The most unusual event of the season took place on January 7, 1933 at
the Metropolitan Opera House. It was the premiere of Louis Gruenberg's
American opera "Emperor Jones," with Met star Lawrence Tibbett. Winfield
choreographed his role of the witch doctor and the ensemble numbers. Critic Mary Watkins wrote, "When Hemsley Winfield's troupe of Negro dancers stormed on in the final scene, so much raw vitality and exuberance was a distinct shock. Mr. Winfield was, as a matter of fact after Mr. Tibbett, the hero of the occasion. ... His sinister and frantic caperings as the witch doctor made even the most sluggish, opera-infected blood run cold." This performance almost didn't happen because the Met wanted to blacken the faces of Met singers and dancers rather than use black dancers. Mr. Tibbett threatened to quit unless the Winfield group appeared. The Met retaliated by not listing the dancers in the playbill. (The Met cast had appeared in blackface for the opera "Dance in the Place Congo" during the 1900s.
Hall Johnson's folk play, "Run Lil Chillun," was staged on Broadway with dances by Doris Humphrey. And the Workers Dance League invited Winfield to participate in the first "forum recital." "What Shall the Negro Dance About?" was the main topic of discussion led by Winfield and sculptor Augusta Savage.
Hemsley Winfield succumbed to pneumonia. His final words: "We're
building a foundation that will make people take black dance seriously."
Gertrude Stein's unconventional opera, " Four Saints in Three Acts,"
introduced the stylized choreography of English choreographer Frederick
Ashton. Mabel Hart was one of six dancers, and the exposure to a new style
of movement extended their range of expressive capability.
The sensation of the year was Asadata Dafora's dance drama "Kykunkor"
(The Witch Woman). Based upon traditional folk expressions (from Mende, Sierra Leone), it proved that themes from folklore could be successful on the
American concert stage. The company of 25, called Shologa Cloba, was
composed of Africans and African Americans. Frances Atkins (Winfield Dance
Co.) assisted Dafora in locating dancers for the company. Critics were
unanimous in praising Dafora's concept of an African dance theater, blending
ritual, legend, chanting, drumming, acting, singing, and a variety of dances
to further the story. Shologa Cloba was the forerunner of all national dance
companies, which introduced their culture to the American public. Alma
Sutton was noticed for her stunning solos, and Abdul Assen's power-charged
acting as the witch doctor attracted Broadway actors to the theater to study
his technique. One commentator said, "Let this be an inspiration to the
Negro to dance, not always as a diversion but as an expression of life."
Katherine Dunham and her Negro Dance Group appeared in William Grant Still's West Indian ballet, "La Guiablesse," at the Chicago Civic Opera House. Her meeting with Dr. Redfield, ethnologist at the University of Chicago, sparked her intense interest in showing that "there was a sound black dance tradition,
deserving the same respect as the white European tradition then dominating
the dance stage ... and she would trace the roots of black dance as far as
The Hampton Institute Creative Dance Group made its first appearance off campus at the Mosque in Richmond, Virginia on March 23, 1935. (History books have incorrectly indicated March 1925.) Dances on the program were composed and taught by Mrs. Bernice M. Smothers and Charles H. Williams.
The program format was similar to Ted Shawn's -- The Cycle of Depression
(emotional states), Dances of the People (world cultures), African Dances,
Characteristic Dance Rhythms, and Negro Spirituals. Ted Shawn choreographed the section Labor Rhythms, which included "Cutting the Sugar Cane" and "Dis Ole Hammer -- Water Boy." During their 1937 New York appearance, critic Walter Terry indicated that he preferred the spirituals as danced by Helen Tamiris and Ted Shawn. Negro dancers did not have the technique to do justice to their own material.
The Karamu Dance Group, organized by Margaret Witt, became a major entity in Karamu's Performing Arts Division (founded in 1916). Several Karamu dancers later joined modern dance groups in New York and appeared in Broadway shows.
The Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre (WPA) scored a hit with Orson Welles' "Macbeth." Asadata Dafora choreographed the dances and created the rhythms for the Haitian setting of the drama. The Lafayette Theater was also the locale for Ad Bates' performance as the Lion in Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion." Edna Guy performed at the First National Dance Congress and Festival. For the first time in her career, her spirituals were given a negative review by Henry Gilfound in DANCE OBSERVER.
Black choreographer Herbie Harper introduced George Balanchine to
vernacular dances and rhythms for the jazz ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue"
in the Broadway-bound musical "On Your Toes." Dance historians believe the
successful use of black material in white shows contributed to the near
extinction of black musicals.