Famous Haiti lover's goodbye to millions who loved her back

Post Reply
User avatar
admin
Site Admin
Posts: 2152
Joined: Thu Nov 13, 2014 7:03 pm

Famous Haiti lover's goodbye to millions who loved her back

Post by admin » Mon May 22, 2006 1:54 pm

Pioneering dancer Dunham dies at 96

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, Illinois, 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.

"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.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Michel Nau_

Post by Michel Nau_ » Mon May 22, 2006 3:09 pm

Katherine Dunham: Haiti, an Island Possessed

She first came to Haiti as an cultural anthropologist in 1935 on a fellowship grant to study local dance. In order to better understand and learn from first hand experience, and to gain the confidence and friendship of her subjects, this young black American woman did not hesitate to socialize with people in all sectors of society, including the urban poor and peasants, at a time when the local hierarchical society was even more strictly separated than it is today, which did not endear her to the snobbish elite.

She participated in numerous Voodoo ceremonies and before she completed her project underwent the initiation process, which she later wrote about in Island Possessed. Among the many close friendships she cultivated at the time was a young politician named Dumarsais Estime, who a dozen years later became President of Haiti.

Later after she had become an international celebrity, she regularly returned to Haiti for extended stays, frequently bringing the members of her dance troupe along with her to recuperate between their many extended tours and take the time to develop new routines for future performances.

She retained her interest in Voodoo and was initiated on numerous occasions to become a mambo. On one of her earlier visits she was accompanied by her former personal press promoter, Maya Deren, who also got interested in Voodoo, later writing The Divine Horsemen and also making some movies about her trance experiences. She later became a celebrity in her own right and is now considered the mother of independent film makers.

Ms. Dunham took the opportunity during these visits to purchase various properties throughout the country (she still has several in prime locations, such as high above the city of Port-au-Prince at Bouthieres and above Carrenage in Cap Haitien which she would like to sell). On one of these properties, in the heart of Carrefours in the western suburb of the capital, she commissioned Albert Mangonese, the Haitian architect who directed the renovation of La Citadelle fortress near Cap Haitien and who has been called the Frank Lloyd Wright of the Caribbean, to construct her Residence, which turned out to be one of the most lovely homes in the country.

Often when she was living there during the 60s and 70s, many tourists would come to witness sensational Voodoo ceremonies at the large beautifully decorated peristyle located right behind her house.

She also owns the large wooded property across the road from this which in the mid-70s she leased to a French entrepreneur named Coquelin. This land was rumored to have been the location of the house belonging to General Leclerc and his wife Pauline Bonaparte during the time of the French colony. A large modern hotel was constructed there which included 44 villas, 11 swimming pools, a gourmet restaurant, discotheque and casino, and it was named Habitation Leclerc.

During its heyday, it was advertised as a hide-out for the rich and famous and catered almost exclusively to the international jetset society, including European nobility and famous rock stars such as Mick Jagger. When it operated during the late 70s and early 80s, 2 of its villas were priced at $1500 a night, and the minimum rate was $350 a night, extremely expensive for those days, and it was rated as one of the top 10 hotels in the world. Unfortunately after the AIDS scare killed tourism in Haiti in the early 80s, it was forced into bankruptcy and looters rampaged through the place, ripping out and stealing anything worth salvaging.

Today Ms. Dunham would like to convert this property, which contains one of the few remaining rain forests in the region, into what could be the model Botanical Garden of the Caribbean and renovate the buildings which were formerly villas to house a Cultural Center for the Arts. Several years ago a team of botanists from the University of Puerto Rico conducted a study of cataloging its incredibly diverse plant life (for years it was spared from robbers cutting the trees for firewood because the stream running through it was considered sacred to Voodoo worshiper) and concluded that it was ideally
suited for this purpose.

Later the Kew Gardens in London sent a couple of young botanists to continue this work, and contacts were established with the Fairchild Gardens in Miami and the New York Botanical Gardens who expressed an interest in participating in this project. Former President Aristide was also highly supportive, but regretted that his government was unable to provide any funding for assistance. However due to the inability to raise any funds to move it forward, the project remains unfortunately dormant, and a large group of squatters have moved in to occupy the ruins of the former villas and will soon ruin the property unless action is taken soon. (Ms. Dunham is aware that I am most interested in helping her find a way to get this project off the ground, and we would greatly appreciate any assistance in the form of advice on how to write up a proposal for funding, which specific foundations to contact, etc. Anyone interested in getting involved with this project should contact me. Although I will be absent from home for the next few weeks, I usually live in Washington DC.)

The first time I met Ms. Dunham was in early 1995, when after a long absence, she returned to Haiti at the personal invitation of President
Aristide. He wanted to formally thank her at the Palace on behalf of his
government for the assistance she had provided by her 1992 hunger strike (47 days when she was 83 years old!) in giving greater international recognition to the plight of the boat-people and the discriminatory policies of the Bush administration during the time following the military coup. She returned again a year later when he presented her with the highest medal of honor the Haitian government can award to a foreigner, and while there she was also a guest of honor, along with Celia Cruz and another famous older Cuban female singer, at a major gala ceremony held in Petionville.

