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Out of Step: A Dancer Reflects.

As dance personalities, Josephine Baker, Judith Jamison. and Alida Belair couldn't be more different. What they share is a superabundant physical drive that manifested itself in early childhood and that quickly developed into ambition.

Baker's drive was the most kaleidoscopic. In Josephine: The Hungry Heart, her biographer, Jean-Claude Baker, captures this with great insight. Born Freda J. McDonald in St. Louis, Josephine Baker endured the drab existence of many an impoverished black child. She never knew her father (who was probably white). she had little education, and by 1921 she had taken to the road in vaudeville. She was fifteen and already into her second marriage. Four years later, as Josephine Baker, she became the toast of Paris and remained so for most of her life.

Of her dancing she said, "I had no talent. My body just did what the music told me." She also had a sure sense of style - and that unquenchable energy.

Not satisfied with a full evening's singing and dancing in the Folies Bergere or in the sumptuous revues designed around her, she would proceed to a cafe or nightclub and continue to perform. She amassed and lost several fortunes, acquired and routinely pawned fabulous jewels, married and divorced five husbands, was decorated for her work in the Resistance, and purchased a 600-acre estate, where she housed the Rainbow Tribe, a dozen children adopted to prove that, despite their motley backgrounds, they could grow up in harmony.

Jean-Claude Baker identifies himself as the thirteenth of her children, although she never adopted him legally. He met her in 1958, when he was a fourteen-year-old bellhop at the Hotel Scribe, where she was staying. Their paths did not converge again until 1968, seven years before her death. He then helped set her faltering career back on track and became a mentor to her children. Since her death he has devoted himself, with the aid of coauthor Chris Chase, to researching and writing this remarkably balanced account of a great entertainer's quixotic life.

Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. also alludes to the vicissitudes of growing up black in the United States in her autobiography, Dancing Spirit. But given her upbeat career, this does not ring entire]n, true.

Jamison was born in Philadelphia in 1943. Her parents were handsome, affectionate people who provided sound intellectual opportunities for their children. At three, Jamison began dance lessons with Marion Cuyjet, one of the city's most reputable teachers. Jamison's talent was recognized early, and additional teachers were selected to assure her advancement.

She made her debut at the New York State Theater in Agnes de Mille's The Four Marys, created for American Ballet Theatre. After appearing in the successful Broadway show House of Flowers, she became a revered member of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.

Despite them artistic stature of its author, Dancing Spirit is a book of questionable value because it has been so carelessly edited and produced. One has the impression that Jamison chatted more or less at random into a tape recorder, and that neither her coauthor, Howard Kaplan, nor her copy editor at Doubleday made the slightest effort to organize the material or even to check grammatical and factual errors. The book has no index, no table of contents, and no list of its excellent photographs, many by Jack Mitchell. An entire page is devoted to a bibliography consisting of four books.

While Jamison writes affectionately and at length about Ailey, the definitive Ailey biography remains to be compiled, as does a definitive biography of Jamison herself.

I had never heard of Alida Belair before reading her autobiography, Out of Step: A Dancer Reflects, even though she is referred to as a ballerina. And as I leafed through the book, sensed that it would be one of those outpourings of "Poor, talented me against the cruel world of dance." It was just that.

But Belair writes well, and so she presents an engrossing image of the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with the pioneering Borovansky Ballet in Australia, where she grew up. In search of broader training, she made her way first to the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow and then to England, where she toured with Walter Gore's London Ballet until it folded and she joined Ballet Rambert.

Belair constantly teetered between self-destruction anorexia) and aggressiveness. She journeyed to the United States, was accepted into the National Ballet of Washington. where she had a love affair with premier danseur Stevan Grebel, and finally reached American Ballet Theatre.

Reenter her eating disorder. She quit dancing and went home.
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Article Details
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Author:Hering, Doris
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1994
Previous Article:Dancing Spirit.
Next Article:New York City Ballet journal.

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