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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
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.
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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