Last year, after being urged by several old friends, including Harry
Belafonte and his wife Julie (who used to dance with her), Ms. Dunham moved back to live in New York City. When I visited her a few weeks ago, I saw that she is still strong and vigorous for someone of her age, and she spends part of her time working on writing her autobiography. Movie director Jonathan Demme, of the Oscar-winning movies Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, and Debbie Allen, choreographer of the Broadway musical Fame and producer of the recent movie about the slave ship Amnistead, have indicated an interest in making a movie soon about her life story.

Katherine Dunham : comments from Ray Carrier

Michel Nau_

Post by Michel Nau_ » Mon May 22, 2006 4:41 pm

Map prezante respe mwen devan lanmo Madame sa Katherine Dunham ki te youn role model pou anpil fem an Ayiti e dan le mond antye.
Mwen pat jamb chita tet a tet avek madam sa, min mwen wel an plizye fwa nan lakou Poto Prins pandan le zane 70's yo, nan lotel Habitasyon Leclerc sou rout kafou e an 2 e 3 fwa nan Washington DC nan Horward U. ke te li fe presantasyon sou mizik folklorik ki gen anpil kout tambou ladan yo. Madam sa mete Voodoo ak mizik rasinn pep Ayisyen an a lechel internasyonal.

Mwen pat finn di bel redevans sa san ke pou mwen ajoute 2 e 3 pawol move lang, mal palan, ki rakonte nove istwa sou fem kreole sa.

Move lang di ke manzel te fem Prezidan Estime pandan plizye ane. Kidonk, sa pap etone mwen si move lang sa yo fe youn korelasyon lamo manzel avek lamo Heurtelou Dumasais. 2 fem sa yo ki te tre intim avek ansyen prezidan an mouri nan menm mwa me a.
Ayisyen se pep ki sipetisye, nou fek kare tande istwa.

Mwen konnin ke manzel te gen gwo frotman e te gen anpil antre e soti nan koulis korido Ambasad US la e Pale Nasyonal e anpil gran salon diplomatik nan peyi a . Washington DC menm pa kache di ke manzel te youn mamb volonter inportan pou sevis de ransegnman peyi li pandan lepok sa yo jiska Duvalier. Manzel te resevwa youn meday done nan min Prezidan Ameriken an pandan youn selebrasyon nan Kennedy Center, nan Washington, DC. Move lang di ke manzel te the black "Mata Hari of the Caribbean". Tout moun gen zo eskelet nan klozette yo, kidonk, manzel te kap nan youn pozisyon ke yo fose li ye e fe li rand sevis a peyi li. Mesye sa yo se son de zom e fem atou fe.

An nou kite gran dam sa repoze an pe.
E mesi Katherine Dunham pou sevis ke li rand peyi li (nan move kondisyon), e mesi pou gran sevis ke lirand kilti pep Ayisyen an.

Michel

User avatar
admin
Site Admin
Posts: 2152
Joined: Thu Nov 13, 2014 7:03 pm

Katherine Dunham : comments from Ray Carrier

Post by admin » Mon May 22, 2006 10:04 pm

[quote]
#3426: Katherine Dunham : comments from Ray Carrier

* To: Haiti mailing list <haiti>
* Subject: #3426: Katherine Dunham : comments from Ray Carrier
* From: Robert Corbett
* Date: Tue, 2 May 2000 19:57:46 -0700 (PDT)


From: Ray Carrier <raycadien>

Katherine Dunham was a trail-blazing pioneer who, perhaps more than anyone else was responsible for opening up Broadway, Hollywood and Las Vegas to black entertainers. When she first began performing in New York in the late 30s, there had been practically no serious roles for black performers in the major centers for the performing arts in the USA other than in demeaning roles (I think the only exception had been Porgy and Bess a couple of years earlier.) She became not only the director of the largest dance troupe in the world, but was also the lead dancer and choreographer for her performances, and later several members of her troupe, such as Talley Beatty, went on to become famous as dancers and choreographers in their own right. (I have a copy somewhere of a resume which a student wrote up for her some time ago, talk about impressive! Its possible to find videos of some of the classic movies she performed in, such as Stormy Weather, in major outlets like Blockbuster.)

Unfortunately, she is less well known than she should be - virtually no one in the younger generation of musicians today, for example, for whom making a video featuring choreographic performances is standard procedure - is aware that she was really one of the first artists to create and design such dance acts. This is mainly because when she was at her peak, in the 40s, 50s and 60s, the USA was still segregated and her troupe was unable to tour in most parts of the country, particularly the Deep South, without considerable difficulty (it was impossible to find suitable hotel accommodation for her large troupe of 30 to 40 members.) Once when they performed in Tennessee to a standing room audience, the seating arrangement was such that only whites were sitting in the front of the audience, while blacks had to be satisfied with watching the show from far in the back of the hall. After it was over, to a standing ovation, Ms. Dunham came out to address the crowd, and she told them that she could tell that everyone had greatly enjoyed her show, but that she would never return there again until she knew that the situation was changed so that the seating arrangement would be totally integrated. As a result of these problems, she took the troupe on the road internationally, performing in 57 countries over 25 years, where she was always widely acclaimed, while in her own country very few people had the opportunity to see live acts of her performances. Another time in Brazil, hotel reservations had been made in advance, but the management tried to change their mind when they found out that the performers were all black. They quickly retracted their objections when Ms. Dunham threatened to throw herself out of a window and create an international scandal. After this incident the Brazilian government passed a law banning racial segregation in hotels.

