From the 1983 Kennedy Center Honors presented by President Reagan to the 1989 National Medal of Arts presented by President Bush, Katherine Dunham is no stranger to awards. France, Brazil, Haiti and UNESCO have paid homage to both her artistry as a dancer-choreographer and her influence as a pioneer artist of color--and she even holds the Albert Schweitzer Award for her humanitarian achievements.
Saturday, the 81-year-old dance matriarch received another honor as the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Image Awards added her to its Hall of Fame in a program at the Wiltern Theatre.
In an interview shortly after arriving in Los Angeles for the event, Dunham proved disarmingly self-deprecating about being selected. “I have been aware of the NAACP for many, many years,” she said, “but I knew very little about them because we were traveling outside the country a good deal of the time. And since I’ve been back I just somehow lost track of them, but I think it’s quite wonderful that they didn’t lose track of me.”
Although she has been an anthropologist, writer, painter, teacher and also reached the highest level of initiation in the Haitian religion vodun, Dunham is best known as a star dancer and the leader of a phenomenally popular, self-subsidized company that toured internationally from the early ‘40s to the mid-'60s.
Appearing in nightclubs, musical comedy, films and opera, as well as concert performances, the Dunham company gave unprecedented opportunities to African-American dancers and made non-black audiences aware of Caribbean culture (her specialty) in all its splendor.
“Katherine Dunham was a pioneer, very truly,” wrote Agnes de Mille in her recent book, “Portrait Gallery.” “She had to train her company, as a good many others have. But she also had to take care of them, shield them, protect them, and in a real sense maintain them. She had no money, but she had to see that these people were housed and fed despite every possible prejudice and barrier. It amounts to a historic achievement.”
Today, Dunham’s choreography can be seen in vintage films (from “Carnival of Rhythm,” in 1939 to “The Bible” in 1964) and in a lavish compilation, “The Magic of Katherine Dunham,” mounted by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in 1987.
Dunham admires the Ailey company but admitted some concern about contemporary dancers mastering her style. “I understand the problems of rehearsal and what I’m so afraid of is that the dancers will become a little bit too mechanized,” she explained. “Our work was very emotional, had a lot of feeling. I never depended so much on a variety of steps as upon absorbing the total complex of wherever the dance came from. And those things take more time. It’s not just learning a routine.”
Asked about the new generation of choreographers, Dunham said she had been “quite excited by Garth Fagan’s work,” like hers deeply influenced by Caribbean culture. And, she noted happily, “he thanks me.”
Dunham finds encouraging the growing solidarity between African-American choreographers but worries that our society as a whole is, in her words, “going backwards. If just a part of the money that is spent on trying to keep us in touch with oil could be spent on our population needs, then young people could see some hope--that’s what’s troubling me.”
“Somewhere along the line we, Americans, have lost the capacity to sense and feel what’s going wrong in our society and do something about it,” she said. “The main thing we’re lacking is compassion. American education doesn’t help you know more about people and learn how to live as a humanitarian but how to fix it so that you can have more than your neighbor. That’s a whole lot to undo.”
Currently, Dunham divides her time between her home outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and East St. Louis, where she settled in the late ‘60s and created a performing arts training center. Indeed, her teaching and writing activities dominated her conversation as she looked back on six decades of prominence in dance.
“East St. Louis has been so badly thought of for so many years but for me it’s quite intriguing,” she said. “The year before last there were two Olympic gold medalists who came from East St. Louis. So did our former U.N. ambassador. Josephine Baker, Tina Turner, Miles Davis--the material is there.
“It’s a city that’s built on family life. In many ways the grandmothers run things. And I was able to teach people what I wanted: educating people for life--especially people who hadn’t been spoiled by some other form of education.”
Though no longer associated with Southern Illinois University, Dunham maintains a museum in East St. Louis and a program for children that she calls “socialization through the arts.” She is currently finishing her fifth book, “The Minefields,” and acknowledged some disappointment that she is not better known as an author. Ultimately, though, she decribed herself as “more of a catalyst than anything else, and once you discover that you were put on earth to do something, that makes it much easier.”
“In many ways, I don’t even have to wonder about what to do with my life,” she said. “It’s just supplied for me.”