Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Two More Dunham Obits from LAT & WAPO

From the Los Angeles Times
Katherine Dunham, 96; Created Major Black Modern Dance Company
By Anne-Marie O'Connor
Times Staff Writer

May 23, 2006

Katherine Dunham, the groundbreaking choreographer, anthropologist and social activist who founded America's first major black modern dance company, died peacefully Sunday in her sleep in New York City, friends said. She was 96.

Dunham had been in failing health for several years. The cause of death was not announced.

An indomitable cultural figure that Dance Magazine once called a "one woman revolution," Dunham brushed past barriers and social prejudices to integrate the rhythms she learned in Haiti, Brazil and Cuba into American formal dance.

During Dunham's restless, passionate life, she took turns as a published anthropologist, the toast of Broadway, a dancer in Hollywood films and a mentor to young dancers in East St. Louis, Ill., one of America's poorest communities. Dunham's compositions, often showcased in popular revues, were an inspiration to young dancers such as Alvin Ailey and Jose Limon, who would win greater acclaim than she did in the modern dance world.

"Katherine Dunham lived through an America that was deeply segregated, where race was always an issue of crisis," said actor Harry Belafonte, a friend and supporter. "For her to have made the contribution she did to culture, through her dance and her intellect, enriched America. She brought, through her art and intellectual passion and power, an insight into black life that shaped everyone's thinking of who we are."

Judith Jamison, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, said that Dunham "made it easier for dancers of color to realize the possibilities of being on stage; being visible; showcasing our theatricality, creativity and beauty as well as celebrating the [African] diaspora," she said in a statement. "Mr. Ailey was in total awe of her accomplishments and her contributions to make our dance lives possible."

"It's a huge loss," said Dance/USA spokeswoman Ann Norris. "Her choreography alone, and the barriers she broke, were unprecedented for her time. She was a very courageous woman."

Dunham was born in Glen Ellyn, Ill., on June 22, 1909, the daughter of an African American dry cleaner and a French Canadian mother who died when Dunham was a small child. She would grow into a young woman of unusual ambition and curiosity.

At the University of Chicago, she also became a promising anthropology student, winning the Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship to study anthropology in the Caribbean. But she always loved dance. At 21, she founded the Ballet Negre, her first company, in Chicago.

Her dance career would marry her two passions, drawing on her classical background studying with Russian dancer Ludmilla Speranzeva, and the Afro-Caribbean dances she discovered in her travels.

Elizabeth Chin, an associate professor of anthropology at Occidental College who studied with Dunham in 1993 in St. Louis, said Dunham taught the isolated movements of body parts that are now a staple of modern dance.

"People who were studying with her in New York in the 1940s say she invented isolationism, which is standard in jazz now," Chin said. "A lot of great dancers incorporated that. A lot of people say she is the one who started that thing. She was one of the really great African American pioneers of modern dance."

She aimed for a popular audience. She introduced New York to her shimmy in "Le Jazz Hot" in 1940. She created Georgia Brown for George Balanchine in his "Cabin in the Sky," (though she did not receive a choreography credit). She appeared in Hollywood films, such as "Carnival of Rhythm" and "Stormy Weather."

She took her popular Broadway "Tropical Revue" on an American tour that would inspire a teenage Ailey. Eventually, the renamed Katherine Dunham Dance Company would perform in more than 50 countries, until well into the 1960s.

She choreographed dozens of works that plunged modern dance into unabashed ethnicity, among them "Field Hands," "Drum Ritual," "Octoroon Ball" and "Jazz Finale."

In Dunham's heyday, "she would pack them in," said Cristyne Lawson, a former Alvin Ailey dancer, who recently stepped down as dean of the dance school at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. "She was commercially more successful than the Martha Graham company, which I was [a part of ] in those days."

Dunham often turned down invitations to perform for segregated audiences in the South, and when she found her company booked at a whites-only theater, she lectured the audiences on the evils of segregation, and told them to integrate if they wanted her company back.

During a World War II-era tour, she filed successful racial discrimination lawsuits against hotels in Chicago and Cincinnati, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Her complaints against similar conditions in Brazil, where she was enormously popular, are credited with providing the impetus for a bill against segregation there, according to "Kaiso," a new anthology about Dunham.

In 1951, she shocked audiences with "Southland," a dance about a Southern lynching that Dunham believes hurt her efforts to obtain U.S. sponsorship for her overseas travels.

For his part, Belafonte said he believed that "race played a big part" in her failure to achieve "the lofty level she deserved."

