[By Danielle Hall]
Some of what I have found most fascinating while researching Katherine Dunham as an intellectual involve examining the ways in which she used technology (film and musical recording devices) and her dance technique to advance the knowledge and studies of black people and Diasporan cultures throughout the world.
Dance, then, functioned as a form of “Diaspora literacy” (as coined by VèVè Clark) for Dunham in that she communicated ideas about black identity and self-determination to her audience world-wide. Thus, her work within and beyond black communities, covering many artistic forms of expression such as music, dance, drama, film, theatre, and writing, demonstrates many different modes of black creativity and expression in America.
Something to note in Dunham’s research-to-performance model is that she necessarily combined film, dance, and the recording of music throughout the Caribbean. Her approach was completely ground-breaking for the period, and many of Dunham’s contemporaries were excited about her work and methods.
In sheer research fanaticism, I have collected several links to her videos that appear on youtube.
The Ag’Ya is a social fight or martial arts dance that derives from slave society because slaves could not possess weapons, aesthetically what we are able to see is dance as a survival technique.
1942 Pardon My Sarong choreographed and staged by Katherine Dunham followed by “Sharp As A Tack” Dunham jazz dance from Star-Spangled Rhythm (1942) featuring with Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson.
1942 Star-Spangled Rhythm “Sharp As ATack” (film dance sequence only)
L’Ag’Ya – the Mazouk (Martinique)
Katherine Dunham and Dance Company at the Cambridge Theater, London – British newsreel
1943 Stormy Weather Katherine Dunham and her dancers. The first scene is Dunham and lead dancer, Talley Beatty. I have previously discussed in another post the fact that Dunham had to negotiate this scene with film director Andrew Stone because he wanted the entire dance scene to be the “street setting” and Katherine firmly refuses.
1947 Katherine Dunham’s majumba or “charm dance” (Brazil) in L’Ag’ya
1948 Casbah Katherine Dunham is cast in a small role as Odette and this includes one major choreographed/staged dance performance. This was also actress and former Dunham dancer, Eartha Kitt’s first film debut (uncredited).
1951 Je Suis de la Revue an Italian feature film with Katherine Dunham and her dancers and also featured musician Louis Armstrong.
1954 Mambo. This film footage highlights some of the main features of a Dunham Technique (isolations, Dunham Bar, & drums) followed by Rites de Passage (1980), which underwent some changes in choreography overtime and originally opened at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco in December 1941.