I consider having had the fortunate opportunity of meeting and getting to know Katherine Dunham as one of the highlights of my life. Actually this came about almost my accident more than 5 years ago, and before then, like most persons of my generation or younger I had never even heard about this formidable lady. A couple of years earlier, when I was a working as a Human Rights Observer with the OAS, I had struck up a friendship with a fellow Canadian, Cameron Brohman, who for almost 5 years, including the most repressive period after the military coup of 1991, was the caretaker of her home in Haiti, and it was through him that I got to meet her.

Ms. Dunham was born in Chicago in 1909; her father was a black businessman, while her mother was a white Canadian (whose mother was a Native American). She had one older brother named Albert (who she considered to be the smart one in the family.) He was for several years a professor of philosophy at Howard University and was a promising protege of one of the top philosophers in the world at the time (I believe it was
Alfred Whitehead) until he died prematurely during the 1950s. Her husband, John Pratt was a Canadian who had been the set and costume designer for their shows.

She first came to Haiti as an cultural anthropologist in 1935 on a fellowship grant to study local dance. In order to better understand and learn from first hand experience, and to gain the confidence and friendship of her subjects, this young black American woman did not hesitate to socialize with people in all sectors of society, including the urban poor and peasants, at a time when the local hierarchical society was even more strictly separated than it is today, which did not endear her to the snobbish elite. She participated in numerous Voodoo ceremonies and before she completed her project underwent the initiation process, which she later wrote about in Island Possessed. Among the many close friendships she cultivated at the time was a young politician named Dumarsais Estime, who a dozen years later became President of Haiti.

Later after she had become an international celebrity, she regularly returned to Haiti for extended stays, frequently bringing the members of her dance troupe along with her to recuperate between their many extended tours and take the time to develop new routines for future performances. She retained her interest in Voodoo and was initiated on numerous occasions to become a mambo. On one of her earlier visits she was accompanied by her former personal press promoter, Maya Deren, who also got interested in Voodoo, later writing The Divine Horsemen and also making some movies about her trance experiences. She later became a celebrity in her own right and is now considered the mother of independent film makers.

Ms. Dunham took the opportunity during these visits to purchase various properties throughout the country (she still has several in prime locations, such as high above the city of Port-au-Prince at Bouthieres and above Carrenage in Cap Haitien which she would like to sell). On one of these properties, in the heart of Carrefours in the western suburb of the capital, she commissioned Albert Mangonese, the Haitian architect who directed the renovation of La Citadelle fortress near Cap Haitien and who has been called the Frank Lloyd Wright of the Caribbean, to construct her Residence, which turned out to be one of the most lovely homes in the country. Often when she was living there during the 60s and 70s, many tourists would come to witness sensational Voodoo ceremonies at the large beautifully decorated peristyle located right behind her house.

She also owns the large wooded property across the road from this which in the mid-70s she leased to a French entrepreneur named Coquelin. This land was rumored to have been the location of the house belonging to General Leclerc and his wife Pauline Bonaparte during the time of the French colony.

A large modern hotel was constructed there which included 44 villas, 11 swimming pools, a gourmet restaurant, discotheque and casino, and it was named Habitation Leclerc. During its heyday, it was advertised as a hide-out for the rich and famous and catered almost exclusively to the international jetset society, including European nobility and famous rock stars such as Mick Jagger. When it operated during the late 70s and early 80s, 2 of its villas were priced at $1500 a night, and the minimum rate was $350 a night, extremely expensive for those days, and it was rated as one of the top 10 hotels in the world. Unfortunately after the AIDS scare killed tourism in Haiti in the early 80s, it was forced into bankruptcy and looters rampaged through the place, ripping out and stealing anything worth salvaging.

Today Ms. Dunham would like to convert this property, which contains one of the few remaining rain forests in the region, into what could be the model Botanical Garden of the Caribbean and renovate the buildings which were formerly villas to house a Cultural Center for the Arts. Several years ago a team of botanists from the University of Puerto Rico conducted a study of cataloging its incredibly diverse plant life (for years it was spared from robbers cutting the trees for firewood because the stream running through it was considered sacred to Voodoo worshiper) and concluded that it was ideally suited for this purpose. Later the Kew Gardens in London sent a couple of young botanists to continue this work, and contacts were established with the Fairchild Gardens in Miami and the New York Botanical Gardens who expressed an interest in participating in this project. Former President Aristide was also highly supportive, but regretted that his government was unable to provide any funding for assistance. However due to the inability to raise any funds to move it forward, the project remains unfortunately dormant, and a large group of squatters have moved in to occupy the ruins of the former villas and will soon ruin the property unless action is taken soon. (Ms. Dunham is aware that I am most interested in helping her find a way to get this project off the ground, and we would greatly appreciate any assistance in the form of advice on how to write up a proposal for funding, which specific foundations to contact, etc. Anyone interested in getting involved with this project should contact me. Although I will be absent from home for the next few weeks, I usually live in Washington DC.)

