Geographies of Katherine Dunham’s Dance Activism: an interview with Joanna Dee Das

In 1930s Chicago, she choreographed for Run, Little Chillun, the first black show to take place in the city’s downtown Loop theater district, and brought dance to the city’s New Negro Movement. In 1940s Kansas City, Louisville, and Baltimore, she—a black choreographer—confronted and challenged racist laws often while performing to all-white audiences. In the 1950s, she choreographed Southland, an “anti-lynching dance drama” (12); her company performed the work in Santiago, Chile and Paris, France, but never—due to State Department pressure—in the United States (in fact, the FBI kept files on her for two decades). When she danced abroad in places like San Paulo, Brazil, she was often both refused hotel rooms and applauded for her choreography. In the 1960s, she traveled to and lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Dakar, Senegal, engaging with local—and black diasporic—aesthetics and politics. In 1967, she moved to East St. Louis where she opened the Performing Arts Training Center, bringing dance to thousands for the rest of the 20th century.

The life of Katherine Dunham (1909 – 2006), choreographer and activist, was in many ways a life of dance urbanism and dance geography. Dunham choreographed works in dialogue with the aesthetics and sociality of, and against racism that, permeated cities where she traveled, choreographed, and lived. But how? How did her choreography engage with the 20th century development of cities?

I asked these and more questions of Joanna Dee Das, Assistant Professor of Dance at Washington University in St. Louis. Das’s new book Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (Oxford University Press) chronicles Dunham’s life, choreography, and engagement with anti-racism, aesthetics, and politics in 20th century U.S. and global cities.

MAHMOUD: Your book opens with an anecdote about Katherine Dunham furiously performing at a segregated theater in Louisville for a whites only audience. You write:

In Louisville, she emerged at the end of the performance wearing a sign that a company member had stolen from a segregated train car saying “For Whites Only” attached to her backside. After bowing, she turned upstage and danced a triplet step, moving her feet quickly form side to side causing the sign to swing back and forth from her hips for all to view. When the bows finished, she read a speech in which she announced that she would not return to the theater until it integrated. Her words made national headlines, and she received fan letters from across the country applauding her stance. (9)

Dunham was often booked in, and then later, refused to dance in racially segregated venues in cities such as Kansas City, Louisville, and Baltimore. How did her performances and later refusals dialogue with racism, and hope for anti-racist politics, in those cities?

DAS: So these are all urban Southern cities. Kansas City you could say is mid-west, but in a way it’s a part of the South also. She had to negotiate a tricky balance there, as these cities had growing black populations at the time, the Great Migration is still technically happening. There’s still more and more African Americans moving from the rural South to the urban South, and more and more of them want to come to her shows. So she always has to make a decision in each city, “Do I perform in a segregated venue because I want people to see my shows? Do I refuse and take a stand? What do I do?” In each place she makes kind of a different decision.

In Louisville, she decides … The first time she goes there she performs and doesn’t raise a protest, and the second time she does. She says she won’t return until the theater is integrated because there are so many African American citizens in Louisville [who] want to see her shows.

In Baltimore, she again, at first, is willing to perform in the segregated theater because she has never been there before. She says in a letter to her friend, “I think it’s important to have your audiences get to know you first before you make any strategic decisions about protesting.”

I think what she’s in dialogue with in these urban centers is a growing African American population that is interested in urban entertainments. She wants them to have access to her shows. So sometimes she decides that that access means accepting segregation, and sometimes if she’s already popular there and already well-known then she’ll take a stand. It’s a very strategic move, even though whenever people interview her she always said that she responded intuitively to injustice.

Joanna Dee Das

You chronicle Dunham’s performances abroad in South America, Europe, and West Africa. How did that work influence ideas of Americanness?

Her performances abroad made people very interested in African American life because she was one of the first performers … You have to remember when she goes to Europe in 1948, Europe is still recovering from World War II. There aren’t many people performing there, and this is for them … it’s building upon exposure of Josephine Baker in Paris, and things like that. She’s really one of the first African American performers to go abroad that people glob onto to say, “Teach us about what’s going on in America.” There’s increasing news coming out of Russia about stories of segregation and racism in the United States. So people in those urban areas in Europe and Latin America are asking her to respond to those stories and her take on those stories.

She has to walk this delicate balance: she wants to keep performing abroad, she doesn’t want the U.S. State Department to shut her down, but she also wants to speak out. She negotiates this pretty well until she decides to perform an anti-lynching ballet.

That’s Southland?

