Enduring, like her effect

Times Staff Writer

KATHERINE Dunham's gifts to dance history stare out from vintage black-and-white photographs on the walls of her New York apartment. Here's a teenager with the face of an angel and the fierce gaze of a sharecropper's daughter who escaped the South Carolina cotton fields and was hellbent on becoming the sultry Dunham sensation called Eartha Kitt. Here's Julie Robinson, who broke down in tears at her role in Dunham's 1950 piece "Southland," as a poor white woman who causes the lynching of a kindhearted black laborer she falsely blamed for a white man's sexual assault.

Here's Alvin Ailey, who was a teenager in 1945 when Dunham's Tropical Revue swept through Los Angeles, and "the seeds were planted right then and there" for his calling, he said -- in an era when black Americans weren't welcome at many performance venues.

And here is a young, glamorous Dunham, who started what Dance Magazine called a "one-woman revolution," founding America's first black modern dance company and bringing African American movements to the front door of the modern dance academy. Taken in her heyday, the photo shows her posed in the highly formal, yet decidedly urban Dunham Technique, a way of moving rooted in her studies of African diaspora dance, which she taught to up-and-comers like James Dean and that left its mark on everyone from George Balanchine to Jose Limon and Marlon Brando.

"I was quite taken with her, because I'd never seen the African influence in dance with that kind of strength and artistic power. It impacted my soul," says actor and singer Harry Belafonte, who first saw Dunham in New York in the 1940s. "No one had reached those heights. She was the definitive black dance company. She moved among the highest intellectuals of black culture, all the writers and painters and literary folk."

Today it's impossible to imagine modern dance without these influences. "Dunham brought to audiences, other artists and students an array of movement possibilities that had not been seen or used before in contemporary dance," writes dance historian John Perpener in "African-American Concert Dance."

But "for a long time when people told the story of modern dance, the genealogy went from Isadora Duncan to Martha Graham to Merce Cunningham," says Maxine Craig, a sociology professor at Cal State East Bay. "There was no acknowledgment of Dunham."

That's been changing. A 2000 article in Dance Magazine trumpeted that "All roads lead to Katherine Dunham. Well, not all," it qualified, saying that Dunham should be credited for being "the first American dancer to present indigenous forms on a concert stage, the first to sustain a black dance company, the first black person to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera."

Several new books about Dunham suggest she was simply too far ahead of her time. Her fusion of intellect, charisma and sensuality left lesser minds scrambling to come up with terms, often demeaning, to pigeonhole a black woman who was an accomplished University of Chicago anthropologist and author and a groundbreaking dancer so successful her legs were once insured.

Newspaper headlines, like "Torridity to Anthropology," were glibly uncomprehending: Was she "an intelligent anthropologist of note" or "the hottest thing on Broadway?" "Cool Scientist or Sultry Performer?" "Schoolmarm Turned Siren?" Or perhaps, most revealingly: "High Priestess of Jive."

"When you start dealing with the kinds of facets of a person who is truly interdisciplinary, you don't know where to put them," says VeVe A. Clark, co-editor of a 700-page anthology of writings by and about Dunham, "Kaiso!" "And if the person happens to be black and a woman, you have to wait for the world to catch up with her."

"It's one thing to do all the things she did, but to do them all so well," adds co-editor Sara Johnson, an assistant professor of comparative literature at UC San Diego.

Dunham might best be described as an unstoppable cultural movement, one that has enriched lives wherever she's landed. Black Entertainment Television's Reginald Hudlin, a child protege at Dunham's then-cultural center in East St. Louis, Ill., says her mentoring helped get him to Harvard and his brother to Yale.

Perhaps the life of this self-invented artist has been just too big for people to get their minds around.

Ask Dunham about how her dance studies led to her ordination as a Haitian priestess, or mambo, of the African-rooted religion she would write about in "Island Possessed." "I felt such a connection," Dunham, a serene-faced 96, says in her New York apartment, surrounded by Haitian paintings and African sculptures. "To go to Haiti and be a part of it was beyond my wildest dreams."

Ask her about her long, intellectually rich friendship with Erich Fromm, the author of "The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness," a definitive work on fascism. "We were very much in love," Dunham begins languidly, with a faraway look and a beatific smile.

