Obituary: Jeraldyne Blunden

CALM DIGNITY and clear focus were immediately evident when one met Jeraldyne Blunden, who against the odds created a successful black modern dance company in mid-America 30 years ago, and continued to make it thrive artistically, in the face of difficult economics. She once said, "My father said I am stubborn. I say I am tenacious."

Her company, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) is that rarity in the United States, a modern dance company based on repertory rather than a dominant choreographer. It has been hailed for its revivals of works by early black modern choreographers and for dancing of whole-hearted commitment, power and grace.

Blunden's intention to teach and build a company in her native Dayton, Ohio, dated from her teens. The closeness of the company and the school, which trained many of its dancers, is clear in the cheerful, modern facilities they share in Dayton.

Born Jeraldyne Kilborn, in 1940, from the age of eight she received her basic dance education from the school of the sisters Josephine (Miss Jo) and Hermene Schwarz, who founded the Dayton Ballet. She received close attention and guidance, and found helpful the approach which Miss Jo later characterised as "ballet taught from a modern viewpoint and modern taught from a ballet viewpoint."

Her wide early exposure to advanced modern dance styles included classes at an important summer modern dance school, the American Dance Festival, where in her first year she was the only black student. She had classes in the techniques of Martha Graham and Jose Limn. Another important influence was the technique of the west-coast pioneer Lester Horton, as transmitted by a DCDC artist-in- residence, James Truitte.

Jeraldyne Kilborn gained performing experience with several ballet and modern companies in Dayton. She married happily at 19, to Charles Blunden, and began to raise a family. The close-knit family was a source of strength in her work.

Her first youthful attempt at starting a company of her own was a bit forceful for her potential dancers; on being told that dance was serious business and "If you don't think you can come up to my demands, then I want you to leave", they all left.

But in 1960, when she was 20, she created the school and the beginnings of the company, which was incorporated in 1968. Her idea was to create modern dancers with a strong base in ballet. She also said once that she was one of the few people to continue teaching "old-school Graham technique".

She saw to it that her students had summer opportunities to study in New York City (for example at Dance Theatre of Harlem) or the National Association for Regional Ballet choreography conferences.

For the fledgling company, she at first created the repertoire herself. Neither her dancers nor the repertoire have been exclusively black. They have, for example, danced Merce Cunningham's Channels/ Inserts. But the black choreographers are a distinguished roster, from Talley Beatty and Donald McKayle to Eleo Pomare, Donald Byrd and Ulysses Dove.

Blunden developed a number of prominent dancers, such as the lyrical star of Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, Donna Wood. The company has made appearances abroad including at the Lyons Biennale de la Danse, and in Seoul, Moscow, and Warsaw. It also has a youth ensemble. At Wright State University in Dayton, Blunden developed a pre-professional training programme with the Department of Theatre Arts.

Blunden had arranged for the future of the company, with her daughter and former student, Debbie Blunden-Diggs, and the choreographer-dancer Kevin Ward already in place to succeed her as co-artistic directors. "I certainly want the company to go on after I'm gone," she said not long ago. "We put in too many years to fold."

Jeraldyne Kilborn, dancer and choreographer: born Dayton, Ohio 10 December 1940; married 1959 Charles Blunden (one son, one daughter); died Dayton 22 November 1999.