The first time I met Ms. Dunham was in early 1995, when after a long absence, she returned to Haiti at the personal invitation of President Aristide. He wanted to formally thank her at the Palace on behalf of his government for the assistance she had provided by her 1992 hunger strike (47 days when she was 83 years old!) in giving greater international recognition to the plight of the boat-people and the discriminatory policies of the Bush administration during the time following the military coup. She returned again a year later when he presented her with the highest medal of honor the Haitian government can award to a foreigner, and while there she was also a guest of honor, along with Celia Cruz and another famous older Cuban female singer, at a major gala ceremony held in Petionville.

Last year, after being urged by several old friends, including Harry Belafonte and his wife Julie (who used to dance with her), Ms. Dunham moved back to live in New York City. When I visited her a few weeks ago, I saw that she is still strong and vigorous for someone of her age, and she spends part of her time working on writing her autobiography. Movie director Jonathan Demme, of the Oscar-winning movies Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, and Debbie Allen, choreographer of the Broadway musical Fame and producer of the recent movie about the slave ship Amnistead, have indicated an interest in making a movie soon about her life story.

On June 22 Ms. Dunham will be 91 years old but for her advanced age she is still going strong and continues to keep busy. Just after this celebration she will as usual be a lecturer at the 2-week seminar for Dance Masters which she has regularly sponsored in St. Louis for the past 30 years, whose participants come from all around the world. Then later on in the middle of the summer she will be the guest of honor at a major week-long dance seminar instructing her dance techniques to young dancers which will take place at the City Center of New York, where dancers from mainly the New York/New Jersey region will participate (the center can hold approximately 2,000 participants).

Ray Carrier
[/quote]

User avatar
admin
Site Admin
Posts: 2152
Joined: Thu Nov 13, 2014 7:03 pm

Katherine Dunham: A second letter from Carrier

Post by admin » Tue May 23, 2006 1:09 am

[quote]
#3427: Katherine Dunham: A second letter from Carrier
________________________________________
• To: Haiti mailing list <haiti>
• Subject: #3427: Katherine Dunham: A second letter from Carrier
• From: Robert Corbett
• Date: Tue, 2 May 2000 19:59:17 -0700 (PDT)
________________________________________

From: Ray Carrier <raycadien>

TO: Walter Isaacson - Managing Editor - TIME Magazine

Dear Sir:

As an international consultant who has always been interested in both history and current events, I read with great interest your recent feature profiling the 20 most influential Leaders and Revolutionaries of the past hundred years. I also noted that you intend to feature in a future issue individuals who you judge to have been the most influential Artists and Entertainers during the past century. I wish to bring to your attention a very special person who I feel greatly privileged to know, whose contributions, in my opinion, have not been sufficiently recognized, but whose accomplishments should qualify her to be listed in this category of prestigious personalities.

This giant of a lady I am referring to is Katherine Dunham, who is unfortunately less well known to the younger generations than she should be, but who in her prime was renowned internationally during the 40s, 50s and 60s as a dancer, choreographer, and director of the largest dance troupe in the USA. It is not only because she was a fantastically talented entertainer whose career spanned more than 50 years that she merits being considered as one of the most influential Artists and Entertainers of the 20th century, but more especially because of her major accomplishments in being a trail-blazer in helping to break down the racial barriers which were obstructing blacks in the performing arts from advancing and gaining the recognition, not to mention financial rewards, that their talents should have more readily provided.

Katherine Dunham was one of the pioneers who opened up and paved the way for black entertainers to follow, first on Broadway, then in the movies of Hollywood in the early 1940s. A few years later, in 1947, she was one of the first entertainers featured in Los Vegas when it was opened as an entertainment center. Without any financial subsidies from the US government (which were regularly granted to similar less-recognized American troupes of white performers), she managed to sustain for almost a quarter of a century her troupe of as many as 40 dancers and musicians on tours on all the major continents, performing in front of packed audiences in 57 different countries.

Anna Kisselgoff, a scholar of dance, in 1972 called Dunham ‘the major pioneer in Black theatrical dance' and ‘ahead of her time.' She goes on to state that ‘Before the concepts of ‘negritude' and ‘third world' were articulated, Miss Dunham - backed up by her academic studies of anthropology - had expressed in her own way the cultural ties of Black people everywhere.' When she began her professional dancing in the early 1930s (one of her first breaks was as a performer and choreographer for the Chicago World's Fair in 1934), black dance in America was not considered respectable. Dr. Melville Herskovitts, the pioneer anthropologist who founded the first university program of African studies in the USA, would write in 1941 that ‘In the United States, pure African dancing is almost entirely lacking.'