Dunham married her costume designer, John Pratt, in 1941 and they adopted an orphan, Marie-Christine, from Martinique. Pratt died in 1986.

Some were surprised when she and Pratt moved to impoverished East St. Louis in the mid-1960s and began a cultural program to teach dance and martial arts to young people there.

"She was a legendary person who was committed to doing the hard work you have to do … in a community like East St. Louis," said poet Quincy Troupe, a St. Louis native who visited her there.

"That's important work that sometimes goes unnoticed. It's not glamorous."

Dunham made international news from East St. Louis in 1992, when she undertook a 47-day hunger strike to protest the U.S. policy of turning back Haitian refugees to their military-ruled island.

It was in the early 1990s that Belafonte visited her and found her bedridden and stricken with arthritis.

"When I discovered her economic circumstances, I was absolutely shocked," he said. "I eventually convinced her to leave."

Belafonte underwrote her medical bills and found her a home in an assisted-living facility in Manhattan with a view of the Hudson River, with the help of friends such as actors Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover.

In the years since then, Dunham has lived comfortably, her life punctuated by honors and accolades.

A Harvard University website says Dunham has received 48 honorary doctorates, along with such honors as induction into the French Legion of Honor and the Presidential Medal of the Arts.

Dunham was at home in bed on Sunday when a former member of her dance company, Madeline Preston, who had spent the night at the apartment, tucked the covers around her and went out midmorning.

Preston said an aide called her and told her Dunham appeared to be in distress, but by the time Preston called 911, it was too late to revive Dunham.

"She was getting ready to go, very peacefully," Preston said. "She told me about three days ago that I shouldn't go before she goes. Maybe she was trying to choreograph this."

Preston called Dunham's daughter, Marie-Christine Pratt-Dunham, so she could fly in from her home in Rome.

In East St. Louis, Dunham's supporters had been planning a birthday celebration for Dunham on June 22 and preparing her home there for her.

"We were all taken by surprise," said Dr. Lena Weathers, the president of the board of directors of the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities in East St. Louis. "It makes it that much more important to carry on her legacy."

And from the WAPo:

Moving the World
Katherine Dunham Choreographed a Life That Stretched Beyond the Stage

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006; C01

It was a bitterly cold winter day three years ago when I last saw the pioneering choreographer Katherine Dunham teach. She was rolled into the Howard University dance studio in her wheelchair, bundled up like a prized antique. First a thick fur blanket was peeled off, then a woolen wrap, and then Dunham herself was revealed, somewhat hunched, wearing lots of gold jewelry. Peering through her oversize glasses at the more than 100 students sitting on the floor in front of her, she got right to work.

"Think of everything you learn from me today as part of a way of life," she announced in a low, raspy voice. "Now -- breathe."

This was not as simple as it sounds. For Dunham, a tireless activist who died Sunday at the age of 96, invested every aspect of her life -- indeed, you could say, every breath -- with meticulous attention and an unflinching eye.

And on this day in January 2003, that eye didn't see much it liked. Dunham hollered at the dancers to tilt their heads back, to hold their stomach muscles in, to undulate with the breath inside them. Then, unsatisfied with the beat that the drummers alongside her were producing, she leaned out of her wheelchair, grabbed one of their drumsticks and began keeping time on the table in front of her.

A few beats later, that tiny old lady had all the drummers grooving together and the whole room full of young adults breathing in unison.

Dunham's dance technique and her way of life went hand in hand. She was inquisitive, blazingly energetic and exacting as a dancer and a choreographer, but she didn't leave those qualities behind after the curtain fell. Her whole long life was about questions and activism and energy. The path that led her to Broadway, Hollywood and concert stages around the world eventually took her to Haiti, where she lived for a number of years, working feverishly and, to her great distress, ultimately unsuccessfully to bring about change for that nation's desperately poor people.

In her unparalleled career in dance, where she educated the world about the power of African dance as found throughout the diaspora, Dunham mixed academic research and showbiz flair. An anthropologist as well as a choreographer, she studied dance in the Caribbean islands, blending movements she found there with Western dance. Her style was not scholarly; she reveled in eroticism. She sought not to re-create specific rites but to transport the audience the way a spiritual experience might. And she wasn't afraid to use sex to do this. A sensuous performer, she frequently wore costumes that revealed well-muscled thighs and ample curves.

