Monday, May 22, 2006

Dunham Tribute + News from Bloggers

Legendary dancer Katherine Dunham passes
DunhamAs readers of Jstheater have come to fathom, I think it's important to write brief tributes to those who've enriched our lives and experiences, both while they're alive and after they're gone. One person who fits this description in multiple ways is the late Katherine Dunham, who passed away yesterday in New York City after a full and marvelous life at the age of 96. Dunham was a pioneering figure in African-American and African-Diasporic arts and cultural production, and one of the most important choreographers of the 20th century. A native of the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, she attended the University of Chicago (she was one of the first African-American undergraduates), where she studied social anthropology, training that would crucially shape her dance performances for the rest of her life. After traveling on a Rosenwald Fellowship to study the dances of the Caribbean, Dunham served as a director of Chicago's Federal Theater Project before founding her own troupe in 1938. In her work and performances from this period, she began to explore the connections between African-American and Caribbean dances and their African roots, tracing out various retentions and creating new, synthetic, Diasporic forms that also incorporated movements, techniques and rhythms from the South Pacific and other non-European cultures. These innovations would deeply influence both performers and scholars of dance and Diasporic cultural practices. She opened her Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research in 1945, which extended her training to several generations of dancers, and began touring the globe with her revues, garnering both national and world-wide acclaim. During this period her she cemented strong connections to dance troupes in Haiti, Brazil, western Africa, and Europe. She would go on to choreograph dances for operas and musicals in New York and elsewhere, help to create new dance troupes, and serve as a visiting professor and later ultural affairs consultant and director of the Performing Arts Training Center and the Dynamic Museum at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.

It was in conjunction with her work in southern Illinois that Dunham became more than just a iconic figure to me. The SIUE Dynamic Museum and the Performing Arts Training Center were located in East Saint Louis, Illinois, the sister city across the Mississippi from my hometown, and during her most active years there, from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, as East St. Louis suffered a severe economic decline, transforming it at one point into one of the poorest cities in the United States and one of the most dangerous, Dunham's Dynamic Museum and the SIUE Katherine Dunham Center, later renamed the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities, became one of the few sites providing critical, comprehensive educational and artistic opportunities for the socially and economically displaced young people of East St. Louis. Growing up, I would hear about Dunham's enduring and truly dynamic commitment to this community--because she received as much as she gave--and found it then, as I still do, a model that every artist who can, if and when possible, should emulate. I also should mention her 47-day hunger strike, at the age of 82 in 1993, which sought to call attention to the United States' problematic relationship with Haiti; it undoubtedly played a role in President Clinton's subsequent restoration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide's democratically elected government.

Dunham in Rara TongaDunham received numerous honors for her work, including a Presidential Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, the French Legion of Honor, Southern Cross of Brazil, Haiti's Grand Cross, Chevalier in the Haitian Legion of Honor and its Commander and Grand Officer titles, an NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award, Lincoln Academy Laureate, the Urban Leagues’ Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Dance Festival's Samuel H. Scripps Award, and an induction into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in the University City Loop. Dance troupes across the spectrum, from the Martha Graham Dancers to Alvin Ailey hailed her contributions to the art of dance. In recent years, like so many pioneering black figures, she had fallen on hard financial times, but according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, her economic situation had recently improved. She did not live to participate in the birthday tribute, scheduled for next month at the Missouri History Museum, which will bring together dancers from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Hispánico and Afriky Lolo, but her spirit will be dancing along with them.

Blog Round Up
I just noticed the news on Rod 2.0's site that the anthology Freedom in the Village: 25 Years of Black Gay Men's Writing (Carroll & Graf, 2005), which author E. Lynn Harris edited (and which contains an excerpt of a novel I've been working on) was awarded a 2006 Lambda Literary Award. Congratulations to E. Lynn, Carroll & Graf, Don Weise, and everyone in the anthology. I went to the Lambda Literary Foundation website, but there was no update on the awards ceremony, which took place last Wednesday, or the winners, so I'll go with Rod's report (he also credits Bernie and Keith, who also points out that Thomas Glave received the prize in nonfiction for his superb new collection of essays, Words to Our Now. Congratulations, Thomas!).

Also on Bernie's site, you can find a great writeup of the International Association of Athletics Federation's (IAAF) revision of American sprinter Justin Gatlin's (right) winning time at the Qatar Grand Prix. It seems his world record time should have been rounded up, from 9.766 to 9.77, thus tying Jamaican Asafa Powell's (left) previous record. I can wait till they race against each other later this year!

Random photo

The skeleton of another new building (condos? corporate? mixed use?), near the Marin Blvd. light rail station, downtown Jersey City


  1. This is what I love about your blog. I learn things (Katherine Dunham) I didn't know. Oh, and you great writing!!

  2. I agree with Monaga, I thought I knew a lot about Dunham, but learned much about her East Saint Louis connection I didn't know. As usual, you have also selected great photos. We can all hope our eyes are that animated and our 'fros/locs, etc look that good at 96!

  3. When I heard that Dunham had passed away, I thought of your blog immediately. I was a bit blown away, it is kind of the end of an era for me I guess, since I remember seeing Ailey's work as a kid, and have vivid images of them alive on television and my mother pointing them out to me constantly.