Another scholar (Blauner, 1970) would point out that ‘unlike other ethnic groups, blacks did not arrive with one cultural identity which survived or faded, as the case may be. They were socially fragmented, and to a great extent, culturally stripped.' In view of this, Katherine Dunham ‘was consciously and systematically creating a new image for Afro-American dance through her scholarship and through innovation in dance techniques.‘ (Joyce Aschenbrenner)

A recent article in the Washington Post notes that, ‘Dunham, an anthropologist as well as a dancer and choreographer, delved into the folkloric practices of the African diaspora to forge her stylized and widely copied technique. In introducing authentic African dance move- ments to her company and audiences, Dunham - perhaps more than any other choreographer of the time - exploded the possibilities of modern dance expression. A fusion of forms - ballet, modern dance and African dance - is central to her Caribbean-derived "Choros" of 1943, performed to Brazilian music." (Sarah Kaufman, May 10, 1998) A European critic would write in 1948 that ‘There is no doubt that Katherine Dunham and her dancers ... believe in the value of their own culture, arts and tradition as a medium of artistic expression and they refuse to pander to the audience.'

It can be concluded from this that, more than anyone else, by far, Katherine Dunham was responsible for changing these negative attitudes about dance among blacks themselves, and at the same time, for eliminating prejudices about black dancing styles among whites. In my personal opinion, this played a major role in changing social behavior universally, such that today even us white folks have finally been able to get rid of and be freed from many of our inhibitions and feelings of being ‘uptight' that were formerly so pervasive within our culture, and we can now be comfortable about getting up to let loose and ‘do our own thing' when we dance free-style on disco dance floors.

One scholar of the arts, Harold Cruse, wrote in 1964 that ‘The American performing arts are socially predicated on a culturally pluralistic tradition. Any report that discusses the future of theatre, dance, music in America must also discuss the race question, for it is precisely the race factor in American history that created American theatre, dance and music.'

All students of the history of the arts are well aware that Katherine Dunham ‘functioned as a catalyst and creative force in many aspects of American cultural and artistic life' in the historical process of developing Afro-American performing arts with emphasis on the dance, within the ‘social and political climate of a country in which a high degree of overt and covert racism was always present.' ‘Her early and life-long search for meaning and artistic values for black people, as well as for all peoples, has motivated, created opportunities for, and launched careers for generations of young black artists ... Afro-American dance was usually in the avant-garde of modern dance,' and ‘Dunham's entire career spans the period of the emergence of Afro- American dance as a serious art.'
(Aschenbrenner, 1980)

Another black writer (Arthur Todd) in 1962 described her as a pioneer in establishing Afro-American dance as ‘one of our national treasures.' Regarding her impact and effect he wrote: ‘The rise of American Negro dance commenced ... when Katherine Dunham and her company sky-rocketed into the Windsor Theatre in New York, from Chicago, in 1940, and made an indelible stamp on the dance world... Miss Dunham opened the doors that made possible the rapid upswing of this dance for the present generation.' Another writer would appraise her success in the following words: ‘The development of black dance as an art without sacrificing the elemental characteristics is a mark of the genius and dedication of its exponents.'

Anthropologist St. Clair Drake would write that ‘The deep strain of Puritanism in American life that tended to turn sexuality into prurient interest was a constraint that serious black performers had to break through. By means of skilled choreography, Katherine Dunham was able to convey to her audiences that sexuality as expressed in some aspects of African and New World black tradition has symbolic meanings relevant to fertility as well as to sexual satisfaction, and that ostensibly erotic dancing can be cherished for the sheer joy of the bodily movement and display of dancing skill... Her dance encompasses over a forty-year time span, during which the attitudes of commentators to an unfamiliar art form underwent a substantial change.'

Among her many accomplishments was the development of what is called the Dunham Technique for training in dance, which won international acclaim. ‘As a result of her (anthropological) research (in the Caribbean, primarily in Haiti) Dunham distinguished three processes involving the African background of Black folk dance in the Western hemisphere. They are: the incorporation of African religious dance into new ritual behaviors; the secularization of African religious dance; and the interaction of African secular dance with European secular dance. Utilizing her gift for choreography, Dunham began the creation of compositions reflecting the varieties of Black folk dance she had studied. In order to train dancers to perform these works, Dunham developed a dance pedagogy based on Black dance in its Caribbean manifestation. This pedagogic vocabulary, Dunham technique, has been widely taught under many names.' (Richard Long, 1983)

Even though they did not give credit to Katherine Dunham, many dance schools taught Dunham technique, and choreographers plagiarized parts of her works . The late great Alvin Ailey (who in an interview just a short time before his death a few years ago stated that he first became interested in dance as a professional career after having seen a performance of Katherine Dunham's troupe as a young teenager of 14) called the Dunham technique ‘the closest thing to a unified Afro-American dance existing.'

In fact, ‘Today, it is safe to say, there is no American black dancer who has not been influenced by the Dunham technique, unless he or he works entirely within a classical genre; and the future of dance in America is presently being strongly influenced by Afro-American dancers and choreographers.' (Joyce Aschenbrenner) Of the black artists who have had success as dancers in ballet: Arthur Mitchell, Janet Collins (3 years leading ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera); Louis Johnson - who formed his own ballet company; Carmen de Lavallade of American Ballet Theatre; Christian Holder of Robert Joffrey Ballet - all studied and taught with Dunham.

