Katherine Dunham


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(b Chicago, 22 Jun. 1912; d New York, 21 May 2006)

US dancer, teacher, choreographer, and director who helped establish African-American dance as an international theatre form. She studied anthropology, specializing in dance at the University of Chicago, and took dance classes locally, making her major professional debut in Page's La Guillablesse in 1933. After a period of dance research in the West Indies (1937–8) she returned to Chicago to work for the Federal Theatre Project, and was then appointed director of dance for the New York Labor Stage in 1939, choreographing movement for plays and musicals. In 1940 she presented her own programme of work, Tropics and Le Jazz Hot—from Haiti to Harlem, with a specially assembled company. This launched her career as a choreographer. In the same year she and her company danced in the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky (chor. Balanchine), after which she moved to Hollywood to dance and choreograph for various films including Carnival of Rhythm (1942) and Stormy Weather (1943). She developed her own style of black revues, designed by her husband John Pratt, with which she toured the US. These productions, such as Carib Song, Bal Negère, and later Bamboche, included full-scale ballets that were based on her anthropological research, including Rites de Passage (1943) and Chôros (1943, revived Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, 1972) as well as numbers based on popular dance forms. The combination of theatrical dance, vivid costumes, and traditional music won a huge audience for African-American dance while the school she opened in 1945 in New York, which taught ballet, modern, and Afro-Cuban dance, trained a generation of black dancers to follow her. In 1963 she choreographed the New York Metropolitan Opera House production of Aida, and between 1965 and 1966 was technical cultural adviser to the President and the Minister of Cultural Affairs in Senegal. She was subsequently appointed director of the Performing Arts Training Center at Southern Illinois University, East St Louis. She was author of Katherine Dunham's Journey to Accompong (New York, 1946) and the autobiographical A Touch of Innocence (London, 1959). In 1987 the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater staged fourteen of her works in a programme titled The Magic of Katherine Dunham.

Subjects: Dance.

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