Book Review – Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora
by Joanna Dee Das, published by Oxford University Press, released June 2017
Yerba Buena Gardens Festival ChoreoFest 2017
Yerba Buena, San Francisco
Joe Goode Performance Group – 30th Anniversary Season
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
June 9th – Imagine sitting with a group of pre-professional dance students and asking for a show of hands of who had heard Katherine Dunham’s name before. I think most hands would go up, indicating a familiarity with or recognition of Dunham. But “to what extent” is the more interesting question. Had they studied Dunham technique or do they just know of her name? Had they read biographies of Dunham or just heard her mentioned in an introductory undergraduate or conservatory dance history seminar? Had they written a paper on this important figure or read one paragraph in a textbook? Had they had the opportunity to actually see some of her choreography, whether on film or in a reconstruction? While this scene is certainly hypothetical, chances are, unless these young students had encountered a Dunham scholar, expert or enthusiast at some point in their training, their exposure to her had likely been limited to brief discussions that could not even begin to cover Dunham’s broad and rich story, her process and choreography or her personal and professional missions. But a much fuller picture is attainable by looking to writings like Joanna Dee Das’ new book, Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora.
Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora takes the reader on a captivating journey, chronicling with expert and thorough detail the life and work of African American dance legend Katherine Dunham. An artist; an activist; a pioneering spirit; an advocate for racial and social justice; an explorer that thirsted for knowledge and understanding – Dee Das successfully and eloquently introduces a multi-faceted woman to her audience. A woman of incomparable talent, who was unafraid of challenge and provocation. A woman who sought to transcend expectations and assumptions in performance, in the studio and in everyday exchanges. And, a woman who was indeed complex and complicated.
In eight chapters (plus an epilogue), Dee Das touches on the varied aspects that combined into Dunham’s larger narrative: the intersection of art and activism throughout her life; the artistic desire of creation and construction; multiple research expeditions fueled by a deep longing to fully live into the African Diaspora, including a vital, lifelong connection with Haiti; scholarly pursuit of fields like anthropology and ethnography; as well as an extensive repertory review of Dunham’s vast choreographic archives. Informational gems, told through Dee Das’ compelling prose, leap from the book’s pages. Chapter Two’s mention of Dunham’s thoughts on the solar plexus as an integral point of articulation in the body, her experience in Hollywood in the 1940s, her links with other dance icons and the breakdown of her Rites de Passage piece.
Midway through Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora, Dee Das charts the establishment of the Katherine Dunham School of Dance, later changing its name to the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre, and its decade of broad, holistic (a word which Dee Das specifically uses in the epilogue to describe Dunham) curriculum. The Dunham Company’s international tours are outlined as are an array of responses and reactions to her choreography and work from friends, colleagues, company dancers and critics. Accounts of financial challenges and charged institutional/bureaucratic obstacles abound, all scored by Dunham’s tenacious, unyielding drive. Particularly poignant is the final chapter of the book relaying Dunham’s time in East St. Louis, Illinois. Here, the reader encounters how Dunham helped to transform a racially, socially, economically fractured population through community activism, political engagement and youth arts initiatives. Yet the message that is so plainly and vulnerably revealed in these pages is that one of the most powerful transformations from the relationships forged and the infrastructure built in that place was within Dunham herself. And while fifty years in the past, this chapter significantly speaks to the present day.
Incredibly well-researched and fully cited, Dee Das manages to avoid some of the pitfalls that can plague academic tomes – hers is a very readable, accessible volume (it still surprises me how many academic books are not, seeing as how they should be trying to educate and share information) and has a winning convergence of biography and analysis. Because of her comprehensive approach, the book is well suited to study within a number of disciplines – dance/performance studies, to be sure, but also gender studies, history, sociology, cultural anthropology, as just a few examples. And reaching a broader audience matters, even when it comes to academic writing.
June 10th – Many dancemakers take advantage of the summer months to take their work al fresco, offering site-specific performances in alternative, natural settings or on outdoor stages. This is also true in the Bay Area, though outside performances, even summer ones, can be a bit risky in San Francisco – warmer weather and a cooperative climate are never a guarantee, to be sure. That being said, sometimes the stars align and this past weekend at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival was one of those moments. Gorgeous weather, outstanding choreography, and uplifting dancing was on the menu at ChoreoFest 2017, a three-day performing arts event held in and around Yerba Buena, expertly curated by Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein, co-Artistic Directors of RAWdance. I was fortunate to catch the middle offering on Saturday afternoon, featuring three premiere works and one encore from 2016.
