Friday, June 09, 2017

"Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora"

Book Review

Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora
by Joanna Dee Das
published by Oxford University Press
released June 2017

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 has likely been limited. Brief discussions that cannot 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 1940s, her links with other dance icons and the breakdown of her Rites de Passage piece.

Mid-way 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 in 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 on 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.

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