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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Katherine Dunham: Choreographic Innovator 1909-2006

GIRL6's report continues:
After 1967 Ms Dunham, herself, lived most of each year in predominantly black East St. Louis, Ill., where she struggled to bring the arts to a Mississippi River city of burned-out buildings and high crime.She set up an eclectic compound of artists from around the globe, including Harry Belafonte. Among the free classes offered were dance, African hair braiding and woodcarving, conversational Creole, Spanish, French and Swahili and more traditional subjects such as aesthetics and social science.Martial arts training is also offered. Dunham had hopes of getting young, angry males off the street. Her purpose, she said, was to steer the residents of East St. Louis "into something more constructive than genocide."

"It's embarrassing to be an American," Dunham said in 1992 when she made headlines during her 47 day hunger strike to protest U.S. policy that repatriated Haitian refugees.

Ms. Dunham was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1983, and she was named one of the first 100 of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition in 2001.

Also,in 2001 the Library of Congress of the United States announced it had received a $1 million grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to support a two-year program to support the Katherine Dunham Legacy Project at the Library of Congress. The purpose of the project was to purchase the Katherine Dunham archives; to preserve materials that document and augment the Dunham legacy; and to expand educational programs.

In her later years, she depended on grants and the kindness of celebrities, like Will Smith and Harry Belafonte, artists and former students to help pay for her day-to-day expenses.

According to Charlotte Ottley, executive liaison for the organization that preserves her artistic estate, Dunham died Sunday at the Manhattan assisted living facility where she lived. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Katherine Dunham was married to theater designer John Thomas Pratt for 49 years before his death in 1986.

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Katherine Dunham: An American Dancer And Choreographer 1909-2006

GIRL6 has more on the life of a cultural giant:

Katherine Dunham, born in Glen Ellyn, Ill., an American dancer and choreographer who is best known for her pioneering choreography based on African American, Caribbean, West African and South American sources. As a young dancer and student at the University of Chicago, she became interested in anthropology and eventually pursued studies in both dance and anthropology. She received a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship to study the dance forms of the Caribbean, spending time in Jamaica and Haiti. Ms. Dunham’s fieldwork helped develop a now recognized sub discipline of anthropology and also led to Ms. Dunham’s own understanding—both intellectual and kinesthetic—of the African roots of black dance in the West Indies. From that beginning, she began to develop for herself the first African American “serious” dance technique.
( Dunham circa 1946 "Bal Negre" )
Upon her return to the United States, Ms. Dunham went to New York to perform and choreograph the new type of American Black dance that she was creating. Her work was well received, and in 1947 she created the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts Inc. She continued to refine her technique and to expand her choreography, transmitting that body of knowledge to succeeding generations of dance students.

Dunham's New York studio attracted illustrious students like Marlon Brando and James Dean who came to learn the "Dunham Technique," which Dunham herself explained as "more than just dance or bodily executions. It is about movement, forms, love, hate, death, life, all human emotions."

In 1964 Ms. Dunham became an artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University and then professor and director of the Performing Arts Training Center there. She continued to teach the Dunham technique to young dancers and she opened the Dunham Museum in East St. Louis, Illinois, where she brought an awareness of Haitian and African art to area residents. (more on Dunham...next post)

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Katherine Dunham: Dancer, Choreographer, Civil Rights Activist Dead at Age 96

Here's a report from GIRL6 on the death of a legend:
(photo credit: Mike van Sleen)
Katherine Dunham, a dancer, choreographer, civil rights activist, and author whose work has had major national and international impact, died on Sunday. She was 96.

Katherine Dunham was best known for bringing African and Caribbean influences to the European-dominated dance world. In the late 1930s, she established the nation's first self-supporting all-black modern dance group.

During her career Ms Dunham choreographed "Aida" for the Metropolitan Opera and musicals such as "Cabin in the Sky" for Broadway. She also appeared in several films, including "Stormy Weather" and "Carnival of Rhythm."

Her dance company toured internationally from the 1940s to the '60s, visiting 57 nations on six continents. Her success was won in the face of widespread discrimination, a struggle Dunham championed by refusing to perform at segregated theaters.

For her endeavors, Dunham received 10 honorary doctorates, the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Albert Schweitzer Prize at the Kennedy Center Honors, and membership in the French Legion of Honor, as well as major honors from Brazil and Haiti.

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