Dancer Katherine Dunham; Formed Black Ballet Troupe

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Katherine Dunham, 96, a dancer and choreographer who introduced black dance as an art form to Western audiences and once said her troupe's torso-swiveling performances were "called anthropology in New Haven, sex in Boston and in Rome -- art," died May 21 at an assisted living facility in New York.

No immediate cause of death was disclosed, but she had reportedly suffered in recent years from recurrent malaria and chronic hepatitis.

Ms. Dunham, an astounding beauty whose dances often had great erotic appeal, was among the first black artists to form a ballet troupe and achieve renown as a modern dancer and choreographer on Broadway and in Hollywood.

Her work was deeply influenced by her study of the dance of slave descendants in the Caribbean and South America. She said that visiting the West Indies on a fellowship in the late 1930s "gave me a sense of the body, and the use of the body, the so-called primitive techniques. Other dancers were pretty much tied up with Martha Graham. I always had classical training, but it was the idea of the body as an instrument that appealed to me. My real effort was to free the body from restriction."

Graham was unenthusiastic about Ms. Dunham and called her "the high priestess of the pelvic girdle."

Ms. Dunham sought to make voodoo rituals, the rumba, the "Florida Swamp Shimmy" and other American and West Indian "primitive rhythms" legitimate dance forms by presenting them on the concert stage. She made mass audiences in the 1930s and 1940s see black dance as more than tap and minstrelsy, although she said the music was not for everyone.

"In 1947, on two or three occasions, ladies had to be carried out in a dead faint," she said. "One lady was sitting near the percussion section of the orchestra -- the wrong place to put sensitive people."

Anna Kisselgoff, a New York Times dance critic, once noted that Ms. Dunham "found in West Indian ritual and dances the dignity and true essence of the black heritage that she felt had disappeared through assimilation in the United States. At the same time, she was a world pioneer in the theatricalization of these dances" and was particularly gifted at giving them a "knock-'em dead revue flavor."

Her Broadway shows included "Cabin in the Sky" (1940), which she helped choreograph with George Balanchine, "Tropical Revue" (1943), "Carib Song" (1945) and "Bal Negre" (1946).

Ms. Dunham was one of the first black choreographers to work for the Metropolitan Opera, where in 1963 she directed dances for Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida." They borrowed heavily from her training as a Haitian voodoo priestess, of which she joked she held the equivalent of a "mambo black belt."

She traveled constantly in the 1950s on world tours featuring dance pieces that were physically alluring and contained fierce social criticism. One piece, "Southland" (1951), was about lynchings in the South and included a black man swinging from a rope while a woman sang the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit."

To Ms. Dunham, dance was about communal rituals and links and was inseparable from social justice. In 1944, while touring with "Tropical Review" in Louisville, she chided the audience for enjoying the show in a segregated theater. Another story had her using a more piquant way of expressing her rage -- placing a "Whites Only" sign on her buttocks and giving the audience the view she felt they deserved.

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