Here, in an elegant gilt-and-marble assisted-living facility, Dunham receives visitors warmly in a comfortable apartment with a full-length balcony that overlooks the Hudson River, with a stunning view of a full moon rising in the chilly winter sky.

But she is dreaming of another home, in less elegant surroundings in East St. Louis, where she talks about returning for good when she turns 97 in June. "It's there, waiting for me," she says.

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A sense of destiny

DUNHAM'S journey has been as extraordinary as the sense of destiny that propelled her from small-town Illinois to the University of Chicago. Dunham was born in 1909, in the small Illinois town of Joliet, the daughter of an African American dry cleaner and a French Canadian mother who died when she was just a little girl.

Her family encouraged the keen intellect that led her to the University of Chicago, though they were less enthused about her fascination with theatrical dance.

Her attempts to marry her two passions would fuel the rest of her life, as she created dances that would wind up on Broadway and Hollywood films, enjoying a popular culture audience for her vision, which, in an age of minstrelism, did not exist in the modern dance world.

Early on, she decided, "as a part of our technique, I shouldn't forget that we were black," Dunham told an interviewer from the George Balanchine Foundation. "We were not African, but black Americans, and black Americans have not been clearly defined."

The new book "Kaiso!" traces this journey. Named for a Trinidadian plaudit similar to "Bravo!," the book is a tribute, an homage -- and an attempt to weigh in on the debate over the significance of Dunham's work in modern dance history.

Dunham succeeded in boldly immersing modern dance in ethnicity. The dozens of Dunham works listed in the book -- "Drum Ritual," "Field Hands," "Plantation Dances," "Octoroon Ball," "Jazz Finale" -- conjure up an unapologetically potent brew, many of them described by Dunham herself in selections from her revealingly titled memoir, "Minefields."

"Our purpose was to let readers understand the multiple jewel that she is," says Clark, an associate professor of African American Studies at the UC Berkeley.

By the time Dunham was 21 she had founded her first company, the Ballet Negre, in Chicago.

She had a strong classical background, studying ballet with Russian dancer Ludmilla Speranzeva and the Chicago Opera's Mark Turbyfill. But she had her own ideas. Soon the newly baptized Katherine Dunham Dance Company was performing such Southern-saturated dances as "Br'er Rabbit an' de Tah Baby."

Her Caribbean influence began early, with Dunham's academic travels to Haiti. She studied the African-based Haitian religion and its dances of worship to such Haitian gods as Damballa, a snake deity that possessed the dancer with graceful serpentine steps.

In 1940, the year her "Le Jazz Hot" introduced audiences to her Shimmy, she created the character of Georgia Brown for George Balanchine's cotton-plantation fantasy, "Cabin in the Sky." Dunham recalls Balanchine as "easy to work with," but they had their differences, and some felt he should have given her a choreography credit.

Her "Tropical Review" enjoyed a popular Broadway run next. It greatly influenced a young Alvin Ailey, though Dunham studiously refuses to take credit for her role in his development.

"Everything Alvin achieved," she says today, "he achieved on his own."

In 1944, she opened the school where she unveiled the Dunham Technique, a fusion of modern dance and the influences she had absorbed. It was a sizzling cross-cultural scene: Jose Limon taught there. Butterfly McQueen, James Dean and Doris Duke were students. Charles Mingus dropped by to play music, and Marlon Brando sometimes sat in on drums.

It was a segregated era, though, and Dunham dealt with the obstacles that posed the same way she faced down arthritis and family tragedy. She didn't let things get in her way.

"For the first time I am getting a little angry," Dunham told a reporter for PM when she showed up at one performance and found her management had been "unable to reserve a hotel room for her because she is a Negro." "It would seem ridiculous if it were not so tragic."

She demonstrated the same dignity at the chilly U.S. reception to her most controversial work, "Southland." It was a protest dance that told the story of an ugly and indisputable American reality, unpunished racial lynchings, and it climaxed with a black man swinging from a rope as a dancer sang the anti-lynching classic, "Strange Fruit."

"Though I have not smelled the smell of burning flesh, and have never seen a black body sway from a Southern tree, I have felt these things in spirit," she told her audience in Spanish when it opened in Chile in 1951.

