At the height of her career, Katherine Dunham was the toast of Broadway. Her dance company's kinetic fusion of ritual elements from Africa and the Caribbean and modern Western innovations captivated audiences that saw "Cabin in the Sky" in the 1940-41 season.
Last night, Dunham, dancer, choreographer, anthropologist and a grande dame of American dance, was honored with a gala tribute at Carnegie Hall. Three generations of her dancers, some of the 200 Dunham graduates, performed several of her works.
Dunham received the 1979 Albert Schweitzer music award for the work in the arts and humanities (the only other recipient has been Isaac Stern in 1975). And the entire event was videopaped for posterity under a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Dunham name has been legend among dancers for decades. Dunham, says Alvin Ailey, "is the key person responsible for putting the black dancer on the map. The dance work she did in the 1940s and 1950s not only made the black dancer what he is today, but also influenced many forms of American dance that are now seen on television and on Broadway."
Before Dunham, black dance was not seen on the concert stage. But through her single-minded efforts, it was recognized as an art form and black dance companies, such as those of Ailey and Arthur Mitchell, now have international reputations.
Agnes de Mille, choreographer, dancer and writer, and a major figure in American dance, says "Katherine just took the way Negroes danced and used it. There was no path, no history, no nothing. Katherine started with raw material. This is pioneer work of a major kind and I don't think she's been fully appreciated. I think she had tremendous courage to sail out with this group. Alvin Ailey says he owes her a lot. She built the stage he stands on."
Sitting in the Russian Tea Room recently after a long day's rehearsal, Dunham considers the accolades and says, "I guess that's true. But that doesn't mean much to me unless the black dancer is working toward saving himself and unifying himself as a person, or working toward strengthening society."
Hobbled by a recent operation to repair in anthropology from the University moves deliberately but is still a regal figure. Nearly always serious, she speaks in low-pitched, measured tones just above a whisper. Her instructions to dancers are always direct and precise.
"Michael, two or three times you turned your feet this way (she motions)," Dunham says at a rehearsal. "Doris, you turned yourself out. Bodies are supposed to sweep in."
And they listen reverentially. All, even the oldest, refer to her as Miss Dunham or Miss D.
Glory Van Scott, a former Dunham dancer, who produced the gala, says "Dunham technique works for you, not against you. The body moves naturally. Other techniques distort the body. Ballet does this. The Graham technique does."
Expanding on Cunham technique, Margaret Lloyd, in her study, "The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance," writes: "... Katherine is an eclectic modern, drawing on all forms within her experience."
Lloyd goes on to say that Dunham's leg extensions and body thrusts, whirls and half-turns are "more than midway between the primitive and modern." Some movements in the Dunham repertoire, she says, are ballet-like or folk-derived. Other elements are African or Afro-Americanbased -- the cakewalk, lindy and black bottom.
It's the kind of dance approach that Dunham took around the world, traveling to 57 countries and living mostly in London, Haiti, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand between 1946 and 1967.
She was equally known in Paris and Santiago. Her close friends included Erich Fromm and Bernard Berenson, who met her after World War II, and responded at once to the spontaneity and vibrant life-loving qualities in her dance.
Dunham's life has been the result of a long -- and orderly -- evolution. She grew up in Joliet, Ill., the younger child of a black American father and French-Canadian mother.
Dance has always fascinated her. As a 15-year-old, she surprised her elders by suggesting a cabaret as a church fund-raising venture.
Following the immediate shock, they consented and Dunham organized the Blue Moon Cafe, which featured her dancing Russian-style (she was studying Soviet dance in high school). The event was a heralded success.
"I always say that I dance because I had to eance," Dunham observes. "I think that's true of many dancers.It's simply a physical necessity."
And so Dunham went on from there to study anthropology at the University of Chicago and learn ballet from Mme. Ludmila Speranzeva.
As a student she started teaching dance and, with drama teacher Ruth Attaway, opened a studio that attracted such personallities as painter Charles White, writers Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, and educator Horace Mann Bond.
Dunham was being pulled in two different direction -- dance and anthropology.
"The thought of giving in (dancing) up altogether was very painful for me. So I went to one of my professors at the University of Chicago and asked him for his opinion. He went to a program of mine and said, 'By all means, don't give up dancing.' He must have somehow read between the lines and seen that In needed to."
He suggested that she keep both careers going -- and she did just that, researching life and dance among the Maroon villagers in Jamaica, studying carry-over influences of Shango, the African god, in Trinidad and Martinique, and examining voodoo ritual in Haiti. Out of these trips came two books, and she also received a doctorate in antlropology from the University of Chicago.
"When I was in 'Cabin in the Sky,' I lectured at Yale," Dunham says with a half-smile. "I talked before the Royal Anthropological Society in London. I did that all over Europe. So I kept them both going.
"The only time I felt doubtful was the very beginning when I felt I had let down the Rosenwald family terribly by being in a Broadway musical after they had invested in me as a scientist. That's the way I saw it. They, on the other hand, were quite delighted."
Dunham says her life demonstrates that a person can have twin careers -- an artist and scientist.
"I certainly did not go as far as I would have like to have gone as a scientist," she says, rolling her hand over in a smooth motion, "because being an artist was so demanding. I believe it was demanding because of the company. If I might have gone into the scientific field with more depth. But I'm not a solo person -- I'm a multiple unit person."
Sometimes it's hard to know with Dunham when art and science are separate. Her interest in anthropology led her into the study of voodoo, and now she is studying to reach the highest level, that of priestess, in the Haitian cult.
She experienced the second stage, initiation by fire, about five years ago.
"I think that each step you take in a ritual becomes a revelation to you," she says. "It made me feel I was on the way somewhere."
She continues: "At one time I might have thought of it as how to supply enough power to escape certain trials of life or enough power to control destiny. That doesn't interest me now as much as what I could find in the ritual to relate to my being, whether it be in terms of rhythm or diet."
However, Dunham is bothered by animal sacrifice in ritual. Several years ago she became ill at a ceremony in which a youth drank blood from a chicken.
"I'm opposed to it (animal sacrifice)," she explains. "How much of it is pure fastidiousness and how much of it is an honest reverence for life I really don't know. I'd like to find out. I think that going far enough in the ritual will tell me."
Dunham and her husband of 39 years, John Pratt, who has designed the sets for all her works, spend several months a year at their home in Haiti. Otherwise, they're in East St. Louis, Ill., teaching at Southern Illinois University. She directs the Performing Arts Training Center and Katherine Dunham Museum there. Some of the younger dancers performing last night are students at the university.
The teaching staff of 14 to 16 instruct in the Dunham technique. The museum is a collection of memorabilia, Haitian and African musical instruments and dance troupe costumes.
Except for a brief appearance in 1965, Dunham has not performed regularly since 1962, concentrating now on her choreography. Her latest major work was in 1972 for Scott Joplin's opera, "Treemonisha."
Last night's salute was overdue, say several former Dunham dancers. And maybe Dunham, who has taught dance for more than half a century, thinks so, too. But it probably doesn't bother her,
"I went through a period when I was hurt by the lack of recognition," she says. "The State Department would put obstacles in our way instead of trying to help us. It was very, very difficult for me to see other companies being funded, while our company and our impresarios would be struggling in certain places like Greece and Lebanon. These were very bitter things for me.
"I learned that the American sense of discrimination is not that miportant. I think that if you're a true pioneer, you get your satisfaction out of the doing of it."