There were other dancers interested in Afro-Caribbean arts -- Pearl Primus, also an anthropologist, for one -- but Dunham had the most far-reaching success, perhaps because of her utter fearlessness. She founded her company in the 1930s, when a predominantly black dance troupe was unheard of. Her voluptuousness as a dancer made her especially marketable -- because, let's face it, audiences at that time were not especially sensitive to the art she was creating. She caught the eye of ballet master George Balanchine, who created the role of the sexpot Georgia Brown for her in the 1940 Broadway hit "Cabin in the Sky." Dunham and her company performed in other Broadway revues, and she also made her mark choreographing for film, in 1943's "Stormy Weather" and several others, in Hollywood and abroad.

But her twin artistic achievements were her body of choreography -- works such as "L'Ag'Ya," a story of love and death, and "Shango," drawn from Trinidadian cult rituals -- and the development of her own method of dancing.

"Dunham technique" became part of the bedrock of American modern dance, like the techniques of Martha Graham, Jose Limon and Merce Cunningham. Through her own flamboyance and interpretive beauty as a performer, as well as her rigor as a teacher, she raised African-based dance to a new level.

Growing up in an America that offered few opportunities for blacks, Dunham served as an inspiration to black artists who saw her achievements as especially formidable given the racism of the times.

"She set the bar for attaining excellence in art and she instilled in us a great sense of pride in our blackness," said singer Harry Belafonte, speaking by phone yesterday from California. Belafonte and his wife, Julie, were close friends of Dunham's for half a century, he said. Julie was member of Dunham's company; Harry credits Dunham with encouraging him to investigate the music of her beloved Haiti.

Without Dunham's effort to "reveal to me the beauty of that music," Belafonte said, he would never have recorded songs like the gentle, lilting ode "Yellow Bird."

However attuned she was to musical beauty and island mysticism, Dunham could breathe fire in the studio. She was a legendary taskmaster, and even in her nineties, during that class I witnessed at Howard as part of the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference, she was capable of whipping her students into a lather.

"Now think of your anal opening!" she cried at one point. "Does everyone know what your anal opening is? Think of a pole from the top of your head through that hole. That's your strength!"

"Don't be nervous, don't be tired and above all, don't be bored," she lectured them. "Those are the three destroyers of freedom of movement."

She called on the dancers to be "strong and easy at the same time," swaying in her wheelchair, her arms floating, responding to the drumbeat with a remarkable fluidity.

Her eyes never strayed from the dancers, who by the end of the class were trying to keep up the relentless tempo on their tiptoes, with bent knees, stamping and shimmying their shoulders, adding turns if they could. Dunham technique seeks to balance tricky polyrhythmic equations, with the head nodding out one beat and torso and legs keeping time with another.

The trick, say those who have mastered it, is to move with such musical and muscular intricacy that you achieve complete freedom. Dunham was scheduled to teach for an hour; she kept at it for two.

Not long after that class, I visited Dunham in her Manhattan apartment. She was in bed, where she spent much of her time when she wasn't making appearances. She suffered from crippling arthritis and had had both kneecaps replaced. Reclining against a mound of pillows, wearing a peacock-blue top, and fixing me with her dark, wide-set eyes, she spoke not of weakness but of strength.

"There is a need in the body to express itself," she said. "Every culture has its own form of physical expression. An unfortunate thing about today -- about Western dance -- is it's too competitive in feeling. I don't dance because I can do this movement better than you. I do it because it's what I feel , and want to do."

"When I first saw how ever-present and powerful dance was," she said, "it came as a wonderful revelation."

Pressed regarding about her views on dance, though, it became clear she was speaking less about dance and more about an area of equal concern: human rights.

"It's a real job to recognize dance at all," she continued. "Until our Western need to compete begins to slow down and becomes a need to feel and love and express motion and care for our inner selves as well as our outer selves . . . if we can find a way to live in union with other people --" She looked out the window at her view of the skyline. "We have to love ourselves, love what we are doing, and find a way to express these things in unity with other people."

Dunham banged up against politics as she sought to spread her teaching in the island she so loved.

"Long before she could teach the healthy minds, she needed the healthy bodies," Belafonte said. She found herself feeding the students, seeing to their health care and welfare, and eventually spreading this concern into a wholesale human rights activism that included a hunger strike of 47 days in 1992 to protest the U.S. policy of deporting Haitian refugees. Sadly, most of her good works there came to naught without government support to sustain them.

"She didn't perform miracles, she performed acts of human kindness," Belafonte said. "Which should be viewed as a miracle in itself."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company


No comments: