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Flash Report, 4-30: Black Sunshine
Dunham, and children, feted in France

By Catherine Monnig Levine
Copyright 2009 Catherine Monnig Levine

PANTIN (Seine-Saint-Denis), France -- I've been living in Paris since September, right off the boat from New York City. Exploring the Parisian dance scene has been enlightening but also a little daunting. So many new choreographers and companies performing in venues I've never heard of. The Centre Pompidou, the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, and the Theatre National de Chaillot with its spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower -- all new to me. Now I have another venue to add to the list, and an important one: the Centre National de la Danse, which earlier this month took me out past the far reaches of the 19th arrondissement, farther than I'm used to from the 6th, to check out a mini-festival on the origins of African-American dance. After a two-metro train trip and a walk several blocks down the rue Hoche with the Paris street map grasped tightly in hand, I arrived at my destination.

The new home of the publicly-funded Centre National de la Danse opened in 2004. The city of Pantin, right outside the Paris city limits, renovated a municipal building and adapted it to the needs of the CND. The result is an impressive building with 11 dance studios, a media center with over 20,000 videos and photos, space for conferences and lectures, exhibit areas, spaces for artists to meet and exchange information, and a restaurant. In essence, a place where dance is supported and nurtured so that it will live on into the future. Could it be that the French have an opposite approach towards dance to the one we have in the U.S.?

The CND has presented, over the past several years, performances, residencies, exhibitions and conferences covering ballet, contemporary, and ethnic dance. From April 1 through 6 it celebrated the origins of Black contemporary dance with a series of performances, presentations, conferences, and open classes. Entitled Soleils noirs, continents partages (Black suns, divided or shared continents), the event emphasized the struggles these Black artists encountered making a place for themselves in the American contemporary dance arena, creating their own artistic identities as choreographers and dancers and contributing to the field of contemporary dance with the development of new techniques, works and performances. The festival also demonstrated how living in an age of racial discrimination and inequality, these artists used their art as a form to express the injustices of the time in which they lived and created a platform for change.

Dancing with the Gods

The mini-festival opened April 1 with performances by the James Carles Company, working with Funmi Adewole to present work by Katherine Dunham. The evening was dubbed danser avec les dieux (to dance with the gods), referring to Dunham's use of Caribbean culture and religion in her work. This performance was in the CND's beautiful Grand Studio, and with a packed house was a perfect setting for viewing dance. An intimate theater space with approximately 150 seats, it gave every member of the audience a good view.

Program for Katherine Dunham and her Company from and copyright Hurok Productions, Inc., 1943-1944 / DR. Courtesy Centre National de la Danse.

Katherine Dunham started the ball rolling for Black contemporary dance by fusing ballet, modern dance technique and African and Caribbean elements into her choreography. An anthropologist and choreographer, Dunham traveled to the Caribbean in the 1930s to study the dances and rituals of the people there. She later appeared on and choreographed for the stage in musicals (including the 1941 "Cabin in the Sky," co-choreographed with Balanchine), and choreographed for and performed on film, notably the 1943 Black all-star "Stormy Weather." In this performance, we could see a spectrum of her styles in the works presented: "Barrelhouse Blues," a jazzy, sexy, theatrical piece; "Choros," a lively, ballet-based dance with lush, Caribbean-flavored music; and "Rites of Passage," based on tribal rituals using Dunham's modern technique, a work so sexy that it was banned in Boston when it first came out. The performance ended with "Shango," again based on tribal ritual, and which builds in intensity through rhythmic, repetitive chanting. One man becomes possessed by a spirit and really lets loose on stage along with the rest of the dancers. To appear to lose control of your body on stage while you are, in fact, in control of your body is no small feat. So I would like to mention Kehinde Awaiye for his remarkable performance as the garcon possédé.

Dunham was remarkable not only as a dancer and choreographer, but also as a political activist. She stood up to the racial prejudice of the times by such acts as refusing to sign a contract with a film producer who wanted her to cut some of the dancers from her troupe whose skin was 'too dark,' or announcing in a Louisville theater after a successful performance that her troupe would not return until the theater's practice of audience segregation was abolished. However, perhaps the jewel in Dunham's activist crown was her move to East St. Louis in the 1960s to live and work. Through her teachings at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois, she saw the devastation of East St. Louis, one of the worst ghettos at the time in the United States, and she decided to do something about it. By moving her home there and opening the Performing Arts Training Center, she reached out to the people of the city by providing classes in dance and the humanities, to young and old alike.

Homage to Eleo Pomare

In another presentation of the festival, an Homage to Eleo Pomare, Dyane Harvey, a long time soloist with his company, presented through lecture and a film the life and works of Pomare, who died last August at age 70. He was born in Colombia but raised in the U.S., where he attended the High School of Performing Arts. Harvey told us that Pomare's expressiveness on stage came from his original desire to be an actor. From that came the strong use of arms and torso in his movement to sometimes show intensity and anger. He came to be considered a rebel through his work. An example of this is his signature piece "Narcissus Rising," in which he portrays a motorcyclist in a black leather jacket and briefs, rising over an invisible bike. A large poster of Pomare from this piece was displayed on the second floor of the CND. He had gone to Europe in his earlier years, but returned to the U.S., drawn by the civil rights movement. Many of his works reflected his political activism, fighting racial oppression and injustice. In the '60s, he performed his work on flatbed trucks in Harlem. His company in New York continues to perform his oeuvre.

