Sunday, May 13, 2012

Art Analysis of Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham revolutionized American dance in the 1930's by going to the roots of black dance and rituals transforming them into significant artistic choreography that speaks to all. Dunham's big breakthrough took place after she moved to New York in 1939 where, in February, she opened at the Windsor Theater in a program called ‘Tropics’ and le ‘Jazz Hot’. (Kim Gaines, Black-Collegian) It was supposed to be a one-night event but demand was such that Dunham ended up doing 13 weeks, and followed with her own Tropical Revue, which was a hit not only in the United States but also in Canada. (Gaines) Some of Dunham’s most popular performances also include her appearance on Broadway as Georgia Brown in "Cabin in the Sky" at the Martin Beck Theater, "Carib Song" (1945), "Bal Nègre" (1946), "Caribbean Rhapsody" (1948) and "Bamboche" (1962). They consisted of brief, vivid numbers inspired by African, Caribbean or African-American dance forms. She included photos, films, writings and her own demonstration in her presentations. She then created the Dunham Technique that transformed the world of dance. (Gaines)
Cabin in the Sky opened on October 25, 1940 at New York's Martin Beck Theater. (Gaines) The musical is about Little Joe, a man killed over gambling debts, who is given six months to redeem his soul and become worthy of entering Heaven. (Gaines) If he fails to do so his soul will be condemned to Hell. Played by an all-African-American cast, Dunham plays Georgia Brown, the Devil’s advocate and the temptress throughout the performance. (Gaines) As with For Colored Girls When the Rainbow is Enuf, the actors and actresses perform the artwork through their actions. In her lifetime, Dunham was known for her use and incorporation of African, Caribbean and South American dance forms to depict peoples’ feelings, emotions, thoughts and desires. Unlike For Colored Girls, the performers do not speak, instead performing to fast-paced and rhythm centric music. In our class we spent a lot of time talking about who does and does not have a voice, and in this performance, neither male nor female has a voice and instead conveys their actions through dance. After 156 performances, the production went on a national tour.
Dunham had not only an impact on the Broadway culture, but her performances also had a huge affect on the post-war generation of Europe: When the company performed in cities such as London and Paris the show received a more enthusiastic reaction than the response a theatrical experience would receive. The continent had never been exposed to anything so culturally different, powerful or with the total involvement of the entire cast. It was an exposure to a different culture, and to a sense of magic and of beauty they knew nothing about. In Paris the all-African-American performers had enjoyed a sensational reception, where the brilliant Dunham, charmed intellectuals such as art critic Bernard Berenson and anthropologists Alfred Metraux and Claude Lévi-Strauss. (Gaines) I believe Dunham was a pioneer of folk and ethnic choreography and one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement. She showed the world that African-American heritage is beautiful. She completed groundbreaking work on Caribbean and Brazilian dance anthropology as a new academic discipline and is credited for bringing these Caribbean and African influences to a European-dominated dance world.
As Adrienne Rich stated, "Art is our human birthright, our most powerful means to access of our own and other's experiences and imaginative life. In continually recovering and rediscovering the humanity of human beings, art is critical to the democratic version." (Rich, 103) This is why Dunham is credited for developing one of the most important methods for teaching dance that is still used throughout the world. Called the "Matriarch of Black Dance," her groundbreaking repertoire combined innovative interpretations of Caribbean dances, traditional ballet, African rituals and African American rhythms to create the Dunham Technique. (Gaines) Her mastery of body movement was considered "phenomenal." (Gaines In contrast to Carter who stated "With elegant sarcasm, Carter says society permits that mouth to be the essence of woman and her wisdom, but then society dismisses the speech of a woman's body", Dunham I believe was the exception to this case. (Frueh, 194) Dunham was hailed for her smooth and fluent choreography and dominated a stage with what has been described as "an unmitigated radiant force providing beauty with a feminine touch full of variety and nuance." (Gaines) While one could argue that dancing is one of the most provocative things a woman could do as an art form, I would argue otherwise. While her voice was not used often in her actual dance performances, I believe Dunham successfully educated all the people who watched her and her company perform through her intricate movements. She brought awareness to people who were often forgotten by the first world and made people more curious about their culture as a result.
Katherine Dunham is not only an innovator of  dance, in my opinion, but also of bringing different groups together. She not only used women in her performances, but also men, who as we have studied in our women’s studies class have been somewhat underrepresented. It’s not only both sexes, but different cultures. In class we also discussed different groups, including Hispanics in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Iraqis in Persepolis, and people of multiracial backgrounds in To Be Real. I like that Dunham brought awareness to groups that are not given as much attention such as South Americans, Caribbeans and Africans. She not only brought them attention, but she studied and became a part of their heritage, and produced performances that gave different people around the world an inside look. Katherine Dunham is a feminist at her core in my opinion: Her work gave women another outlet to express themselves, she stood up for injustices and she has always done so in a classy manor.

 Works Cited
  • Gaines, Kim. "Spotlight on.....Katherine Dunham." THE BLACK COLLEGIAN Online: The Career Site for African-American College Students. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2012. <>. 
  • Rich, Adrienne. “Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts” in Arts of the Possible: Essays in Conversation, p.103.
  •   Frueh, Joanna. “The Body Through Women’s Eyes” in The Power of Feminist Art, p. 202

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