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Dances of Sorrow, Dances of Hope : The work of Pearl Primus finds a natural place in a special program of historic modern dances for women. Primus' 1943 work 'Strange Fruit' leaped over the boundaries of what was then considered 'black dance'

April 24, 1994|DAVID GERE | David Gere is a staff critic at the San Francisco Chronicle and also teaches at UCLA

Southern trees bear a strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black body swinging in the Southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees . . .

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It's a fine day in New York in the wartime 1940s, and choreographer Pearl Primus is discussing poetry over lunch with blues singer Billie Holiday and lyricist Lewis Allan. Allan is chattering with animation about his poem "Strange Fruit," reciting lines Holiday herself has made famous in her baleful vocal rendition of the poem and which Primus, separately, has incorporated as the narration for a dance.

Having been silent through much of the lunch, Holiday finally reveals herself through the stricken expression that has spread across her face. And then it dawns on Primus that, until this very moment, Holiday has known nothing of what the poem is about, certainly not that it evokes the pain of African Americans in an era when lynching was still considered by some as appropriate for an "uppity" black.

" 'What do you think it's talking about?' " an incredulous Primus recalls asking Holiday, who was four years her senior and whom she considered both a mentor and a friend. "Of course, Lewis Allan just laughed. Black body swaying in the Southern breeze. Billie just didn't get that. You never heard of Billie having anything to do with any protest. That was not part of her."

Holiday may have been naive about the meaning of Allan's poem. But the same could not be said of Primus nor of those second-generation modern dance choreographers of the 1930s and '40s whose work will be featured this week in a program titled "Weeping Women in Dance: Classic American Solos" at the Leo S. Bing Theater of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The program is being organized by Bonnie Oda Homsey as a project of the newly revived Los Angeles Dance Theatre.

Seven solos will be featured in performances by Homsey, company co-director Janet Eilber, former Jose Limon soloist Risa Steinberg and Cal State Long Beach dance faculty member Michele Simmons.

Martha Graham's 1937 "Deep Song" is a scream of protest against the fascists in Spain. It has been called Graham's "Weeping Woman," a reference to the Picasso painting of 1937 that forms the centerpiece of LACMA's current gallery show.

Jane Dudley's 1944 "Cante Flamenco" is an homage to the women's movement that arose during the Spanish Civil War. Eleanor King's "Wrath" deals with the violent rage that accompanied the start of World War II. And Anna Sokolow's "Kaddish," created in 1948, at war's end, is built upon the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning. (Earlier works of anger and grief--Isadora Duncan's 1907 "Furies" and Graham's 1930 "Lamentation"--will also be performed.)

Primus is arguably the most political choreographer of the lot, or, at the very least, the most attuned to the issues of African Americans during the period between the two world wars. The year 1943 witnessed not only her performance debut but the creation of more than a dozen new works.

Many of those works concerned the problems of poor blacks. In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," based on the Langston Hughes poem, Primus depicts the plight of post-slavery African Americans working in chain gangs or in the cotton fields. "Jim Crow Train," from another Hughes poem, "Freedom Train," deals with segregation:

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I hope there ain't no Jim Crow on the Freedom Train

No back door entrance to the Freedom Train,

No signs FOR COLORED on the Freedom Train,

No WHITE FOLKS ONLY on the Freedom Train.

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In addition to a number of legendary dances that celebrated African heritage, Primus produced other dances of social concern as well, notably "Slave Market" (1944), "To One Dead" (1946) and a dance based on a spiritual, "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" (1946).

None, however, was as searing as the 1943 "Strange Fruit," which depicts the anguish of a white woman who had witnessed a lynching and who subsequently was filled with regret. And no dance was as radical in extending the boundaries of what was considered to be "black dance," for in "Strange Fruit," Primus danced the role of the white woman herself.

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At 74, Primus appears so energized in rehearsal that it is easy to imagine her dancing "Strange Fruit" again, right now, on command. At the side of the rehearsal studio at Scripps College in Altadena, she sits squarely in a folding chair, shoes off, her body wrapped in volumes of green-and-maroon African textiles that make her small form seem much larger than it is. Only the gnarled hands with which she directs dancer Michele Simmons convey any sense of age or infirmity.

"You have to 'earth' that run more," she exhorts Simmons, who is struggling not only to learn the steps from a videotaped performance by Kim Y. Bears, a dancer with the Philadelphia-based Philadanco dance company, but to anchor them with the firm, grounded quality Primus prefers. (Etymologists take note: Primus may be the only choreographer in America to use earth as a verb.)

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