From the Archives: Dunham La Grande

By Donald McKayle & Francis Mason
Copyright 2006 Donald McKayle & Francis Mason

First published on the Dance Insider on May 23, 2006, on the occasion of Katherine Dunham’s death. From the DI Archives of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2016, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter and trail-blazing reporting and commentary on the leading dance news of the era. Want more? You can purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions) Purchase by March 22, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

As a young teen growing up in New York City, I first came across Katherine Dunham while walking through the Broadway theater district perusing the posters and billboards of attractions at the various theaters. At the Belasco I was captured by the picture of a striking woman dancing in a gossamer dress. Katherine Dunham and her troupe of dancers, musicians, and singers were performing in Bal Negre. I purchased a balcony seat for $4.80 and went up to see a performance that would change my life and mark the beginning of my career in dance. Over the past ten years we have met and discussed several projects. Miss Dunham was a powerful force and I will always be indebted to her brilliance as an artist, a scholar, and an humanitarian. — Donald McKayle

I shall never forget Katherine Dunham in “Cabin in the Sky,” the musical Balanchine staged in New York in 1940. The devilish stunning Dunham and her dancing alongside the holier-than-thou radiance of Ethel Waters set the world on fire. When I interviewed her in 1990 with Dawn Lille for my book “I Remember Balanchine,” Dunham recalled how Balanchine came to Chicago to see her and her girls and invited them to come to New York to be in the musical. She recalled how she worked with Balanchine, how he loved her girls and how at the try-out in Boston she was censored for her bare navel in the Egyptian ballet. Her husband put a yellow diamond in her navel and the show went on. Dunham also recalled that after the show opened in New York Balanchine and the composer of “Cabin in the Sky,” Vernon Duke, used to come to her place all the time. Once they brought Stravinsky. Balanchine persuaded Stravinsky to compose a tango for her, which he did. He autographed it. “I’ve never done it,” she said, “I keep thinking I must find it. I don’t think anyone has done it.” — Francis Mason