Yes, that’s Southland.

[Southland was first performed in December 1950 in Santiago, Chile. Das reveals how the State Department “pressured [the U.S. embassy in Chile] to take the dance drama off the program, arguing that it ‘clearly follows communist line propaganda and serves to create ill feeling toward the United States’” (157). Later State Department officials accused Dunham of “anti-Americanism” and censored Chiliean press coverage of the work” (160).] 

Another part of her engagement in these urban cities abroad is she connects to new parts of African diaspora. She had been to the Caribbean, but in Europe she connects to people from Africa, from the continent itself. That produces a new rich, cultural, and intellectual exchange. I think of Brent Edwards’s work about Paris as a kind of center of transnational diasporic creation. Paris is where she meets Léopold Senghor, first president of Senegal and creator of Negritude. So in Paris and in London she meets a lot of African intellectuals, and that helps enrich her understanding of the diaspora in a lot of ways.

Dunham spent nearly the last 40 years of her life in East St. Louis. How would you describe her influence in East St. Louis and the broader St. Louis metro region? Why did she choose East St. Louis?

The reality is she needed a job. Her brother-in-law worked at Southern Illinois University and said, “I can get you a job here.” She needed money. She came in 1964 to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which is 100 miles away [from St. Louis]. She hated it. She’s used to living in these cosmopolitan urban centers: Paris, London, New York City. She fled, she went to Senegal for two years, but then she came back [in 1967]. She decided to stay because she just saw that there was a lot of need for some kind of cultural programming in the area. There was not even a movie theater in East St. Louis, the movie theater had shut down in 1959. There were very few opportunities for arts and culture. So she felt that she could make a difference.

The question about whether culture can solve systemic racism and poverty, it obviously can’t. When you look at statistics about East St. Louis, crime statistics or poverty statistics, those don’t change as a result of Dunham being here, but she changed the lives of many citizens here. People attest to the quality of their lives improving, and also helping people get out. Again, the question is, does that help the city? But it does help the citizens of that city. She helped a lot of people find a new path in life.

There is this concept I love: “performance geography.” In DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (University of Ottawa Press 2010), Sonjah Stanley-Niiah uses performance geography:

to refer to a mapping of the material and spatial conditions of performance: entertainment and ritual in specific sites/venues, types of systems of use, the politics of their location in relation to other sites and other practices, the character of events/rituals in particular locations and the manner in which different performances and performers relate to each other within and across different cultures.

There is also the level of spatial philosophies that govern systems of use, boundaries and boundarylessness, gendered spaces, and the urban, and that form part of the rubric of performance geography. How do performances imprint themselves on space? What spatial identities do performances bear? How is the performative self to be defined in any given space? Are there distinctions to be made between the local and the global self in performance? (33)

How does this concept resonate with Dunham’s work?

I think of her performance geography as genuinely diasporic in the sense of living in the space in between. I think it would be very hard to replicate it today.

Why?

Because I think that today she would be accused of cultural appropriation. In order to give this very expansive sense of diaspora she had to choreograph so many dances that she set in places she had never been, and invoking dance forms she had never studied. At the time it was so much better than what was out there that it was totally okay, but today when … For example, I show students a piece of choreography called Batucada set in Brazil. She had not been to Brazil, she had not studied Brazilian dance. The musicians sing in Spanish instead of in Portuguese, for example. And I think that today that kind of performance would be seen as a version of cultural appropriation across national boundaries. But at the time, Dunham did it to create this broad vision and show the richness and wealth of the diaspora culturally.

Her performance geography was always trying to be as broad and inclusive as possible, and find spaces in between and celebrate the differences as well as similarities. She didn’t make each piece similar. It couldn’t be replicated in the same way today. I think the version that people do today is they do dialogic exchanges, so Urban Bush Women does a collaboration with Jant-Bi, a Senegalese dance company. They work together, they collaborate, they create what I would consider a diasporic performance through a collaborative model.

More broadly, how did Dunham’s choreography dialogue with her geographies and the politics of those geographies?  

She gets her start in Chicago, and the big thing she is doing there is bringing dance to the New Negro Movement, or the Chicago Black Renaissance. There is a growing little theater movement, there is obviously a great music scene in Chicago. This is the 1930s. As you know, kind of like Harlem Renaissance in 1920s and Chicago starts to get this creative artistic energy a little bit later coinciding with the Great Depression. So therefore it’s also slightly more explicitly political in orientation because the National Negro Congress that meets there is in dialogue with the Communist Party. There’s a little bit more of an activist bent to it explicitly. Obviously, the Harlem Renaissance is also political, but in this movement of the 1930s, out of which in the 1940s will come Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. Dunham is bringing dance to the conversation. That’s how she is influencing Chicago urban culture.

