[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Home About the Film Dance Timeline Behind the Dance Biographies Resources Lesson Plans Screensaver
Free To Dance

Dunham caused a sensation and after that first performance, we ran it for 13 weeks. THE NEW YORK TIMES came out on a Sunday. [John Martin] couldn't understand why Talley Beatty would want to supplant the natural for the unnatural. Dunham had trained me in ballet. But John Martin would have none of that. It was the first time I was ever criticized. It almost drove me crazy. I said, "Dunham, I only did what you gave me to do." At any rate the concert was a sensation. ... I wasn't doing ballet, per se, or what do you call it -- ethnic? It was just her fusion of all these techniques. And I guess he took exception. And tore me to pieces, and it broke my poor little heart. But he made a complete reversal when I started doing my own ballets. He was highly, highly complimentary. But he questioned why would I be interested in doing these European movements instead of -- I don't know what he would call it -- what he would want me to do. Indian, African, Chicago, I don't know. He just had a picture of black dance going in a certain way, I guess.

What did Dunham bring to the dance world?

Dunham brought authenticity. Everything Dunham did was incredible, how she took this material from Haiti and Cuba and South America, and brought it from its roots, so you got the pure movement. You got the truth of the movement, and she maintained it and theatricalized it. They hadn't been doing that on Broadway.

I just began to be aware of the fact that I was in this ghetto in Chicago, and I was not likely ever to get out of that -- we called it the Black Belt in Chicago -- the South Side. Dunham came with that experience at the Chicago Civic Opera House, and she took me on like a younger brother and took me to all of these places that were all white, but she just moved me out of this area. She was a very great woman. And although we professionally, we go different ways, she still is a friend. She was always a friend.

Well, I became 21, and I decided that I should move in a different direction and I left. Dunham didn't want me to leave. She asked me to remain. She said, you want to choreograph, you can choreograph something and I'll give you a five-dollar raise. I was really quite bored, and I said, I'm going. I left the company. I opened her school here in New York at the Reese Studio and when she finally came, she opened that fantastic school at 43rd Street.

How did you happen to choreograph that amazing solo piece, "Mourner's Bench"?

I read FREEDOM ROAD. We were taught -- not taught about the truth of the Reconstruction period. I, like everybody else, like any red-blooded American, thought that these carpetbaggers and these black congressmen would put their feet up on the tables, and the Congress, well it was quite different. ... After having read this FREEDOM ROAD by Howard Fast, I was compelled to do this dance. I did ... "Southern Landscape" down at the Needle Trades School. It was based on ... there was a work dance, I called it the "Defeats in the Fields." These blacks and whites were working together in the fields, aware of the threat and the danger.

It was just sitting on the mourner's bench. It's a group expression of grief and then it's a personal expression of grief, and he is -- he is thinking upon the events of the day. And he's pushing, and just moving across the bench, and looking out, moving across the bench. All of the movements have to do directly with what he has just experienced that day. I did that dance in a couple of hours. I was at the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, and found it very dull, and I went into this studio, Eugene Lauren's studio, that was on 56th Street between 5th and 6th. So it was done -- I did it in about three hours. I questioned all of the promenades, promenade is moving on one foot. I went up on that bench, and doing all those great big extensions and all those grands ronds de jambe, and I thought maybe this is too -- too much. Maybe I should do smaller things. I said, how can I do smaller things? It's going to be mine. And I would ask these people to look at this -- do you think, if I lifted my leg up above my head, am I distracted from what I'm trying to say? But it didn't [distract], and it was an enormous success.

Talk a little bit about "The Road of the Phoebe Snow."

"The Road of the Pheobe Snow." I can't remember the year in which it was done. It was music by Duke Ellington. I didn't know the Ellington family at the time, but I knew Billy Strayhorn. And I had planned to do it with a live orchestra. It had to do with alienation. Later it was really quite a huge success when we first did it at the YMHA. Phoebe Snow had to do with alienation. This group of young people who decided -- who were on their own, and they had limited resources, and they had just worked it down to the bone. And they turn on each other.

A-E D-J L-Z About The Film Interview Transcripts About The Film Interview Transcripts