Opening the program in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum was RAWdance’s haunting, stunning Requiem, choreographed by Rein, Smith and Katerina Wong. Costumed in navy and wearing black sheer blindfolds, a trio cycled through a slow, meticulous, meditative phrase, with their backs to the audience. A range of small and large movements unfolded – from a single palm rising to the sky to developpés in parallel second to huge grand rond de jambes ending in arabesque. This first statement morphed into a larger ensemble as dancer after dancer walked with purpose and strength into the scene; an openness and calmness surging in every step, almost with a Tai chi like sensibility. Both vulnerability and a deliberate spirit sang through the space as solar plexuses ascended upward. And countertechnique lifts and balances added loft, breath and a community spirit to the work.
While introspectiveness abounded during Requiem, a somber note was also very present, especially as the dancers peered out through the sheer black masks. And the movement contained moments of fracture. Long extensions of the leg would suddenly break at the knee or at the hip and poses would purposefully collapse. But quickly these instances of fracture would morph into something different and choreographically transcend into the expanse. Because I arrived right as the performance was starting, I didn’t read the program notes until after the performance finished. Only then did I learn that this striking work was titled Requiem, and it was a remembrance for the forty-nine souls violently taken a year ago at Pulse in Orlando. A response, a tribute and also an example of the inherent healing power within dance – if you have a chance to see this work, take it.
The crowd made its way across the street and settled just outside the Yerba Buena Forum space for dawsondancesf’s hold fast to dreams, a new trio from Gregory Dawson. Danced by Erik Debono, Frankie Lee Peterson III and Jacob Williams, the piece started with the three leaning against a sculpture. A series of percussive hand gestures and arm sequences brought the trio away from and back to their starting position, after which they slowly walked down the length of the building until reaching a corner boundary. Some of the first movements recurred in this new place, but this time, growing and developing. Debono, Peterson and Williams hugged the structure, making different points of contact with the driving choreographic phrase material, some partnering, some unison, cluster shapes and even parkour-like leaps. And as the pas de trois continued, a physical essay on perspective and assumptions arose. What happens when a wall becomes the floor? What movement is possible when we flip our expectations? How does choreography read when it is performed against surfaces, rather than being framed or contained by them?
Just outside the Yerba Buena Theater for the Arts was the locale for Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations’ Still Life No. 6, the third premiere on the Saturday afternoon program, choreographed and performed by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg, with live cello accompaniment by Shanna Sordahl. In brightly colored, long-sleeve, high neck unitards, the pair shared an artistic mélange with the viewer, one combining deep creative process and choreographic specificity. Small reflexive movements repeated in the shoulders, fingertips and bouncing knees. Swinging arms reflected accumulation and diminution compositional devices as well as changes in intensity and dynamics. Attention to detail was everywhere in the excerpted work, be it in directional facings, the axis of the body, the use of stillness, and of course in the gestures and movements themselves. Such clarity and definition in every second, like the difference between the palms lying flat on the ground as opposed to resting on the knuckles.
As Still Life No. 6 reached its last third, Simpson and Stulberg moved away from the central performing square and towards an adjacent wall for a handstand series. Next the duo weaved through the audience, themselves sharing a text excerpt and then inviting audience members to continue with the text while they returned to their original performance space. In the program, there is a note that the work “…draws various elements found in Doris Salcedo’s installation piece Plegaria Muda.” Part of SFMOMA’s collection, this particular piece is a grouping of bench structures with sprouting greenery, arranged throughout a room. You walk through it, deciding how much time to linger in one spot, which benches to view and in what order. And so, there is an opportunity to be immersed within Salcedo’s installation. I felt like a similar immersive experience was evolving in this final section of the dance. And one recurring physical motif throughout Still Life No. 6 had me mesmerized. At several points, Simpson and Stulberg nodded and shook their head, looking to the surface of the ground, and almost charting a path or a line. I wondered, did this represent the greenery growth in Salcedo’s work? Or was it the path that you take when viewing Plegaria Muda? Perhaps it was something entirely different. I’m certainly looking forward to considering these questions again.
For the last piece, we transitioned to the middle of the garden space for The Movemessenger(s) in 2016’s Hummingbird, choreography by Angela Dice Nguyen. A rumbling electronic score with voice text sang through the open air. Into the space, dancers Hien Huynh, Cooper Neely and Linda Phung offered contemporary physical movement, heavily inspired by martial arts vocabulary: giant jumps and dives, sliding on the grass and powerful, deep pliés. With a winning combination of highly athletic choreography and a profoundly tender approach, Hummingbird felt narrative to me. Not linear, but conceptually driven. The notion of a hummingbird was present throughout, with literal motifs, like fluttering, pulsating and vibrating alongside more abstracted flight imagery and partnering. A lovely coupling of groundedness and suspension spanned the dance, which finished with dramatic Limón swings, interspersed with parallel jumps. And while completely coincidental, the low-flying birds that made multiple passes over the performance space during Hummingbird definitely added to the experience.