In New York City in the 1940s she is challenging the whiteness of Broadway, not only through her shows, which are on Broadway, but also by putting her dance studio in Broadway’s theater district. Everyone expected her to put it in Harlem. She refuses. Then she is challenging what is considered the center of what you should do for your training in Broadway performance. It’s not just dancers who go to her dance studio in New York in the 1940s, it’s a lot of actors and other performers. Everyone who’s anyone in theater and dance scene. The founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Arthur Mitchell, said that it was just the “it” place to be in the late 1940s and early 1950s. So she’s really bringing in kind of Afro Caribbean culture, particularly to urban culture in New York.

A group of Katherine Dunham Dancers shown in mid-rehearsal in New York, Library of Congress, 1946

Had she gone to the Caribbean by then?

Yeah, she had gone to the Caribbean in the 30s and then went to Cuba in 1946. She’s obviously not solely responsible for bringing Cuban music to New York, but she is part of what helps popularize things that leads to the Mambo craze and things like that.

Those are the big two. Then, as we talked about, in Paris and London she’s engaging in these dialogues, then in East St Louis shes making these changes in the 60s.

Your own dance geography influences this book. You began your preface, writing:

I never met Katherine Dunham, but she shaped the course of my life. At age nine, I began to take jazz at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), a community arts center in University City, an “inner ring” suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. I had only a vague awareness that my theater, Lee Nolting, doubled as the ballet mistress for the Katherine Dunham Children’s Workshop across the river in East St. Louis. After taking a Dunham Technique class at age twelve with Lee’s husband, Darryl Braddix, I realized that many aspects of my jazz dance training, including our arm positions during warm-ups and our body-part isolations, came from Dunham Technique. … I was part of an organization with a mission to create community and challenge racial segregation” (5).

You grew up in St. Louis, lived in New York, and traveled to Haiti, Italy, and Maryland as part of writing the book. How did these urban localities, sometimes not urban, influence the writing of the book?

Well, going to Port-au-Prince, Haiti was very instructive because … I think that it might be one of the major differences between my book and previous books on Dunham is I am coming of age as a scholar at a time when there is a call for more diasporic thinking and thinking about the ways in which an American centric perspective can erase other perspectives. Going to Port-au-Prince and talking to people in Haiti, where I did a lot of interviews, was very helpful because there is a narrative from America about how important Dunham was for Haiti, how much good she did for Haiti, how wonderful she was, how much of an activist she was there, and that’s not necessarily the perspective of Haitians living there. I was clued into this by Mario Lamothe. He was the one who first told me, “You should really talk to Haitians about their perspective.” And so going to Port-au-Prince and actually talking to people of multiple generations was really helpful to see how she was perceived as an American, not always already as a fellow person of African descent. That was really helpful, and it helps give the book a slightly different frame rather than an America only frame.

Then I would say going to Carbondale, Illinois, which is where the archives were, was also very interesting because I could see why Dunham felt kind of panicky living there. It feels very rural, and it actually feels very Southern. Though Illinois technically was a free state, [southern Illinois] feels like the South, very much is the South. When I was living there for the summer, people wore Confederate flag belts. There has been documentation that there was actually slavery in Southern Illinois even though it was technically a free state. It helped me understand why Dunham at first felt kind of panicky being there. That was very helpful to understand her mentality and why East. St Louis is such a unique urban area. For anyone who hasn’t been there, it feels like it combines rural poverty with urban poverty.

What can we gain pedagogically from your book?

I’m hoping that it’s a model for how you can try to tell a broader story through one person’s life. That can always be tricky. Sometimes biography is seen as an old fashioned way of scholarship, or narrow, and I think that you can learn a lot about the nuances of a social movement or a historical question by looking at an individual person.

What might people interested in dance activism and art activism learn from Dunham’s work?

One thing they can learn is that you have a lifetime to achieve these goals. She lived at a time when the phrase self care was not around, but she engaged in a practice of knowing when to step back and let her creative spirit regenerate, and when to fully engage. There’s a point at which it gets too exhausting to fight racism and sexism every single day of your life while you’re on tour, while you’re trying to be creative, while you’re trying to find beauty in things. It can be really, really draining, and so having a generosity with yourself of finding ways to engage in activism, knowing when to give yourself time to regenerate your creative spirit, I think is something that is really important that I talk about in the book.

Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (2017) by Joanna Dee Das is available from Oxford University Press.

Advertisements

Thoughts on “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967 – 2017,” an exhibit at CAM STL

In one scene a pair of female dancers, one black and one white, stand sideways ready to begin choreography. Costumes—black shorts and sleeveless black tops—suggest this piece as hip and abstract. As they begin to dance, so does the position of each of their arms, angular in front and bent at the elbow as if to engage in a sort of cooperative, artistic combat. As the dancers continue, they often twin their iterative movements in both angular and lyrical motions, with encircled arms and bent knees and twisted torsos, positions in tension with how their legs often stay planted in a stationary place.

Image from Liquor Store Theatre

What distinguishes this choreography are not just these movements but also the location. Staged in front a liquor store in Detroit, MI, this dance is from Liquor Store Theatre. Conceived of by Detroit native Maya Stovall (who performs in much of the choreography) Liquor Store Theatre, is according to her website, “a four-volume, thirty-plus episode meditation on city life in Detroit … a four-years-running series of documented performances and conversations with people in the streets, sidewalks, and parking lots surrounding Detroit liquor stores.” The work includes both video of the choreography (set to atmospheric, rhythmic music) and videos of interviews with residents inside or in front of the liquor store. Some residents talk about changes in Detroit: tearing down abandoned residential buildings and development to existing abandoned commercial structures. When I watched the video, one interviewee, a young black man, talked about how tourists often likely mis-perceive him and his friends as up to no good when they are in fact just hanging out and spending time together.

I learned of Liquor Store Theatre at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as part of the museum’s “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” a group exhibition with work by 24 artists; the exhibit opened earlier this month and runs through August 13, 2017. This past weekend I visited, watched Liquor Store Theatre, and engaged with the exhibition’s other works. (Earlier in May, the museum hosted Critical Spatial Practice St. Louis (CSPSTL). I attended “Performance and the City,” a panel with Maya Stovall, other exhibition artists Abigale Deville and David Hartt, and the curator Kelly Shindler.)

Literature for the exhibit thematizes much of the work as either “photography as a tool to document a rapidly changing nation,” sculpture, or “several moving image works.” In my interaction, I thought of three more takeaways.

First, although other cities are referenced, most works consider one of three cities: New York, Detroit, or St. Louis. It is useful to pause and ask why the focus on these three cities, especially in the last 40 years? Planning and development in New York City—from the 1916 Zoning Resolution, to the late 20th century and early 21st century loft laws that legalized illegal occupation of artists in commericial buildings, to the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Land Use and Waterfront Plan that transformed the neighborhoods’ skyline and displaced many residents with market-rate high rise buildings and scant affordable housing options—not only changed the function of buildings and skyline in the city, but also set rubrics for other local and national conversations and policies on density, zoning, gentrification, displacement, and “renewal,” and the racial impact of these urban planning efforts.

I particularly thought about zoning and race in Glenn Ligon’s Housing in New York (2007), which curator Shindler describes as “expos[ing] gentrification as an assault on African-American neighborhoods.” In the series of five silkscreens, Ligon narrates the story of each place he has lived throughout his life all in New York City. Ligon’s story is one of growing up in housing projects in the Bronx; living in brownstones with no-heat and flooded ceilings in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and later, as he became a more established artist, living in converted lofts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Glenn Ligon, Housing in New York (2007)

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 1

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 2

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 3

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 4

Ligon, Housing in New York, Frame 5

As of 2010 New York City had a population of more than 8 million that was about 25% black (with Harlem no longer majority black); St. Louis City had a population of 319,000 that was about 49% black; and Detroit had a population of 713,000 that was about 82% black. Detroit and St. Louis are also the cities with the two largest shrinking populations (2015 estimates situate the population of St. Louis at 315,000 and of Detroit at 677,000).

But some art revealed the sociality and life beyond this “decline” and beyond how black urban areas are often demarcated in policy and discourse as in ruin. There was a through line of liquor and inebriation in much of the art, such as Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75.

Closeup of Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75

But other works revealed a rich sociality to where alcohol gets bought and consumed as a way to tell the story of those often ignored by urban planners. In Maya Stovall’s Liquor Store Theatre, for example, the commercial place to buy liquor becomes a backdrop for residents–mostly black–to tell stories about their home.

Second, some works articulated the role of the rural in the making of the urban. Images from Juan William Chávez‘s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010) situated an imaginary of turning the land in the Pruitt-Igoe forest in St. Louis City into a bee sanctuary.

