By Zita Allen
the 1930s and '40s, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus swept onstage
and took American concert dance by storm. They were two women on
a mission, each determined to continue a tradition, begun by a handful
of pioneers, of exploring their rich heritage and highlighting its
dignity, complexity, and power. Each would alter American concert
|"Tropics and Le Jazz Hot"
Dynamic but different, Dunham and Primus were choreographic change agents. Dunham charmed and dazzled audiences with brilliantly staged, exquisitely costumed, energetic productions based largely on ethnographic material gathered on field trips to Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Martinique. Even their names were evocative -- "L'Ag'Ya," "Tango," "Tropics and Le Jazz Hot." Primus, on the other hand, went straight for the jugular with politically provocative, passionate pieces that propelled her dancing like a force of nature. Her early works had names like "Strange Fruit" and "Hard Time Blues" and drew on research in the Deep South. Her later pieces would reflect numerous field trips, capturing the intricacies and subtleties of southern culture while re-creating the ambiance of African villages.
Both Dunham and Primus were fully committed to the emerging concert dance art form and its power to communicate as the stage became a political platform, and to their work "as a balm for the wounds inflicted by racial discrimination."
A brief survey would reveal two women whose careers thrived in decades bracketed on one end by the flourishing Harlem Renaissance and the New Deal, and on the other by the turmoil of the emerging civil rights era. America was in a state of flux, and a growing progressive movement was provoking change. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to task for failing to support civil rights legislation even as the mounting tally of indignities and lynchings served as proof of how desperately it was needed. Contralto Marian Anderson, when denied the opportunity to sing at Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall by the lily-white Daughters of the American Revolution, was invited by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to perform instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A throng of 75,000 turned out for the occasion. FDR's Federal Theatre Project formed a Negro Unit that provided employment and opportunity for countless out-of-work African-American artists. The theatrical wunderkind Orson Welles presented an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" at Harlem's Lafayette Theatre with an all-black cast. Paradigms were shifting. Times were changing. Enter Katherine Dunham.
Picture a pretty woman with sparkling eyes and skin the color of café au lait, gliding across the stage in a sea of ruffles disguised as a John Pratt costume, smiling seductively, shaking her bare shoulders, swishing her hips and flicking her skirt to reveal long brown thighs. The propulsive rhythm of African drums fills the theater. The stage, magically transformed into a Caribbean village, is ringed by a semicircle of dancers and drummers. Center stage, two bare-chested men square off like rams fighting over turf. Bobbing and weaving, they wait for the right time to strike before unleashing a surprise flurry of karate kicks aimed with the precision of a champion boxer's one-two punch. This is Katherine Dunham's "L'Ag'Ya," based on a form of dance/combat Dunham first witnessed while doing ethnographic research in Martinique on a Rosenwald Fellowship. In Martinique, Brazil, and other places, African slaves once used these martial arts dances to prepare for uprisings, undetected right under their master's nose. Choreographed in 1938 for the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago, in the 1940s, Dunham's "L'Ag'Ya" was greeted with thunderous applause and critical praise that propelled her and her company into stardom. In 1939, Dunham created dances for "Pins and Needles," a production of the ILGWU at the New York's Labor Stage.
choreographer, anthropologist, and teacher Katherine Dunham was
born in Chicago in 1914; received a M.A. in anthropology from the
University of Chicago, where she studied with Robert Redfield; and
did special studies in West Indies research at Northwestern University,
under Melville Herskovits. Two Rosenwald Fellowships and a Rockefeller
Fellowship financed extensive anthropological study in the Caribbean,
which generated not only a rich repertoire of dances but also an
impressive roster of books, including THE DANCES OF HAITI, JOURNEY
TO ACCOMPONG, A TOUCH OF INNOCENCE, and ISLAND POSSESSED, as well
as a number of articles in ESQUIRE, under the nom de plume K. Dunn,
and other magazines. A member of the Women's Honorary Scientific
Fraternity of the University of Chicago and the Royal Society of
Anthropologists of London, Dunham was also made a Chevalier -- Legion
d'Honneur et Merit of Haiti, where her immersion into the culture
and the Vodoun religion led to her initiation and designation as
a mambo, the highest rank for a woman.
Dunham's approach to dance was unique, so she had to create a system of movement and a technique for teaching it that would enable dancers to handle her repertoire, in much the same way as early American modern choreographers/dancers Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Jose Limon, and Lester Horton developed their styles. Dunham Technique is remarkably difficult -- an eclectic fusion of movement researched in Jamaica, Martinique, and Haiti with ballet and modern dance, blended into a system of body isolation and syncopation that gives the body an impressive range of movement.
According to VeVe A. Clark in her essay, "Katherine Dunham: Method Dancing or Memory of Difference," "The memory of forgotten dances from the Caribbean appears cross-culturally in 'L'Ag'Ya' through sequences combining ballet, modern, and Caribbean dances such as the habanera (Cuba), majumba (Brazil), mazouk, beguine and ag'ya (Martinique)." "Stylization" of regional dances seemed an inappropriate term to describe Dunham's method; it was nonetheless the rather negative assessment reproduced consistently in the critical literature from the 1940s through Alvin Ailey's "Reconstructions" of the 1980s. "Contextualization" was the means by which Katherine Dunham taught three generations of performers from 1940 through 1965 to internalize dances as they were known in the contemporary Caribbean or in African America during the 1920s. In a sense, her dancers became repositories of memory. And, as Clark pointed out, so did her audiences.