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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Katherine Dunham 1910-2006

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Katherine Dunham

How Katherine Dunham Revealed Black Dance to the World

Published: May 23, 2006

Whatever else Katherine Dunham was in her long and productive life, which ended on Sunday at 96, she was a radiantly beautiful woman whose warmth and sense of self spread like honey on the paths before her.

How could anyone be stopped by the color of her skin after her invincibly lush sensuality and witty intelligence had seduced audiences on Broadway, in Hollywood films and in immensely popular dance shows that toured the world? And how could anyone cram black American dance into one or two conveniently narrow categories — or for that matter ignore the good strong roots that would one day grow green stems and leaves — with the vision of her company's lavishly theatrical African and Caribbean dance revues in mind?

Miss Dunham was one of the first American artists to focus on black dance and dancers as prime material for the stage. She burst into public consciousness in the 1940's, at a time when opportunities were increasing for black performers in mainstream theater and film, at least temporarily. But there was little middle ground there between the exotic and the demeaning everyday stereotypes.

Ms. Dunham's dance productions were certainly exotic, and sometimes fell into uncomfortable clichés. But a 1987 look at her work, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's "Magic of Katherine Dunham" program, confirmed that she also evoked ordinary lives that were lived with ordinary dignity.

Miss Dunham, as she was universally known, was by no means the only dance artist to push for the recognition of black dance in the 1940's, when Pearl Primus pushed, too, though a great deal less glamorously. But though Miss Dunham's academic credentials as an anthropologist were impeccable, including a doctorate from the University of Chicago, it was her gift for seduction that helped most to pave the way for choreographers like Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty and Alvin Ailey, who were the first wave of what is today an established and influential part of the larger world of American modern dance.

Ailey's first encounter with her, as a newly stage-struck boy in his mid-teens, says a great deal about Miss Dunham's appeal. Intrigued by handbills advertising her 1943 "Tropical Revue," he ventured into the Biltmore Theater in downtown Los Angeles, his hometown, where it was playing. There he was plunged into a world of color, light and heat that was populated by highly trained dancers with a gift for powerful immediacy, who were dressed in subtle, stylish costumes designed by John Pratt, Miss Dunham's husband. After the show, Ailey followed the crowd making its way backstage to her dressing room and was again stunned when the door opened on a vision of beautiful hanging fabrics and carpeting, paintings, books, flowers and baskets of fruit. And there was La Dunham, dressed in vividly colored silks and exuding irresistible gaiety and warmth.

posted by Steve @ 1:58:00 AM

1:58:00 AM

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