Images from Juan William Chávez’s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010 and 2011)

In Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield–A Confrontation, the artist documents the wheatfield she and others planted at the Battery Park landfill in May 1982; in August 1982 she and others harvested more than 1000 pounds of wheat delivered to 28 cities. As Denes wrote in her artist statement: “Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.”

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield–A Confrontation (1982)

Third, the exhibition particularized attention to art about urban space and planning, rather than art (such as public sculpture) that exists within urban space. There is much overlap between the two categories and the exhibit attuned to how art about urban space often focuses on urban aesthetics and imaginaries. Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012) “create[d]” according to the curator “ghostly etchings, a palimpsest of merchant posters sourced around Los Angeles that refract the area’s crucial informal economies.” Note how his articulation situates the sparse and novice-esque aesthetics of the block letters alongside messages of “Homeless Prevention Program” and “We Buy Houses Cash.”

Closeup on Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012)

Another closeup on Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012)

Ultimately and collectively the works in this exhibit re-orient how we might study, document, and analyze urban space by situating the aesthetics, narratives, and sociality of, and imaginations for, the city.

Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” runs at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis until August 13, 2017.

The Cinema of Urban Crisis [new book]

unnamed

The Cinema of Urban Crisis

Seventies Film and the Reinvention of the City

By Lawrence Webb (University of Sussex)

In the 1970s, cities across the United States and Western Europe faced a deep social and political crisis that challenged established principles of planning, economics and urban theory. At the same time, film industries experienced a parallel process of transition, the effects of which rippled through the aesthetic and narrative form of the decade’s cinema. The Cinema of Urban Crisis traces a new path through the cinematic legacy of the 1970s by drawing together these intertwined histories of urban and cultural change. Bringing issues of space and place to the fore, the book unpacks the geographical and spatial dynamics of film movements from the New Hollywood to the New German Cinema, showing how the crisis of the seventies and the emerging ‘postindustrial’ economy brought film and the city together in new configurations.

Chapters cover a range of cities on both sides of the Atlantic, from New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco to London, Paris and Berlin. Integrating analysis of film industries and production practices with detailed considerations of individual texts, the book offers strikingly original close analyses of a wide range of films, from New Hollywood (The Conversation, The King of Marvin Gardens, Rocky) to European art cinema (Alice in the Cities, The Passenger, Tout va Bien) and popular international genres such as the political thriller and the crime film. Focusing on the aesthetic and representational strategies of these films, the book argues that the decade’s cinema engaged with – and helped to shape – the passage from the ‘urban crisis’ of the late sixties to the neoliberal ‘urban renaissance’ of the early eighties. Splicing ideas from film studies with urban geography and architectural history, the book offers a fresh perspective on a rich period of film history and opens up new directions for critical engagement between film and urban studies.

Read more at Amsterdam University Press here.

new book [2014] Urban Space and Late Twentieth-Century New York Literature

9781137340191

How does literary production respond to processes of urbanization? What do literary and cultural representations tell us about urban practices?

Guided by these questions, Urban Space and Late Twentieth-Century New York Literature theorizes literary geography anew by examining writers’ responses to the uneven development of New York City. Catalina Neculai offers a rich critique of literature written during the consolidation of the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Whether it is about the culture industries, gentrification, housing movements, or the finance economy, here New York literature becomes akin to urban fieldwork that produces knowledge of space and engages with the politics of place. Interdisciplinary in conception and design, the book draws on fiction, non-fiction, grassroots narratives, archival material, radical Marxist geography, urban politics, and urban history.

[newer] eflyer – Journal of Urban Cultural Studies (Intellect)

JUCS_UrbanCulturalStudies_1.1_eFlyer

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD PDF OF THIS eFlyer

Journal of Urban Cultural Studies 1.1 inaugural content [in production]

Issue 1.1 currently in production:

JUCS_poster_1.1 [CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD A *.PDF OF THIS POSTER]

Urban Renewal Brochures

As one is wont to do, clicking here and there and avoiding grading and writing, I came across this blog and its very interesting current post containing urban renewal brochures from the 1950s. Most interesting to me is that the images from New York are so seemingly devoid of people. Where are the people? More importantly, after they lay this “abstract space” across the landscape  where will the people that live there go. . . .Thanks to dubravka sekulic for this blog.

http://arsenalofexclusion.blogspot.com/2012/04/urban-renewal-brochures-from-1956.html