In 1945 she opened the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre in New York, (using box office receipts, not grants or subsidies to provide seed money, demonstrating her success on stage at the time) which had an initial enrolment of 350 students. In 1947 it was expanded and granted a charter as the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts. The curriculum included courses in dance, drama and cultural studies,. Schools inspired by it later opened in Paris, Stockholm and Rome by dancers trained by Ms. Dunham. Her alumni included among others, Eartha Kitt (who as a teenager won scholarship to her school and became one of her dancers), Marlon Brando, James Dean, Jose Ferrar, Jennifer Jones, Shelly Winters and Doris Duke.

In her Book of the Dance, Agnes De Mille described Katherine Dunham as ‘a consummate artist - the first person to organize a Negro troupe of concert caliber ... to set the example by founding a school, training dancers and offering sustained opportunity for performance under dignified conditions.'

What is less known is that she was not just an entertainer (she will turn 89 in June), but that she is an anthropologist / ethnologist / author / university professor and humanitarian. She was a practicing social scientist, and in 1935-36 had traveled widely in the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti, as a researcher conducting a comparative study of dance, which was sponsored by the Rosenwald and Guggenheim Foundations. Her mentors for this project were Dr. Robert Redfield from the University of Chicago, an anthropologist known for his interest in folk and peasant societies (acculturation) and his contributions in anthropological theory, and Dr. Melville Heskovitts of Northwestern University. She later completed studies for a master's degree in anthropology, with emphasis on dance and its relation to culture, from the prestigious University of Chicago, and in 1939, submitted her thesis entitled "Dances of Haiti: Their Social Organization, Classification, Form and Function." She was offered a Rockefeller Grant for graduate work, but elected instead to dance professionally.

In January 1941 she gave a lecture demonstrations of her findings on the function of dance in Caribbean society at Yale University, and later regularly was a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago, UCLA and the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, among many others. In 1976 she was the Artist-in-Residence/Lecturer on Afro-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Earlier, in 1967, she had accepted a permanent position as a professor of Dance Anthropology (for anthropology and dance students) at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, IL, and began developing a cultural arts center, the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis (where she still resides). Through the years she has published numerous articles about dance, and was the author of several autobiographical books, including Island Possessed. As an appreciation of her acceptance in scholastic circles, the famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, among other famous scholars, wrote the introduction to one of her works.

British dance critic Richard Buckle would describe Dunham's work as ‘a disconcerting mixture of anthropological research, invented choreography in various styles; of satire; traditional tunes an flash orchestrations, would-be realistic and fantastically-styled costumes, meticulous planning and spontaneous verve ... Successful and entertaining.' One writer, James Grey, commented that ‘Katherine Dunham, in her most serious composition has made skillful and beautiful dramatizations of just such materials as anthropologists like Bronislav Malinowski and Margaret Mead have analyzed in their sober books.'

The following is a brief summary of Katherine Dunham's career.

While still a student at the University of Chicago, she studied ballet and modern dance with Madame Ludmilla Speranzev and became associated with Ruth Page and Mark Turbyfill of the Chicago Opera Company. With their help, in 1930 (when she was only 21) she was able to rent a studio and to teach dancing, and her students became known as the Ballet Negre. The pupils of this school formed the core of the Negro Dance Group which 3 years later appeared for 2 weeks at the Abraham Lincoln Center. The same year she performed with the Chicago Civic Opera and then danced at the Chicago World's Fair.

In 1937 she first went to New York where she performed at the YWHA, which was well received, and the next year performed L'Ag ‘Ya, based on her research in Martinique, at the Federal Theatre in Chicago. In 1939 she returned to New York where she was dance director for Pins and Needles for the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union at the New York Labor Stage. Later she performed Tropic and Le Jazz Hot at the Windsor Theatre in Broadway, where she and her group were highly acclaimed.

She was then invited to join the cast of the Broadway production of Cabin in the Sky with Ethel Waters. This was Georges Balanchine's first venture into a Broadway production (she also worked with Martha Graham during this period) and it proved to be an enormous success. Commenting about it in the New York Times, famed critic John Martin wrote that ‘throughout the evening Miss Dunham's chief business is to sizzle ... she is one hundred per cent seductress ... (her) very talents are innately lyric rather bumptious.' It closed in New York in February 1941 after 156 performances. Dunham and Company traveled with the show as it toured first in Boston, then in Toronto. When the show closed in Canada, its next stop was Detroit. Dunham continued with the show for the next four months while it played in Pittsburg, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The next year she starred in Star Spangled Rhythm, a Warner Brothers color film devoted to the company, it was one of the first war-time movies designed to maintain morale among American soldiers. Another dance movie produced in 1943, Stormy Weather, was her best known film and was also a great hit. After this she began to tour the United States in impresario Sol Hurok's Tropical Review. ‘During the course of the tour, Dunham and the troupe had recurrent problems with racial discrimination, leading her to a posture of militancy which was to characterize her subsequent career.'
(Long)

In Boston in 1944, her Revue was banned although it was well received by audiences, causing newspaper critics to complain that this action was ‘too close to outmoded Puritanism and cultural witchburning for comfort.' The censors were complaining about Rites de Passage, ‘one of her most enduring works', about which Langston Hughes wrote that ‘Rather than being discriminated against, the Revue should have gained official praise for handling subjects legitimate to the dance, which might have been made offensive by less talented artists, in a delicate and delightful manner.'