Spirit dances

In a second performance event, the James Carles Company and Funmi Adewole offered a program of Danse de l'esprit, highlighting work by Asadata Dafora, Pearl Primus and Talley Beatty.

Dafora's solo "Ostriche" is based on the movements of animals. Dafora studied dance in Sierra Leone and Europe before coming to the U.S. in the '20s and forming an African troupe of performers, Shogola Oloba. He made significant choreographic contributions to the field of dance by creating a new, native African dance genre.

In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," we saw a work choreographed by Primus based on a poem by Langston Hughes about the conditions of Blacks in the cotton fields. This was followed by a choreographic re-creation of an African wedding ceremony in "The Wedding." Primus was similar to Katherine Dunham in that she was a dancer, choreographer and anthropologist. Born in Trinidad and raised in the U.S., she returned to the Caribbean to study dance and went on to form her own company in the U.S. in the 1940s. She was renowned as a performer of great daring and energy, as she could make leaps of up to five feet in the air.

In "Mourner's Bench," Talley Beatty deals with the oppression of the Black community through a solo with a simple wooden bench. Beatty was a student of Katherine Dunham and eventually performed in her company in the 1940s. After leaving her troupe, he toured California with another ex-Dunham dancer, Janet Collins. There the pair assumed Spanish-sounding names to conceal that they were Black performers. Beatty later went on to form his own company and had a long collaboration with Duke Ellington in the 1950s and '60s. In addition, he choreographed for many other companies including Boston Ballet, Ballet Hispanico and Israel's Batsheva.

Donald McKayle in his "Rainbow Round My Shoulder" in 1963. Photo by Normand Maxon, copyright Donald McKayle, and courtesy Centre National de la Danse.

From McKayle to Brown

In CND's Studio 3, the Rick Odums and Geraldine Armstrong companies presented the Black Dance Project, featuring work from Donald McKayle, Eleo Pomare and Ronald K. Brown.

Donald McKayle began dancing in high school in the 1940s, inspired by a Pearl Primus performance. His powerful 1959 "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," based on the experiences and dreams of freedom of men on a chain gang, and set to field recordings of them, started off this program. In Studio 3, the audience was seated more informally on padded benches and cushions on the floor. There were only about four or five rows of audience seating, again packed, but allowing everyone to be quite close to the stage area. This added to the impact of McKayle's piece, as the male company members performed his powerhouse movement so close to us. Equally effective were the lushness and lyricism of the one female dancer in the piece, Cathy Grouet.

Pomare's "Roots and Hex," consisting of two solos, the first for a woman and the second for a man, deals with themes of persecution, suppression of freedom and what it means to be Black in today's world. Finishing out the program was Brown's "For Truth," a high energy, eclectic dance that combined traditional African and contemporary and urban moves.

In addition to the performances and presentations, there was more to take part in at this CND mini-festival. Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, Katherine Dunham's daughter, and Rachel Tavernier gave an open class in Dunham technique. Visitors were able to watch videos of works by other Black artists at terminals set up throughout the center. An exhibition focused on a spectrum of major Black artists, from the Nicholas Brothers to Ralph Lemon and Rennie Harris. The CND collaborated with the Cinematheque de la Danse on the final evening to end the festival with a screening of Free To Dance (Part 3), a documentary produced by the American Dance Festival and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

It was, of course, a little ironic that I had to come to France to learn more about some of these artists than I ever learned in the U.S.. I had taken dance history classes in the 1970s as a dance major at Washington University in St. Louis -- just across the Mississippi River from Katherine Dunham's center for dance in East St. Louis, Illinois. Oddly, nobody running the dance department at that time ever invited Dunham over to teach or lecture. We had many guest teachers from companies like those of Cunningham, Murray Louis, Phyllis Lamhut, Erick Hawkins and Dan Wagonner. But sadly, no Dunham.

I was surprised to discover that the two companies that performed in this event were French. Rick Odums, originally from the U.S., now has a school in Paris. And James Carles's center is in Toulouse. I assumed, at first site, that the performers must have a connection to the Alvin Ailey Center in New York, as that is one of the few schools that offer these kinds of techniques (specifically Dunham). So it felt a little odd to see American dance with very few American representatives on site (with the exception of Dyane Harvey and possibly Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, who was born in France and adopted by Dunham, living most of her life outside the U.S.). All events were very well attended, if not sold out. The CND's action-packed festival proved to be a hit with the French. And for this American, I hope to be back to the CND for more in the future.

Catherine Monnig Levine has been a dancer and choreographer, and worked as an arts administrator for many years. She was director of programming and production at the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies and managing director for Joffrey II and American Ballet Theatre II. She most recently served as the executive director of Movement Research. She has a home in New York and an apartment in Paris and enjoys seeing a lot of dance in both cities.

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