June 23rd – Before heading to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater to catch Joe Goode Performance Group’s thirtieth anniversary program, I decided to look up the gifts that have historically marked three decades. My search yielded two primary results – pearl (traditional) and diamond (modern). So then, I started to list some common descriptors for these two stones. “Pearl” brought to mind things like rare, smooth and timeless, whereas “diamond” conjured strength, sparkle and faceted. And with diamonds, there was also the additional characteristic, as an oft symbol of long-term commitment – certainly apt considering that the evening commemorated thirty years of Artistic Director Joe Goode’s creative innovation and boundary-pushing art. All of these properties and qualities were present in Friday night’s winsome bill, the first half comprised of excerpts from four past works (2004’s Grace, 2011’s Rambler, 2009’s Wonderboy and 1991’s Remembering the Pool at the Best Western) followed by the company’s newest endeavor, Nobody Lives Here Now.
When I think of the term “rare,” the synonyms “distinct” and “unique” also immediately pop up, and each offering on the program lived up to those words. From the intense physicality of Grace, to the vocally driven Rambler, to the puppetry and storytelling in Wonderboy, to the realm straddling, emotionally charged Remembering the Pool at the Best Western, to the dance theater opus Nobody Lives Here Now, each piece distinguished itself as rare and exceptional. The transitions between the first four excerpts were the epitome of smooth – one morphed into the next with care and attention, never an abrupt halt or jarring shift. And in terms of being timeless, all five performance works on the program revealed “timeless narrative” themes that transcend a specific point in time, and so can always speak to audiences. For example — relatable human experiences like being pulled in different directions, feeling isolated, loss, grief and personal identity. A pearl of a program indeed.
Strength read throughout each chapter of the night, though two examples in particular stood out. Marit Brook-Kothlow, Andrew Ward and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello’s opening trio from Grace was one such moment. An incredibly technical excerpt with shape-based, clearly defined movement, Grace was forceful and powerful. The partnering between the three dancers was dynamically acrobatic, and at one point, in a cantilevered balance, Brook-Kothlow seemed to effortlessly swim above Ward and Barrueto-Cabello. In Wonderboy, the men’s choreographic section provided a different take on strength. Again, Goode’s phrase material was specific and vibrant, yet in each connection between the four men (Barrueto-Cabello, Melecio Estrella, James Graham and Ward), nurturing and openness was so present and palpable. Here was strength shown through vulnerability and trust. Sparkle definitely made its appearance in the program too, specifically in the makeup and costume design for Nobody Lives Here Now.
Last, moving onto “faceted”…or perhaps “multi-faceted” is the better term. In Rambler, linguistics, gender stereotypes and social norms converge, through movement and text and within a decidedly humorous Western/cowboy container. And the text was treated (at least in this excerpt) in two different ways, through Patricia West’s spoken soliloquy and through Goode’s song, both cloaked in extremes and alluding to the connective narrative tissue. Remembering the Pool at the Best Western brought characterization and choreography to the table (figuratively and literally as Goode is seated at a kitchen table for the majority of the excerpt) as well as a meeting of gesture and language. All of these facets work together to help share a somber narrative, one that expresses a curiosity about death and is seeking a connection with those who have passed into another realm of being.
And now onto the most multi-faceted work on the program, Nobody Lives Here Now. This dance theater piece had about every theatrical device that one could imagine – videography, text script, props, costume, makeup, lighting design, gesture, mirroring, sets, characters, scenework, purposeful absurdity, and humor, as well as compositional repetition and exaggeration. Live music, performed by the Thalea String Quartet, scores the entire work, and in addition to all of these elements, Nobody Lives Here Now has profound and vital messages – gender fluidity, the prevalence of labels, living fully into the self, and at the end, aging – all explored through narrative abstraction. Nobody Lives Here Now invites its audience into a magical sphere, using the world of illusion, spectacle and grandeur as an artistic allegory for metamorphosis and change. It’s entertaining, engaging (a most enthusiastic standing ovation greeted the cast at its conclusion) and very layered. But like a layer cake, the more layers you add, the chance that the cake might lean increases, and that’s what happened a little here. There was so much going on onstage that the deep, weighty and important narrative fibers got lost a bit, at least for me.