Katherine Dunham At 91

Email a Friend
From Hawaii to Haiti, from Malaysia to the Maori people of New Zealand, Katherine Dunham was the first American choreographer to bring native dances and primitive rhythms to the 1930's concert stage. She incorporated the discipline of ballet with the panache of Broadway, and then went onto Hollywood where she created the dances for several movies-- notably the 1943 classic ?Stormy Weather? where she appeared with Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and... Lena Horne.

Dunham founded a dance company which-- though it never received any grants-- toured 57 countries-- a large group of dancers, singers, full orchestra lavish sets and wardrobe. It wasn?t unusual for her to make 5 costume changes for the curtain calls. Underneath the glamorous spectacle, she strove to maintain the essence of what she had observed as an anthropologist? She describes her first full length ballet, L?Ag?Ya, created in 1938, in which she was the lead.

DUNHAM: ??Dancing with my lover and then I become hypnotized under the influence of a wicked person. He plays on so many village superstitions which I found as I was travelling through the West Indies.?

Three generations of dancers are the repositories of Dunham roles... One of the oldest surviving members of her company, who?s now one of the few accredited teachers in Dunham technique, is Walter Nicks. At City Center last week, he gave the school teachers a good deal of background of much of Dunham's work and described her performance in L'Ag?Ya --where she is mesmerized by the magician-- as chilling.

NICKS: ?You could see in Ms. Dunham? She was doing all these erotic movements... She was saying this isn't about sexuality? This is what he is doing to me...?

At the center of this ballet is a fighting dance from Martinique.

DUNHAM: ?It?s half way between Sumo or martial arts? Two men compete over a magic object which is called the gris-gris?? DUNHAM: ?Much of my study has been done with a serious scientific approach? Martinique has this black magic undercurrent... most people don?t admit it.?

Dunham studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, and did her early fieldwork in the Caribbean. The locals liked her because she could dance. Her mentor --the noted anthropologist Melville Herskovits-- didn?t anticipate she?d allow herself to become a Voodoo Priestess?

DUNHAM: ?Herskovits himself was horrified when he found out that I?d gone into the initiation process??

It was important to her to experience the ritual.

DUNHAM: ?I went in naked. I had to record it all in my head. I had to be free to receive what they gave me. I had to be like everyone else.? Dunham continued her anthropology when she toured internationally with her company. She performed less often at home, although she opened a school in New York in 1945. Walter Nicks was one of the first students. In addition to many kinds of dance he studied... NICKS: ??Academic subjects, philosophy, languages, art, Haitian and Cuban folklore??

The school has long been closed, and one of the purposes of the unique in-service training course, held last week at City Center, was for the surviving members of Dunham?s company to talk about their work and pass on Dunham?s technique. Mor Thiam from Senegal, who'd been chief drummer with Dunham for 35 years?

THIAM: ?When Katherine Dunham came to Africa, I knew I had to find a way to relate to her, so I played her a universal beat-it?s the human heartbeat...?

Many of the classroom teachers had studied Dunham indirectly-- reading books, watching videos? Here they could learn exercises and do group improvisations. Molly Christie was hungry for more.

CHRISTIE: ?People my age have found it hard to learn about this technique. I read about her since I was 12. I love the fact that it?s so global? I've gone to Brazil to study? I want to go with Mor Thiam, the chief drummer here, tonight to Senegal.?

In a wheelchair, Dunham greeted the teachers each time they met, with an energizing ritual of strong arm movements, responding to their singing?

There was a table set out for her with symbolic gifts. She was called a griot-- for passing on tribal histories and legends, and a pioneer and a respected elder of the African-American community-- much adulation. So, why is the length and breadth of this career not better known? Dunham was a contemporary of Martha Graham. Both devised distinctive dance vocabularies. I asked Hollywood producer and choreographer Debbie Allen?

ALLEN: ?The reason Dunham is not as renowned, is because she?s a Black woman. Otherwise she?d be on a level-- if not more than Martha Graham-- she's the mother of African-American dance-- if you want to give her a title.?

After the week was over, from her bed in her retirement home, Dunham said she was shocked in a good way, by how much the teachers had accomplished. But she doesn?t want to be seen as simply part of a study of Black history?

DUNHAM: ?Afro-American studies are important but there?s so much more to the world? I won?t be happy until the whole thing becomes global.?

Elements of Dunham?s work will become part of the New York public school system curriculum. She hopes the spirit, more than the steps, will be present in gyms and classrooms?

For WNYC, I?m Judith Kampfner.