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May 23, 2006


Katherine Dunham: In Memoriam

Dancer Katherine Dunham Dies

Katherine Dunham, the choreographer, social activist and world-renowned dancer, died Sunday in her New York apartment. She was 96. The cause of her death was unknown Sunday evening, said Charlotte Ottley, Miss Dunham's executive liaison in the St. Louis area. Interested readers will find a highly detailed account of her extraordinary life and amazing achievements, as well as numerous media resources, at the website of The Katherine Dunham Collection at the Library of Congress.

Miss Dunham, for a quarter-century a part-time, but socially and politically active resident of East St. Louis (Illinois), long had been recognized as a leader in the field of black dance. In 1969, she was cited by Dance Magazine as the "forerunner of the numerous fine contemporary Negro groups now emerging and developing, the first of the fighters for the Negro dance company."

Choreographer Agnes de Mille once observed that Miss Dunham "pioneered in a difficult field, cutting away from all traditional cliches and presenting the Negro in fresh, astute and delicately observed moods." Dance critic Walter Terry wrote in The Saturday Review that Miss Dunham, more than any other black choreographer, "celebrated the strength, the fortitude, the faith, the prowess and the majesty" of her race.

Miss Dunham attended the University of Chicago, where she majored in social anthropology. In 1935, Miss Dunham was awarded the University of Chicago's Julius Rosenwald Foundation travel fellowship. After finishing her degree at the University of Chicago, she was hired as dance director for Chicago's Federal Theatre Project. This was, as historians have noted, a period of time when the South-Side of Chicago (especially the Bronzeville neighborhood) served as the home of many African-American artists (fine arts, music and literature), who went on to achieve national and international acclaim.

A fiery style, often as much erotic as exotic, yet always tasteful and impeccably researched, would characterize Miss Dunham's work for the next several decades. In the spring of 1938, she formed her own company with members of the Federal Theatre Project troupe and began to explore the connection of Caribbean dance to its African roots. After the Dunham Dance Company traveled to New York in 1940 and presented a program titled "Tropics and Le Jazz Hot," New York Times critic John Martin wrote: "Her performance ... may very well become a historic occasion."

In the World War II years, the Dunham Dance Company worked on Broadway and in Hollywood. The company also undertook a nationwide tour, in the course of which Miss Dunham successfully filed suits against hotels in Cincinnati and Chicago for racial discrimination.

In 1945, in New York, she opened the Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research. That same year her company performed in the Broadway shows "Carib Song" and "Windy City," and in 1946 it presented an evening-length dance event titled "Bal Negre." "Bal Negre," with sets and costumes by her husband John Pratt, was an enormous success, and in the next several seasons it traveled to Mexico, South America and Europe. The Dunham company toured Europe and South America in 1948 with a program called "Caribbean Rhapsody," and it continued to perform worldwide
until 1957.

Based in Haiti, where she owned property she hoped to turn into a tourist hotel, Miss Dunham spent most of 1958 writing her autobiography, "A Touch of Innocence," and setting up a medical clinic. A Chevalier in the Haitian Legion of Honor since 1949, in 1959 she was granted the title Commander and Grand Officer. In the same year, she re-established her dance company and embarked on another European tour.

In 1963, Miss Dunham was appointed to be the choreographer for a Metropolitan
Opera production of "Aida." That's where she met Sally Bliss, who was dancing with the ballet company. Bliss, who is now the executive director of Dance St. Louis, danced professionally in New York for 40 years. Bliss studied under Dunham for two months in preparation for "Aida." "She was scary," Bliss said. "When she walked into the room, she scared you because she was so great a woman. You knew you were in the presence of a great

In 1964, Miss Dunham was invited to take part in another opera, a student production of "Faust," at Southern Illinois University (Carbondale, Ill). It was in conjunction with the "Faust" production that she first visited East St. Louis (Ill.). She was deeply moved by the poverty she saw there, and she proposed an educational project that would reach "far beyond dance in the popular definition" and be concerned "with the fundamentals of human society."

In explaining her goals to a reporter, Miss Dunham said: "What we are trying to do is break through apathy. It's not so much teaching people to perform as it is teaching them, through performing, that they have individual worth and can relate to other
." Early in 1967, Miss Dunham was appointed visiting artist in the Fine Arts Division of Southern Illinois University. She later became the university's cultural affairs consultant and Director of the newly established Performing Arts Training Center and of a facility called the Dynamic Museum.

In 1976 the multicultural museum, now at 1005 Pennsylvania Avenue in East St. Louis, was renamed the Katherine Dunham Dynamic Museum. At about the same time, the Performing Arts Training Center evolved into SIU's Katherine Dunham Center
at 411 East Broadway in East St. Louis. Financially strapped for more than a decade, it was renamed the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities in the spring of 1991.

In 1983, Miss Dunham received a Kennedy Center Honor for her long service to the arts, and in 1990 at the White House she was awarded a National Medal of Arts. In 1986, the American Dance Festival presented her with its Samuel H. Scripp Award; in 1987 the Alvin Ailey Dance Company mounted a retrospective program
titled "The Magic of Katherine Dunham"; in 1988 the French government gave Miss Dunham a Special Presentation of Prestigious Honor; in May of 1989 Miss Dunham was among the first inductees into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in the University City Loop.

In the last years of her life, Miss Dunham's finances were in disarray. In October, she moved back to her newly renovated house in East St. Louis. A $200,000 state grant helped redesign the house to accommodate her and her wheelchair. But a month later, she and a longtime assistant moved back to New York. Friends
said she had run out of money. Miss Dunham's supporters argued about whether she should live in New York or East St. Louis. She had lived since 1999 in an assisted-living apartment on the Upper West Side of New York. She needed friends such as Harry and Julie Belafonte to help pay her bills.

Friends and boards had tried to find money for Miss Dunham, her museum and her dance program, but nothing ever seemed to come though. Some suggested that Dunham close her East St. Louis museum and combine her assets in one place, such as New York. Dunham wouldn't hear of it. For Katherine, it was too difficult to say that she would close the museum and move it somewhere else. She had originally come to East St. Louis to give the community hope. How could she ever take that away?"

Just recently, supporters say, Miss Dunham's finances finally appeared to be more in order. Planners put together a large celebration for Miss Dunham's 97th birthday at the Missouri History Museum. The event was set for next month, and included performers from The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Hispanico and Afriky Lolo.

Adapted by the Author from:
Shane Graber
Sunday, May 21, 2006

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