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Enduring, like her effect

It's impossible to imagine modern dance without black influences or, for many, to imagine black dance without Katherine Dunham, now 96.

March 26, 2006|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

New York — KATHERINE Dunham's gifts to dance history stare out from vintage black-and-white photographs on the walls of her New York apartment. Here's a teenager with the face of an angel and the fierce gaze of a sharecropper's daughter who escaped the South Carolina cotton fields and was hellbent on becoming the sultry Dunham sensation called Eartha Kitt. Here's Julie Robinson, who broke down in tears at her role in Dunham's 1950 piece "Southland," as a poor white woman who causes the lynching of a kindhearted black laborer she falsely blamed for a white man's sexual assault.

Here's Alvin Ailey, who was a teenager in 1945 when Dunham's Tropical Revue swept through Los Angeles, and "the seeds were planted right then and there" for his calling, he said -- in an era when black Americans weren't welcome at many performance venues.

And here is a young, glamorous Dunham, who started what Dance Magazine called a "one-woman revolution," founding America's first black modern dance company and bringing African American movements to the front door of the modern dance academy. Taken in her heyday, the photo shows her posed in the highly formal, yet decidedly urban Dunham Technique, a way of moving rooted in her studies of African diaspora dance, which she taught to up-and-comers like James Dean and that left its mark on everyone from George Balanchine to Jose Limon and Marlon Brando.

"I was quite taken with her, because I'd never seen the African influence in dance with that kind of strength and artistic power. It impacted my soul," says actor and singer Harry Belafonte, who first saw Dunham in New York in the 1940s. "No one had reached those heights. She was the definitive black dance company. She moved among the highest intellectuals of black culture, all the writers and painters and literary folk."

Today it's impossible to imagine modern dance without these influences. "Dunham brought to audiences, other artists and students an array of movement possibilities that had not been seen or used before in contemporary dance," writes dance historian John Perpener in "African-American Concert Dance."

But "for a long time when people told the story of modern dance, the genealogy went from Isadora Duncan to Martha Graham to Merce Cunningham," says Maxine Craig, a sociology professor at Cal State East Bay. "There was no acknowledgment of Dunham."

That's been changing. A 2000 article in Dance Magazine trumpeted that "All roads lead to Katherine Dunham. Well, not all," it qualified, saying that Dunham should be credited for being "the first American dancer to present indigenous forms on a concert stage, the first to sustain a black dance company, the first black person to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera."

Several new books about Dunham suggest she was simply too far ahead of her time. Her fusion of intellect, charisma and sensuality left lesser minds scrambling to come up with terms, often demeaning, to pigeonhole a black woman who was an accomplished University of Chicago anthropologist and author and a groundbreaking dancer so successful her legs were once insured.

Newspaper headlines, like "Torridity to Anthropology," were glibly uncomprehending: Was she "an intelligent anthropologist of note" or "the hottest thing on Broadway?" "Cool Scientist or Sultry Performer?" "Schoolmarm Turned Siren?" Or perhaps, most revealingly: "High Priestess of Jive."

"When you start dealing with the kinds of facets of a person who is truly interdisciplinary, you don't know where to put them," says VeVe A. Clark, co-editor of a 700-page anthology of writings by and about Dunham, "Kaiso!" "And if the person happens to be black and a woman, you have to wait for the world to catch up with her."

"It's one thing to do all the things she did, but to do them all so well," adds co-editor Sara Johnson, an assistant professor of comparative literature at UC San Diego.

Dunham might best be described as an unstoppable cultural movement, one that has enriched lives wherever she's landed. Black Entertainment Television's Reginald Hudlin, a child protege at Dunham's then-cultural center in East St. Louis, Ill., says her mentoring helped get him to Harvard and his brother to Yale.

Perhaps the life of this self-invented artist has been just too big for people to get their minds around.

Ask Dunham about how her dance studies led to her ordination as a Haitian priestess, or mambo, of the African-rooted religion she would write about in "Island Possessed." "I felt such a connection," Dunham, a serene-faced 96, says in her New York apartment, surrounded by Haitian paintings and African sculptures. "To go to Haiti and be a part of it was beyond my wildest dreams."

Ask her about her long, intellectually rich friendship with Erich Fromm, the author of "The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness," a definitive work on fascism. "We were very much in love," Dunham begins languidly, with a faraway look and a beatific smile.

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