Dunham's contributions to dance are little known

April 05, 1992|By Ellen Sweets | Ellen Sweets,Dallas Morning News

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- More Americans know Katherine Dunham for her 47-day fast than for her 50-year career as a dancer.

The 82-year-old began the fast Feb. 1 to protest the forced repatriation of Haitian refugees. The resulting publicity brought a stream of well-known visitors: "The Silence of the Lambs" director Jonathan Demme, the sister of former presidential hopeful Paul Tsongas, the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- and ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Ms. Dunham ended the fast when Mr. Aristide invited her to accompany him on his return to Haiti.

But as little as is known about Katherine Dunham the dancer and choreographer, even less is known about Katherine Dunham the anthropologist, author and poet. Her love affair with dance preceded her love for Haiti, but her devotion to both evolved with her academic studies.

Ms. Dunham, who is usually characterized as the grande dame of ethnic dance in America, also is credited by some with starting the modern dance movement. She is responsible not only for a rigorous Afrocentric technique that bears her name, but for a voluminous body of work that spans vaudeville, Hollywood and Broadway.

In addition to 85 choreographed works -- including "Le Jazz Hot" and "Street Scene" -- Ms. Dunham's theater credits include "The Emperor Jones" in 1939 and "Cabin in the Sky," done in collaboration with George Balanchine in 1940. Screen credits include "Stormy Weather" in 1943, "Green Mansions" in 1958 and "The Bible" with Dino De Laurentiis in 1964. She also choreographed Verdi's grand opera "Aida."

In the '80s and '90s she received a Kennedy Center award for lifetime achievement, had a dance department at Southern Illinois University named for her and was a guest at a White House state dinner -- all because she brought ethnic dance to the world's attention.

"I've always been curious about my heritage, interested in knowing more about it," she says from her home. "I wanted more people to know the richness of black culture, not just black people."

Ms. Dunham has crisscrossed the globe, from Senegal to South America, with visits to Australia, Europe, Japan, Scandinavia, Jamaica, Mexico, Trinidad and her beloved Haiti. But no matter where she went, she always returned to Haiti, which she first visited in the 1930s.

The daughter of a school teacher mother and a father who owned a cleaning and dyeing business, Ms. Dunham was one of two children. Her older brother, Albert, was a philosophy scholar educated at the University of Chicago and Harvard. He taught at Howard University. He died in 1949.

Strongly influenced by her brother, Ms. Dunham followed him to the University of Chicago in the 1920s. She went on to get her bachelor's and master's degrees in anthropology from the school and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University -- all this during a time when many rejected the notion that blacks were capable of serious intellectual pursuits.

One of those who knew better is Agnes de Mille, the 87-year-old doyenne of dance. "I knew Katherine as a friend at the University of Chicago, and we have stayed in touch over the years," says Ms. de Mille in a telephone interview from New York. "She was a mad success. When I was commissioned to do 'Black Ritual' [a work for 16 dancers based on a Haitian ceremonial rite], I asked why I should do it. I told them Katherine was the obvious choice. And my agent just said, 'Do you want me to turn it down?' So I did it, but it really wasn't very good. It wasn't real, and I hate fakes."

Ms. Dunham's success as an anthropologist, combined with her love for dance, earned her several fellowships that allowed her to study the dance and rituals of the Caribbean.

"So little was known about the layers and texture of dance in society," Ms. Dunham says. "People called it primitive; it wasn't primitive at all. People called it primitive because they didn't know any better."

Trinidad-born choreographer Geoffrey Holder, who has taught in Dunham's school in New York, says he respects her for her interest in Caribbean culture.

"Dunham goes beyond black dance," says Mr. Holder in a telephone interview. "The entire world of dance has been influenced by her technique, but it has become so diffused many don't recognize it as Dunham."

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