Dunham's recent death one month short of her 97th birthday--some record books shaved three years off her date of birth as she usually did herself--set me contemplating her career. In considering historic contemporary figures we tend to place them in the context of how we originally met them or their work. So for me and Dunham, it was that hot London summer of 1948. And to be honest it wasn't because I was a dance lover, although I was already a dance fanatic of some five years standing, that I first went to the Piccadilly Theatre season, but more as a general theatergoer.
After all, the London first night was reviewed by the theater critics--often in the patronizing tone of it being a worthy successor to the sensational Negro revue of the '20s, Blackbirds, starring Florence Mills. It was only when I got to the theater that I realized it was a major dance event, and I went back, and back again. It was something I, and for that matter Europe, had never seen before, a style of dance expression that appeared to owe little to classical ballet, and less to the Central European style of Kurt Jooss, Harald Kreutzberg, or Mary Wigman, or to any obvious pattern of ethnic dance, in the manner of Carmen Amaya, who that same summer had arrived in London offering a new window on flamenco. No, Dunham and her group were something else. Was this Haitian dance? Somehow I doubted it.
In London interviews at the time, Dunham stressed that she was first and foremost an anthropologist. She had a Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and her master's thesis had been The Dances of Haiti. But I had never noticed Margaret Mead dancing her way through Samoa or New Guinea.
Admittedly this Caribbean Rhapsody also had many of the elements of an old time showbiz revue--it ended with a third act, amusedly mocking stereotypes, set in ragtime Harlem, and even had a tiny young Eartha Kitt making her not all that noticeable London debut. But what thrilled me were the two vaudun-styled ballets, the trance-ritual Shango and L'Agya, the so-called Creole Giselle, and, to a lesser extent, a 19th-century, mildly balleticized Brazilian quadrille, Choros. There were also some terrific dancers, including Dunham herself, Tommy Gomez, Vanoye Aikens, Richardena Jackson, Delores Harper, Wilbert Bradley, and the balletmaster Lenwood Morris.
Right off, I realized I was watching something of importance. Quite what that importance was took me a couple of decades to comprehend, but dance, particularly unfamiliar dance dressed in a fairly familiar guise, can be like that. A lot of the performance, notably in that final "Blues" section, had something of Dunham's hard-acquired Hollywood sheen to it. The new element was the way she assimilated the various kinds of dance she found in her native America, including classical ballet, with the anthropological findings of her Caribbean search for African roots (a search to be compared with Pearl Primus' research in Africa itself) and made that assimilation into a unique modern dance style, with a vision as strong as that of Martha Graham.
It was this vision that inspired the next generation of black choreographers, particularly Talley Beatty, a student and a member of her company, and the younger Alvin Ailey, who, as Jennifer Dunning has written, was bewitched by her when as a teenager he first saw one of her shows in his native Los Angeles. Ailey's enduring admiration for Dunham and her legacy led in 1987 to a full-evening tribute, "The Magic of Katherine Dunham," from the Alvin Alley American Dance Theater. It offered most of her major works, including Shango and L'Ag'Ya. Were they as well performed as they had been in 19487 I thought not, but even by then I had learned that nostalgia, like distance, lends enchantment.
It was at that time, courtesy of Alvin, I first met Miss Dunham, a very glamorous and sweetly flirtatious 78-year-old. "I really do think of myself as an anthropologist," she told me, after I'd flutteringly noted that I had first seen her in 1948. "But you were also quite a dancer!" interposed Alvin with one of his world-embracing Alvin grins. "Oh yes, that as well," she smiled back, bathed in our dual admiration. Oh yes, that indeed. A queen of the dance, a veritable queen.
Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.
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|Title Annotation:||Katherine Dunham obituary|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2006|
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