THE MAGIC OF KATHERINE DUNHAM
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
at the Auditorium Theatre
April 13-15, 1988
An evening spent with Katherine Dunham–whose works the Alvin Ailey troupe revived this season–is vibrant, boisterously theatrical, and subtly disturbing. We can’t see with the fresh eyes of 40 or 50 years ago (these dances were first choreographed as early as 1937, as late as 1950), but we can imagine how new these dances must have looked then, what an infusion they were to an emerging American dance scene.
Dunham, an anthropologist as well as a dancer, drew heavily on African and Afro-Caribbean folk dance, even in her “American” dances, more or less creating the Afro-American tradition that is Alvin Ailey’s heritage. But Dunham did more than simply graft a few exotic elements onto the Western traditions of ballet and modern dance. Her dances not only blend African and Western traditions but ruminate on their differences. And nowhere is the distinction between these two forms, these two cultures so apparent as it is in the issue of control–in dance as well as in life. What does the loss of control mean? Is losing control good or bad? In our modern, Western world, is losing control possible?
The first act, an Afro-Caribbean suite of seven dances, progressed from Western emphasis on control–it began with a dance titled Adagioto Shango, an Afro-Caribbean exploration of the loss of control. To the classical strains of Albinoni, Adagio opened with five symmetrically arranged dancers at three barres–Leonard Meek, in blinding white tights, was featured at the center barre. The barres and the precise, controlled way in which the dancers performed their “exercises” all recalled the discipline ballet requires–but the moves themselves couldn’t be more different. A deft foot, extended and pointed at the audience, was quickly flexed, like a hand waving hi! The torso instead of being perpendicular to the barre paralleled it, the dancer curving backward from the waist in an arrested back flip. A leg was extended, not with the torso upright but reaching forward for the ground, chin pointing earthward, the impulse not for a right angle but a diagonal line.
Progressions continued the metaphor of the dance class, with the entire company crossing the stage imitating a “teacher” performing progressively more difficult moves. What we noticed were loose, shimmying arms and shoulders, hovering over the dancers’ controlled but expressive torsos–impelled by the torso but independent of it, connected but only minimally controlled.
From this point on, the dances became more alien, more foreign to Western traditions. Afrique (1950) seemed to parody a Western view of what “African dance” might be: an African ice queen was carried in on a platform by four men; a fifth man, a slave, bore on high a tattered parasol. While she, facing the audience, performed an understated belly dance, her whole body undulating, softly around her mesmerizing, stationary navel, her slave with the parasol, standing sideways, performed gigantic pelvic thrusts so powerful his whole upper body merely rebounded from their force, like the tail end of a whip- being cracked. Choros (1943) showed Western courtly forms overlaid on Brazilian folk dance. Nanigo (1938) featured a traditional African drummer and six male dancers. With their heads outlined by broadbrimmed hats, most of these taut young men resembled so many animate pencils; Gary DeLoatch, looking a little like a black Gene Kelly, showed the advantages of a looser, softer body with a little more play.
Los Indios (1941) violated our elitist sense of who dances and why. In this attractive, humorous piece, two itinerant Indian women, at first bent double under their burdens, responded to a boyish flute player by dancing. It wasn’t a display by the young, beautiful, and carefree for an audience but a release, a means of joyful expression for people whose lives are heavy. But although these two were called from drudgery to dance, significantly the final image was of one woman apparently descending into the earth under her burden of a chair and ratty suitcase. Dance may not be as liberating as a sentimental view implies.
Dance and life had a more ominous connection in Shango (1945), the final piece of the first act. Based in part on the rituals of religious cults in Trinidad, Haiti, and Cuba, this dance explored the fine line between religious and sexual ecstasy. But Dunham seemed more interested in the ecstatic experience itself than in the ways we might rationalize it.
In what looked like a tropical Christian church, complete with rough pews and an altar with a painting of a white saint behind it, the worshipers sacrificed a white bird; their dancing became increasingly fervent and abandoned. Finally a man (Dereque Whiturs) was taken possession of by a spirit–whether good or evil, we couldn’t tell. Despite the fact that by this point all the dancers were in frenzy, his transfigured face, his helpless twitchings and writhing, clearly showed he was the chosen one, abandoned by self and entered by God. He danced briefly on the altar, then a woman became possessed and danced on the altar, bumping her butt into the saint’s portrait. As the curtain closed, all the dancers were ecstatic, the woman still writhed on the altar, and the man was riding on and beating a gigantic cylindrical drum. There was no end, no consummation–only reverence for self-annihilation, the loss of control. The paradox, of course, was that this was controlled, a concert performed by trained dancers for our entertainment.
The second act was a dance drama in three scenes, L’Ag’Ya (1937), based on Caribbean folklore. Julot, a dispossessed rogue and outcast, descended into the underworld to obtain a charm that would win Loulouse, whom he loved, away from the man she loved, Alcide. In the process he introduced sex and death into the sunny fishing village of Vauclin. The marvelously seductive and theatrical lighting (by Tim Hunter) and sets and costumes (after designs by Dunham’s husband, John Pratt) here emphasized, in Vauclin, all that’s open and innocent and, in the underworld, all that’s murky and perverse.
This dance took shape through some bold, broad, but impressive strokes. The king of the zombies (Dudley Williams) was a combination of dervish and white man, laughing maniacally in a top hat trailing grass and a suit coat over a grass skirt. And Julot (DeLoatch) was surprisingly sympathetic as he tried to steal a little corner of the lovers’ embrace–when they weren’t looking, he laid his cheek on the top of Loulouse’s foot. But the magic charm is what was at the center of this dance. The end of the second scene, once Julot had obtained the phallus-shaped object, clearly showed that it controlled him, not the other way around: holding the charm aloft, Julot sank to his knees beneath it and then to the floor. In the third scene, when he brandished it before Loulouse (April Berry), she became like the zombies of the second scene (and like the possessed creatures in Shango): brain-dead, eyes staring sightlessly, body twitching and undulating out of control, a woman so far gone in heat that who the man is doesn’t matter. In the end she was punished. Her lover dead, Loulouse arched over his body in a parodic consummation, raising one long, strong, quivering leg to heaven. She’d exchanged the self-annihilation of sex for the self-annihilation of grief.
The third act, a suite of Dunham’s American dances, was lively and attractive but rather empty. Based mostly on American folk dance–square dances, nightclub dancing, the cakewalk, among others–these dances seemed repressed and staid after the first two acts. I guess we pay a price for control; and yet there are pleasures in distance and restraint. Barrelhouse–a clear audience favorite the night I was there–featured Renee Robinson and Andre Tyson as two young, urban blacks on the make. Their mating dance had a humorous edge, an assumed cover of nonchalance and sophistication over a real hunger. In the dance’s coda, a gum-cracking Robinson, avid and bored, rolled her eyes at Tyson, inviting him to a second chance; when he walked, off, she shrugged her shoulders and, with one disappointed glance, walked off too.
We saw a little of that amused resignation in Dunham herself, who took a bow at the end along with the Ailey dancers. Now 78, of course she can’t match the miraculous physical energy of these remarkable performers, but her face showed all the pleasure of performing as she shuffled and swayed briefly to the music. Then she stood with an amused smile, hands on hips, and watched the curtain come down.