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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

"Revelations" and Beyond
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"Las Desenamoradas"
"Las Desenamoradas"
Eleo Pomare, a young black choreographer who had studied with Martha Graham, Jose Limon, and others, started his own company in 1958, the same year Ailey created his American Dance Theater. But Pomare would go to Europe to study on a John Hay Whitney Fellowship until his friend, the writer James Baldwin, called on the eve of the massive March on Washington in 1963 and urged him to accompany him back home. Pomare did, and his choreography would forever reflect the total engagement and commitment implicit in that decision. As pimps, whores, junkies, and an assortment of other characters more often seen on street corners in the seedier sections of some of the country's most devastated ghettos strutted across the stage in "Blues for the Jungle," Pomare served notice that a new voice had arrived on the American modern dance scene. In the 1960s, many African-American choreographers searched for ways to fuse their creative experimentation with the current social and political dialogue. This resulted in choreographic repertoires that reflected an eclectic mix; concerts presented works that seemed to be direct descendants of Pearl Primus' "Strange Fruit" and other 1930s and '40s protest pieces, as well as abstract pieces that explored form and focused on music visualization. In either case, black choreographers struggled to make it clear that, while not easily labeled, they were a force to be reckoned with. In some cases, their work was so unsettling that critics had considerable difficulty digesting it. At the same time, doors opened, if only a little, in white modern dance companies. Mary Hinkson and Matt Turney integrated Martha Graham's company in the 1950s, with Hinkson actually assuming some of Graham's cherished roles. Carmen de Lavallade, who had moved east with Ailey to perform in the Broadway musical "House of Flowers," worked with Ailey's young company, Donald McKayle, and Geoffrey Holder, but also with white choreographers John Butler and Agnes de Mille.

During the 1960s, as America's streets were scenes of civil unrest and sporadic riots, African-American dancers chose to take a stand, as their predecessors had before them. Dancer/choreographer Talley Beatty moved on from Katherine Dunham's dance company. His first tenuous exploration of "Negro themes, some tracing back to Africa, others to the deep South," evolved into an exploration of the tensions and complexity of life in his own backyard, using movements that mirrored the scatological intensity and swiftness of jazz and captured his ballet training and years with Dunham, as in his plotless ballet, "Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot." But the same man created "The Black Belt," with what some critics dismissed as "an obligatory riot scene" that reflected the anger and rage brewing in America's black cities. In 1969, Alvin Ailey choreographed "Masekela Langage," premiered at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College in New London, as a bold political indictment of apartheid in South Africa. Former Hawkins dancer Rod Rodgers, whose repertory often consisted of mainly abstract, nonrepresentational, "pure-dance" works with titles like "Tangents" and "Percussion Suite," even took a sharper political edge in "Box," which showed the similarities between a black man in a gray-flannel suit carrying an attaché case and another behind jail bars.

Black choreographers' and dancers' concern with the political state of black America was not only reflected by their work onstage. They took up the gauntlet and confronted funding sources that sometimes relegated them to second-class status by funding their projects at levels considerably lower than funding for white companies. Some vehicles for their battle were organizations like the Black Choreographers Association, founded by a group of choreographers and dancers that included Eleo Pomare, Rod Rodgers, and Carole Johnson. And in response to the sometimes unsympathetic reviews that prevailed in the mainstream press, the black dance community supported the creation of THE FEET, a monthly dance and arts magazine that sold for 40 cents and declared its intention to "make sure that opportunities are expanded and available ... and create a reserve of power that will sustain the dancers' upsurge of black consciousness and black creativity in dance." In the 1950s and '60s, black dancers and choreographers staked their claim and moved confidently to downstage, center.

Copyright © 2001 by Zita Allen

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