Today, Dunham recalls how Julie Robinson -- who today is Julie Robinson-Belafonte -- "cried and cried" when she was cast in the role of the white woman who provoked the lynching. "She said she wasn't going to be able to do it,'" Dunham reminisces, with a warm smile.

"But we did it," Dunham said, causing what she believes was a "fall from grace" that hurt her chances for arts funding.

In 1965, the Apollo Theater in New York hosted the last official performance of the company, but by then, modern dance had changed for good.

"We had people from Haiti, Brazil, Mexico and France. We looked like a rainbow," says former Dunham dancer Glory Van Scott. "It energized modern dance. You looked at dance and suddenly didn't see it as all white, like the dances you saw on television, the theater or on film. If Dunham did not do that company, Alvin [Ailey] would not have been. The Dance Theater of Harlem would not have been."

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Serving the underserved

AT the apex of her career, Dunham had earned a glamorous and enviable life. She had acquired the lush Haitian estate of Napoleon's sister. She had married her costume designer, John Pratt, and adopted an orphan from Martinique, Marie-Christine.

Some were puzzled when she accepted a post at Southern Illinois University and moved to East St. Louis, a place notorious as a living symbol of American racial inequity.

The place is also known as the site of one of the most deadly anti-black pogroms of Jim Crow, a 1917 massacre of white looting and murder fueled by racial tensions over black workers abandoning agricultural jobs in the Mississippi Delta for jobs at World War I munitions plants. Estimates of how many died in the "riot" ran from dozens to as many as 200.

When Dunham got to town, she intervened in the arrest of a young black gang member and was arrested herself, endearing her to the community, according to BET's Reginald Hudlin.

The kid became a Dunham dancer, the first sally in the Dunham revolution. Next came a cultural center, drummers from Senegal, Asian martial arts teachers. A Dunham museum displayed wanted posters for runaway slaves and slave shackles. Nationally known cultural figures like Shelby Steele, Nina Simone and Belafonte dropped in.

"She had always had the opportunity to be in places where she could live much more luxuriously," Belafonte says. "She chose to live among the young and underserved. She has never turned away from the culture of the poor. She saw something in East St. Louis presenting itself, out of the energies and styles of the young, and she would be the first to integrate it into her total vocabulary of life."

Hudlin says Dunham's college prep program helped get his older brother, Warrington, a talented writer, into Yale.

"Because my brother went to Yale I went to Harvard," Hudlin says. "Literally, outside of my family there's no one more responsible for the success of the Hudlin brothers than Katherine Dunham."

The Hudlin brothers went on to create the film "House Party," and today, Reginald Hudlin is BET's president of entertainment.

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Accolades mount

IT was Belafonte who brought Dunham to New York a few years ago, when she was in poor health; found her medical care and ensconced her in an elegant New York West Side assisted living facility.

Here, her accolades are finally mounting. She received an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 2002 -- a newsrelease said it was her 49th -- and she has a place on the Dance Heritage Coalition's list of America's 100 "Irreplaceable Dance Treasures." There is a Library of Congress Katherine Dunham Legacy Project. Ailey has presided over a Kennedy Center tribute to Dunham. There will be a gala celebration for her in May in New York with performances of Dunham dances.

There are a few gaps, says Dunham's daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham-Pratt -- like a pension, because Dunham was self-employed. In Europe, Dunham-Pratt says, Dunham would probably get a state income.

"In Italy, they would at least give her an apartment," says Dunham-Pratt, a poised, self-possessed woman who lives in Rome.

But Dunham has no desire to live in Italy.

In June, when she turns 97 and will be honored on both sides of the Mississippi, she'd like to return to East St. Louis. Her friends have equipped her stately old home with an elevator and other equipment to help her get around.

"I would like to live in East St. Louis," Dunham says, with a peaceful look. "In so many ways, that is home to me. I don't know of any other place that has such a feeling of Southern culture without being Southern. So many people there have grandparents from the South. It's like a self-contained village."

"She says she wants to take her last breath here," says Dunham's good friend Eugene Redmond, the poet laureate of East St. Louis.

But Dunham is no longer the lithe, strong "one-woman revolution" who vogues down from the black-and-white photos on her wall. She's old and frail. Will she make it back?

Says her old friend Hudlin: "I predict nothing with Miss Dunham."

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