Katherine Dunham

Dancer and choreographer who triumphantly pioneered musical revues on black themes
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The Independent Online

'Firstly, she herself is a very great artist. Every moment she is on the stage her gestures, expressions and movements are alive and pertinent to the situation . . . secondly she succeeds because of her study of the people, among whom she has lived . . . Let us be wise and study her work in order that we too shall make the old traditions appear new and exhilarating." Thus The Dancing Times wrote about the first, stunning visit of Katherine Dunham and her company to London, in 1948.

A large share of credit for the current status of black culture and performers is due to Katherine Dunham's pioneering work. Her musical revues on black themes were the toast of continents. She was an inspiration to black artists such as Alvin Ailey, whose autobiography, Revelations (1995), tells that, when he was 15,

suddenly, in front of me, in the flesh, was this unbelievable creature . . . Seeing Miss Dunham and her company was a transcendent experience for me. And the male dancers! Their moves, their jumps, their agility, the sensuality of what they did; were amazing . . . I couldn't believe there were black people on a legitimate stage in downtown Los Angeles.

As a performer Dunham is remembered for her lively, joyous and even humorous presence, her beauty of face and figure, and her sexy, glamorous refinement that were said to have brought "sex into the parlour".

After a middle-class but unsettled childhood in Illinois, Katherine Dunham followed her brother, Albert Jnr, into the University of Chicago. Already attracted to dance, there she was to take a doctorate in anthropology, citing "the strong connection between the dance, music and archaic ceremonials of a people and that people's social and economic history". In 1936, research took her on the first of many visits to the Caribbean, especially Haiti, where she studied African-derived rituals and dances and eventually became an initiate in the rites of vodun (voodoo). In Haiti, she was to own a large home and an estate that had once belonged to Pauline Bonaparte.

In Chicago, Dunham studied with a character dancer, Ludmila Speranzeva, who had had training, uncharacteristic of the time, in both ballet and modern dance, with Olga Preobrajenska and Mary Wigman. Dunham also worked with the poet and dancer Mark Turbyfill. Her career took off with the success of her 1940 revue Tropics and "Le Jazz Hot" - from Haiti to Harlem. The same year, she co-choreographed the Broadway musical A Cabin in the Sky along with George Balanchine; it starred Ethel Waters and featured Dunham and her dancers.

In Hollywood in the early Forties, she and her troupe appeared in numbers she choreographed in films such as Stormy Weather (1943), and a 1942 film devoted to her company, Carnival of Rhythm. She clashed, however, with executives who wanted her to use only light-skinned women and, she felt, clichéd images of black people.

The acclaimed revues that her company toured around the world, on the other hand, presented portraits of black cultures based on her own research, including Tropical Revue (1943), under the aegis of Sol Hurok, and A Caribbean Rhapsody, the show in which the company made its London début. Dunham's husband, John Pratt, regularly contributed set and costume designs of imagination and verve.

Dunham's work included American, Brazilian and Cuban suites, but most often concerned Caribbean scenes and rites. For example, among the surviving pieces are Rites de Passage (1941) with its sections on fertility, puberty and death (recorded in a television programme devoted to her in the PBS "Dance in America" series); Shango (1945), referring to voodoo ritual; and L'Ag'Ya (1938), based on a Martinique fighting style of the same name. Her joyous Choros (1944) was revived by Alvin Ailey's company in 1972.

In 1944 she established the Dunham School of Dance in New York, which was a popular and important centre in the late Forties and early Fifties, with eclectic classes that were a liberating influence on the multi-racial dancer clientele and gave them a sense of community.

Dunham was one of the most visible figures of an American generation that began to mix dance styles, after the more single-minded modern dance pioneers. She used an eclectic variety of music, including drumwork and mainstream music. Dunham technique combines the freedom in shoulder and hip movement of Caribbean dance with theatricalisation through ballet legwork, modern and jazz dance. It aims for a combination of suppleness and strength, and continued to be taught in New York by Charles Moore and Pearl Reynolds. Among Dunham's dancers were the choreographer Talley Beatty, the dancer Josephine Premice and the singer Eartha Kitt.

In 1967, during a period of racial unrest, Dunham began working in the ghetto community of East St Louis, Missouri, where she became director of the Performing Arts Training Center of a local branch of Southern Illinois University. She provided social programmes, counselling, varied dance forms, stagecraft, martial arts, music, and percussion to lure young people away from street crime and give them self-respect. Her involvement led to a brief arrest in the turmoil following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr.

Among other activities, in 1963 she became the first black choreographer for the Metropolitan Opera, with Aida, and she was cultural adviser to the President and the Minister of Cultural Affairs of Senegal, 1965-66. Her extensive writings included books about her fieldwork on war dances in Jamaica, about her childhood, and about her experiences in Haiti.

Much honoured in France, Haiti and Brazil, as well as the United States, she received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1983 and an Albert Schweitzer Award in 1979 "for her contributions to the performing arts and her dedication to humanitarian work".

Marilyn Hunt