They did so because ‘Dunham technique involves a different way of presenting and of ‘feeling' the human body than that to which they were accustomed, and they felt bound to reject its message. As the bastion of conservatism, these social arbitors were at the same time harbingers of a new creative impulse in American dance, stemming from Afro- American cultural expression in which human sexuality and other human traits were shown in different and positive terms, growing out of African and Caribbean religious conceptions. They grasped the implications of this perception of human potential, and they sensed its opposition to the ‘protestant ethic' as well as to religious dogmas.' ‘A reviewer for the Boston Herald Tribuneregarded Dunham as an "unconventional star" because she did not usurp the limelight": this despite the buildup in the popular media, which profits by the creation of "stars."

Beginning in 1947, she began to tour first in Mexico, then in Europe with Caribbean Rhapsody. ‘The impact of Dunham's company on Europe was comparable to that which Josephine Baker had made in the 1920s. The opening of Caribbean Rhapsody in London in 1948 was welcomed as bringing something new and necessary to the drab English post-war scene, still characterized by rationing and power shortages. The vivacity, the colorful costuming, and what was perceived as the panache of the primitive were all applauded.'
(Long)

‘The tour was a grand success, and newspapers proclaimed that Katherine Dunham was sweeping Europe in a wave of popularity greater than that of Isadorra Duncan thirty years earlier. She also influenced hat styles on the continent as well as spring fashion collections, featuring the Dunham line and Caribbean Rhapsody, and the Chiroteque Française made a bronze cast of her feet for a museum of important personalities.' (Like so many other great black artists, she was always more favorably appreciated in Europe than in her own country, an unfortunate trend caused by the rampant racism that prevailed during that period in the USA.)

‘Richard Buckle, later to become well known as a ballet historian and critic, produced a handsome book, Katherine Dunham: Her Dancers, Singers, Musicians... His introductory essay managed to be at once laudatory and patronizing: "To some Katherine Dunham will be more interesting as a sociological that as an artistic phenomenon. It comes as a shock to learn that a Negro should successfully run the largest unsubsidized company of dancers in the United States ... that her company of magnificent dancers and musicians should have met with the success it has and that herself as explorer, thinker, inventor, organizer, and dancer should have reached so high a place in the estimation of the world, has done more than a million pamphlets could for the service of her people."

‘The reception of Dunham and her company in Paris and elsewhere on the Continent was as enthusiastic as it had been in England... The Dunham troupe, in the course of world-wide travels in the following decade, was to become the best-known American dance company in the world.' (Long) Regarding her tour in Paris, Boris Vian, French critic and jazz musician would write in a 1950 revue, ‘There is the great Katherine ... who has known how to combine with infinite talent, choreographic and ethnographical science, elements of authentic folklore, transposed through art, her very real ‘presence' and taste for colors, materials, jewels and attitude, that only belongs to people of her race.'

In 1949, she appeared in the first hour-long American Spectaculars televised by NBC, followed by television spectaculars on BBC in London, Paris, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Sidney (Australia), Mexico and Germany. Later, in 1978, a special about her entitled Divine Drumbeatswas featured in the PBS Dance in America series, and 2 years later the Dunham group completed the filming of Rites de Passage for the same series, and was shown as a special entitled Katherine Dunham and her People,

The years from 1950 to 1957 included tours of South America (she was a house guest of Evita Peron in Argentina), Europe, North Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Far East and the United States, when she was not involved in directing choreographies for several movies. In retrospect, it can be concluded that ‘Dunham's company, supported by means of extensive tours throughout the USA, Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Far East, has been a nucleus of influence radiating into black communities throughout the world.' (Aschenbrenner) ‘The overall achievement of creating and maintaining what became a major cultural institution, totally without subsidy, has few parallels in dance history.' (Long)

‘While she was recognized as "unofficially" representing US cultural life in her foreign tours, she was given very little assistance of any kind by the State Department. Her group performed Southland - a ballet dramatizing a lynching - in Santiago, Chile, despite the strong opposition expressed by the State Department to this performance. As a result, she experienced "difficulties" on her tours which were apparent reminders of her precarious status.'

‘While the State Department subsidized other less well-known groups, it refused to support the Dunham company (even when entertaining the army troops) although it took credit for them as "unofficial artistic and cultural representatives." The State Department repeatedly scheduled performances of their subsidized groups in conflict with those of the Dunham company; they invited ambassadors and other officials to these performances, despite the protests of officials and recommendations that Dunham's company be supported.'

