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Flash Review, 9-16: The Legend Continues....
Dunham Feted by de Lavallade & Co.

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2003 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Symphony Space, known for performance marathons of everything from John Cage's music to James Joyce's novels, hosted A tribute to Katherine Dunham on Friday, September 12 that kicked off a weekend devoted to memorializing her prodigious accomplishments as teacher, choreographer, anthropologist, painter, and front-line fighter in the struggle for equality for black Americans.

Steven A. Watkins, artistic director of Pangea Theatre Company, and Dr. Henry Frank, executive director of the Haitian Centers Council, joint presenters of the event, welcomed us and Miss Dunham in English and French, respectively; then, guest hosts Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee guided us through highlights of Dunham's long career and introduced the array of entertainment that filled the evening.

The concept of the script was Dunham's search for Home: Paris? Japan? Haiti? Africa? -- places where she'd made a mark, as outlined by Davis and Dee, backed by colorful murals that adorned the stage, painted on panels of picket fencing. The narration embraced performances by artists of color: Latin drummer/vocalist Angel Rodriguez and the Women of the Calabash; Dominican drummers, singers, and dancers, led by Palo Monte; Puerto Rican women's group Ya-Ya in full white skirts, who drummed, danced, and sang; Japanese flute and koto players Marco Leinhart and Mosaya; and the Ibo dancers of Haiti, a group led by the radiant, full-bodied Paulette Saint-Lot. Their "Le Duel des Ogous" with wooden swords was longer on enthusiasm than finesse.

During Act One, Edwidge Danticat, 1995 finalist for the National Book Award for "Krik? Krac!," read a passage from Dunham's memoir of Haiti, "Island Possessed," with the jejune inflection of a grad student delivering her thesis. In Act Two, performer and scholar Dr. Glory Van Scott -- who danced in Dunham's company -- recited Dunham's wrenching poem "The Babies of Biafra" with the emotional authority and vocal nuance of the talented theatrical artist she is.

Sprinkled throughout the performance, film clips -- rear-projected backwards by mistake -- of Dunham speaking and dancing in locales from Hollywood to Haiti gave us a flavor of her style and glamour, despite intermittently garbled audio. The technical component of the program was, let's say, improvisational at best: lights purposely flickered at random, a la disco, to lend "mood" to various performances; house lights accidentally flashed on and off at odd moments; microphones squealed and faded; but such distractions hardly dampened the festive spirit of the audience.

The first half of the show ended with the highpoint of the evening, an improvisational duet by Winton Marsalis with his quartet and Carmen de Lavallade (a frequent dancing partner of this writer), recruited for her dance celebrity and supreme elegance rather than for any actual artistic connection to Dunham. However, in her bright red outfit, fluttering an opalescent Japanese fan, de Lavallade, and tuxedoed Marsalis, earned a standing ovation. De Lavallade's sensuous, teasingly understated dancing to Marsalis's vibrant, virtuosic trumpeting carried us away.

Regrettably, the program was finally hijacked by Marie Brooks, who studied with Dunham and now is known for her Pan-Caribbean Dance Company, a troupe of a dozen-plus teenage girls from the African Diaspora, whom she trains in good manners and cultural pride, along with dancing. Her introduction rambled through the inadequacy of America's educational system and its unrelenting racism to her personal triumphs, being crowned an honorary African princess, on and on, until someone backstage shoved her young dancers onstage to begin.

When they'd finished their impassioned routine -- a dance called "Hope," punctuated with primal screams and emotional tantrums -- Brooks returned to insist that each of her dancers introduce herself with a short autobiography to Miss Dunham, sitting in the first row -- the soul of patience. Despite its lengthiness, the evening paid fitting homage to the wide-spread influence on the music and dance of the Diaspora that this African-American cultural ambassador and artistic creator has had. Now in her 95th year, we're happy she could be there to reap the love and respect.

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