Moving the World
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
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.