Isn’t It Katherine Dunham’s Centennial Too?

May 25, 2009

The surprises keep coming when you start to learn about Katherine Dunham. She was a celebrated dancer, choreographer, teacher, anthropologist, activist, writer, and healer. But mostly she was a force in the evolution of American dance. Your dance history teachers might tell you that the “four pioneers” of American modern dance were Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm. But Miss Dunham was in some ways busier and more productive than any of them. She was the first to put dances of the African diaspora onto the concert stage, and brought her performances to 57 countries. Her work straddled concert dance, research, and entertainment. Both glamorous and scholarly, she was a huge influence not only on Alvin Ailey but also on the development of jazz dance.

    Now, the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis has mounted an exhibit that shows her many-faceted work. It’s called “Katherine Dunham: Beyond the Dance.” There are films of her dances in movies (in Stormy Weather in 1943, Lena Horne must have been envious of how beautiful Miss Dunham was!), grainy videos of her teaching, and many costumes and artifacts. In fact, in this centennial year of the Ballets Russes, I couldn’t help but notice that the opulence, the idea of covering the stage with visual glory, was common to both. (My guide pointed out that Miss Dunham’s first ballet teacher, Ludmilla Speranzeva, had danced with one of the Ballets Russes companies.)

    There’s an astonishing hand-stitched backdrop of huge swirling shapes, and “exotic” costumes with meticulous detail—most were designed by her husband John Pratt. There are strange objects, like a baby buggy that’s been converted into a prop. There are elaborate beaded Vodun flags she collected in Haiti. There’s a little wooden box (an electrical pulse generator) that Miss Dunham used to stimulate the muscles when she was young and had rheumatic fever. There’s also a small portrait she painted of another dancer. (I knew she was an excellent writer, but who knew she painted?) And in all the videos, her voice is so clear, so warm, so demanding of her students that she comes alive on the screen.

    If you go, plan to spend an afternoon soaking it up.