In 1966 she was appointed by the US government as Technical Cultural Advisor to the President of Senegal for the first Pan-African World Festival of the Negro Arts. After it was over, President Senghor complimented her in stating that her company had ‘caused a cultural revolution that paralleled their political and economic revolutions.'

Over the years spanning her career she received a great many awards in recognition of her unique contributions to the advancement of black dance. This included being conferred over a dozen honorary doctorates from universities (particularly those for women) not only in the USA, but abroad as well. ‘In 1968, Katherine Dunham belatedly received the Dance Magazine award, which represents considerable recognition by the ‘art establishment' Then, ‘on January 15, 1979, she was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for her contribution to the performing arts and her humanitarian work.

On that occasion at Carnegie Hall, three generations of Dunham dancers performed dances from her various productions throughout the years.' Among the numerous awards she received, perhaps the most important was the Kennedy Center Honors Award presented to her by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 (she was the only woman awarded that year, the others included Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart).

Katherine Dunham ‘has (always) expressed deep sensitivity to social injustice... In the Sixties, the ‘Black Power' upsurge was sweeping the ghettos with a wave of unplanned, disconcerting violence, she accepted the challenge to become directly involved with inner-city youth and to teach dance in such an area. She moved from the Carbondale campus of Southern Illinois University, where she had been artist-in-residence, to the East St. Louis Center of the Edwardsville campus. Here she would be close to the exploding energy of black youth and begin to apply some of the ideas she held about the role of dance and theatre in black communities of the USA.

Choosing a city that, when she was a small child, had experienced one of the worst race riots in American history and was again devestated during the race protests of 1968 (she still today lives in a depressed neighborhood right in the middle of the ghetto), she established an integrated educational venture, using art as one of the methods of arousing awareness, of stimulating life to be thinking, observant, comparative, not automatic; of surpassing alienation, and of serving as a rational alternative to violence and genocide.' (St. Clair Drake)

Not hesitating to take unconventional approach to solving problems, she reached out to meet with local gang leaders to bring them together and convince them to support her efforts. On one such occasion, the local white police, not knowing who they were dealing with, even arrested and jailed her, then to their embarrassment quickly released her when the newspapers worldwide publicized their head-handed methods toward an internationally-known celebrity. ‘Through her support and aid to black youth during the troubled 1960s, she was able to defuse some of their more self-destructive tendencies... Her presence and her work in East St. Louis have produced a generation of aware and broadly educated young people, contributing to a resurgence of hope in that city as reflected in its political, as well as cultural and social life.' (Aschenbrunner)

Years earlier ‘Miss Dunham also played an important role in changing race relations in Brazil. As a result of an attempt to discriminate against her in a hotel - out of which grew an international cause celebre - the government of Brazil apologized formally and announced that it had taken corrective action through anti-discrimination legislation.'

Further to her lengthy stay in Haiti during the mid-30s, Miss Dunham regularly returned there with her troupe to recuperate from the exhaustion of being months on extended tours, and eventually adopted it as her second spiritual home. In 1992 this remarkable woman once again demonstrated that she would not shirk from taking forceful and dramatic action in protestation against the overwhelming forces of the conventional American political system when confronted with what she strongly felt was social injustice.

Shortly after the illegal coup d'etat which took place in that ill-fated country, in an expression of solidarity with the Haitian people, she (at the age of 83) began a hunger strike to protest against the Bush Administration's new discriminatory policy of repatriation of Haitian boat-people (as contrasted to treatment typically accorded to Cuban refugees for similar activities).

Almost immediately afterward, members of the community and others from around the country who were sympathetic to her initiatives began to mount 24-hour vigils in support of her courageous act, under the leadership of former comedian/political activist Dick Gregory. Although for weeks the major media organizations ignored her actions, tending typically to disregard individuals who have the nerve to buck the system, the word rapidly spread throughout the country, and thousands of individuals rushed forward to express their solidarity with her brave initiative. Many prominent social figures flocked to her bedside to pay her homage, including influential persons in the fields of entertainment (such as Jonathan Demme, director of the recent award-winning movie Philadelphia, and politics (including Louis Farrakhan). Only after the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the deposed President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, came to her bedside and begged her to stop putting her life in danger in support of this cause did she, 47 days after she began, finally stop her fast. Right after this, the ABC television network nominated Katherine Dunham as its Person of the Week on its News program.

Of the numerous books which contain information about the life and career of this special lady, the following are especially recommended:

- Katherine Dunham - A Biography. Ruth Beckford. NY: Marcel Decker. 1979

- Katherine Dunham - Reflections on the Social and Political Contexts of Afro-American Dance. Joyce Aschenbrunner. CORD 1980 Dance Research Annual XII

- The Black Tradition in American Dance. Richard A. Long. NY: Rizzoli. 1983, Reprinted 1990. (Dedicated to Katherine Dunham, with many beautiful photos..

Your consideration of possibly including Katherine Dunham in your magazine special among the group of the most influential Artists and Entertainers during the 20th century would be greatly appreciated.

Raymond Carrier
[/quote]

Post Reply