Katherine Dunham has said about her being labeled the "mother" of Afro-American dance:
"One of my peculiar vanities is that I don't like to be called the mother of anything. Being the mother of something is a bore. I would prefer to be thought of as just me. A woman who has tried. If I am an influence to others, let them take from me what I am -- don't diminish me -- don't emulate me -- but take from me and develop it on their own. This is what I would appreciate."
This, of course, is pretty much what the dance world has done. The reasons behind the Dunham mystique and her creative breadth are explored tonight in a "Dance in America" series installment entitled "Divine Drumbeats: Katherine Dunham and Her People," airing from 8 to 9 p.m. on Channel 26.
In the course of the program, Dunham also says: "I wasn't great as a dancer," a statement others might well dispute. She adds, "The French called me a catalyst, and I was." Whatever her feelings about cultural maternity, it's a truism of dance history that few are the dancers or choreographers of today's world, black and otherwise, who don't owe a deep debt to this remarkable woman -- dancer, director, choreographer, teacher and anthropologist.
Born 68 years ago in a Chicago slum, she made her way to a PhD at the University of Chicago with the study of dance ritual in Haiti, where she spent years in residence. In Hollywood in the early "40s, her performing unit became the first black dance troupe to be featured in big studio musicals. On Broadway, she worked with people such as George Balanchine in mounting landmark musicals such as "Cabin in the Sky." Her school became an incubator for performers from Alvin Ailey to Eartha Kitt to Marlon Brando. In more recent years, her cultural education program in East St. Louis has been a model of enlightened artistic evangelism.
All these facets of her career and others, such as her civil-rights activism, are surveyed in tonight's 60-minute profile, directed by Merrill Brockway. The program does tend to dart from one topic to another in the scattered manner that seems an unwritten law for video documentary, perhaps in fear of pedanticism. But both Dunham's florid "Rites of Passage," fusing the many dance and theater idioms she has assimilated, and a fascinating Vaudon (voodoo) rite on Haiti tended by Dunham are shown complete, and the program as a whole does manage to convey much of the genius, warmth and imagination that are hers.