured into the Biltmore Theater in downtown Los Angeles, his hometown, where it was playing. There he was plunged into a world of color, light and heat that was populated by highly trained dancers with a gift for powerful immediacy, who were dressed in subtle, stylish costumes designed by John Pratt, Miss Dunham's husband. After the show, Ailey followed the crowd making its way backstage to her dressing room and was again stunned when the door opened on a vision of beautiful hanging fabrics and carpeting, paintings, books, flowers and baskets of fruit. And there was La Dunham, dressed in vividly colored silks and exuding irresistible gaiety and warmth.

Ailey returned to the show several times a week, let into the theater by the Dunham dancers who had looked so unapproachably exotic on that first backstage visit. And he was still more than a little in love with her when he invited her to create for his company "The Magic of Katherine Dunham," a program of pieces that had not been seen for a quarter-century. Miss Dunham's dancers, who remained close to her and to one another throughout her life, swarmed into the studios to help her work with the young performers.

Most of the Ailey dancers did not appreciate Miss Dunham's iron perfectionism or the unusual demands of her technique, a potent but challenging blend of Afro-Caribbean, ballet and modern dance. And she was not the easiest of women. I remember speaking with her before a public interview we were to do in April 1993. Addicted to CNN, she had just learned of the fiery, tragic end to the F.B.I.'s seige of the Branch Davidian compound in in Waco, Tex., that morning, and that was all that she could talk about, off and on the stage, despite her promises to discuss her work.

Her horror was real, as was her sense of social justice. She has been criticized for not denouncing the Duvaliers for their dictatorship in Haiti, where she owned a home. But she had also sponsored a medical clinic in Port-au-Prince, and she stayed on for many years in desolate, impoverished East St. Louis, Ill., where she established a museum of artifacts pertaining to her career and taught local children including Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Olympic long jumper, and the filmmakers Reginald and Warrington Hudlin.

"I was trying to steer them into something more constructive than genocide," she said of the children in a 1991 interview with me in The New York Times. "Everyone needs, if not a culture hero, a culturally heroic society. There is nothing stronger in a man than the need to grow."

That idealistic, eloquent self was infused with a streak of no-nonsense practicality.

"I don't like that 'accept,' " MissDunham, still a vibrant beauty at 91, said during a Times interview six years ago in response to a middle-aged visitor who insisted on talking to her about the acceptance and embrace of old age. "I would just let the whole thing go. Just be there for it, centimeter by centimeter." Then it was time for the photo session.

Her eyes seemed to widen even more invitingly and her gaze to grow even warmer as she looked into the eye of the camera and asked, "Did you ever see photographs of elderly divas trying to look sexy?"


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