Class with Katherine Dunham
Masters of African American Choreography
Eisenhower Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
Thursday, April 21, 20055
©2005 by George
Dunham had traveled to Washington for Wednesday's grand opening of the
African American festival but decided to save herself for the second day's
master class. Her entrance was awaited expectantly and a bit reverently
by a seated audience and the 30 or so dancers who, a few minutes after
3 PM, stood on stage, feet planted moderately apart in parallel position.
The class, accompanied by a couple of drummers, had just started with
head rotations under the guidance of Rachel Tavenier, the teaching assistant,
when Dunham appeared from the left wings of the stage, imperially seated
in her wheelchair. At age 96*, she is a substantial woman with large features,
especially the eyes. They are wide, deep and draw you in. A neat halo
of white hair surrounds her head. Dressed with a hint of the harem, Dunham
had chosen orange as her dominant color, probably not because it is the
fashion this year (the Ukraine's liberation politics, New York's conspicuous
Gates) but for good contrast with her halo's luminosity. All of Dunham's
clothing was of a light fabric whereas her jewelry had weight. Was it
possible to recognize in this icon the woman I had first seen in 1947/8?
That was in the student lounge, the Reynolds Club, at the U. of Chicago
where I'd dozed off in an easy chair trying to finish assigned reading—Dostoyevsky's
"The Brothers Karamazov". Drumming, out of the ordinary on campus
at that time, roused me. The sound was insistent yet soft. In the middle
of the large room stood a woman, a beautiful woman. She was dressed simply
in a skirt suit, the jacket open on (I'm pretty sure) a flowered blouse.
The cut and combination of what she wore seemed chic for an ordinary student,
yet she was a student. As she declared for one and all to hear, she—
Katherine Dunham—had just come back from thesis work in Africa and
wanted her fellow students to see what she'd found there. And so, after
removing her shoes, Dunham began to dance. Remarkable was what she could
do with rhythm. She took it into her body and no matter how sharp and
cutting the drum beat, she made it melt and flow. If the rhythm was complex
and prickly, she combed it into sensuous strands. Even then, Dunham was
a healer. And, she had unavoidable eyes. Margot Fonteyn was a dancer like
that; one ended up being caught by her gaze. Photographs of Nijinsky lead
to his eyes. It is a distinct gift.
Wheeled to a table with a microphone at the near right corner of the Eisenhower's
stage, Dunham began to address last Thursday's class. She spoke slowly,
intermittently. "Breathe" she said, "Don't lift your shoulders"
and "Go in and out". Then, before continuing further with movement,
she appealed for help. I think it was a god that she asked, and both the
class participants and part of the audience repeated after her an African
incantation. Dunham raised her arms and allowed them to dance, slowly
echoing the drums. The dancers, led by Tavenier, curved their arms, raising
and lowering them in frontal extension. "I come to learn from you"
Dunham said, and expanded on the idea that there is no teaching without
the teacher too being taught. "You need to be open". Her arms
moved and her fingers spread.Sometimes her indications would lead and
at other times they followed what the class did. Her arms and hands had
a velvet weightiness. Sometimes she reached for and drank from a glass
of water. The class progressed to isolations for the shoulders and articulations
for the elbows and wrists. Exercises of bilateral symmetry were followed
by alternations of left side and right. There were torso shakes, interweaving
arms and arm stretchings, all with solidly planted feet.
Dunham appeared to become disturbed by something and kept looking into
the audience as the class engaged in torso pulsations. However, she continued
with her comments. "You are coming home" she told them and the
dancers stepped into a circle while still sending waves through their
bodies. There was more stepping, then high stepping, the dynamic grew
and grew. Pulsing, the dancers knelt. It was time to rest. Dunham seemed
to doze for a moment as the class sat in a contemplative pose, cross legged
with arms turned out and resting on the knees. Most of the class also
held its eyes closed. Then Dunham, roused, turned her attention to the
audience again. We seemed too passive and it didn't please her. "Do
you hear what I hear, those drums, the beat?" she asked. The class
had remained in contemplation, patiently, but at this point Tavenier intervened
by initiating diagonal crossings of the stage, first in slow plie and
then faster, sharper, straighter. Dunham's hands drummed in the air, "Shoulders
down, elbows up" she instructed, and then insisted that the audience
participate. Quite a few people did, some in the aisles and others walking
or clambering up onto the stage. Mostly, these recruits turned out to
be dancers too. The class material now focused on rhythmic walking, treading,
skipping and there was something very dynamic—a contraction charge
with the upper body, led by an elbow, cutting down over the propelling
leg action. Back and forth, crisscrossing the stage, the enlarged class
went, clamping down and snapping back up repeatedly.
Dunham did not seem as bodily engaged by these forceful exercises as by
the gentler ones that had preceded, but on occasion she nodded her head
vigorously. When the theater ushers asked the on-stage audience members
to return to their seats, Dunham interrupted. "1 minute," she
called out and proceeded to say that so far the class had been "wonderful"
but how "sad" that the audience wasn't being allowed to participate
further. She wondered if it was the fault** of "the union" and
then declared she didn't want to continue if all others could not. A compromise
was reached and a few people from the audience went back onto the stage
for the final, recapitulating exercises. "Don't neglect those who
have had no training or less training than you," Dunham told the
dancers. "I've learned today," she concluded.
The gentle Dunham had been foremost. It was that temperament which pervaded
"Choros", the Dunham choreography we had seen the night before
as danced by members of Cleo Parker Robinson's ensemble. There is also
the fiery Dunham, but in her revues—as in the Reynolds Club and
on this occasion in the Eisenhower - she showed herself that way only
sparingly—unless one looked into her eyes.
The class ended with each participant going up to Dunham, kneeling and
touching forehead to the floor—an African form of the reverence.
The seated audience stood to applaud and Kennedy Center's Alicia Adams
presented the master choreographer medallion that Dunham had missed receiving
the night before. It is gold and on a red ribbon. Adams hung it around
Dunham's neck. Then the great lady was wheeled off stage into the wings
on the right side.
* Born 22 June 1909 in Illinois.
**Accident liability was the main reason Kennedy Center didn't want audience
members clambering onto the stage. KC's Marlene Cooper, though, managed
the compromise with a gentle touch, a Dunham.
April 18, 2005
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Kathrine Sorley Walker