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Katherine Dunham, B.A. M.A., Ph.D, (1910-2006)

Katherine Dunham died last Sunday (21 May 2006) at the Manhattan assisted living facility. She has left an indelible impression on me, since our encounters backstage of the Melbourne Tivoli and Princess Theatres (May 1956), as a person of extensive intellectual stamina, a great artist, humanitarian, ethnologist, anthropologist, authoress, academic, and a very attractive, compassionate human being. She will be sadly missed throughout the artistic community. Her own words sum up the total of her lifetime achievements: “I did it”.

Katherine Dunham received her B.A (in social anthropology)., M.A., and Ph.D., in anthropology at the University of Chicago, and was artist in residence at the University of Southern Illinois. Additionally, she received fourteen honorary doctorates, and numerous other honours, awards, medals, and distinguished service awards. She received the Chevalier, Haitian Legion of Honour and Merit (1952), and in 1965 was appointed, by the United States Government, cultural advisor to the President of Senegal. The United States Postal Service issued a Black Heritage Commemorative Stamp, in her honour in 1978. In 1979 she was awarded the annual ‘Albert Schweitzer Music Award’, for her works in music and humanity.

In 1986 Katherine Dunham received the Southern Cross Award of Honour and Merit from the Government of Brazil, and was recipient of the Kennedy Centre Honours Award in 1983. She received The Medal of Artistic Merit, in Dance, from UNESCO in 1986, and in the same year received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Anthropological Association.

Katherine Dunham was made Grand Officer, Haitian Legion of Honour and Merit, and received an Honoree from the United States President’s Council on Youth Opportunity; in 1968. She received the Grand Cross Legion d’Honneur et Merite, from the Embassy of Haiti; in 1983, and five years later (1988) made Officer, of the Legion d’Honneur, Order of Arts and Letters, from the Government of France. In 1988, she was made Officier de L’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Le Ministre de la Culture et la Communication, Haiti. Two years later (1990), was recipient of the Caribbean Award, Trinidad and Tobago. And received the United States President’s National Medal of the Arts; in 1992.

Katherine Dunham, has also received numerous Honorary Doctorates which include: Honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters from: MacMurray College, Jacksonville Ill., (1972), of Fine Arts, Tufts University, Medford, Mass., (1987), Chicago State University, Ill., (1993), Spelman College, Atlanta, Ga., (1990). Doctor of Fine Arts from: Westfield State College, Westfield, Mass., (1979), Brown University, Providence, R.I., (1979), Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., (1979), Washington University, St. Louis, Mo., (1981), Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, (1983). Doctorates of Fine Arts include: Howard University, Washington, D.C., (1984), Buffalo State College, Buffalo, N.Y., (1987), University of Southern California, Los Angeles, (1995). Doctor of Literature: Atlanta University, Atlanta, Ga., (1977). And Doctor of Laws from the Lincoln University, Lincoln, Pa., (1984).

Melbourne Australia. Above: Katherine Dunham backstage at the Tivoli Theatre Melbourne Australia in 1956. © used with the kind permission of The Herald Weekly Times Ltd

Katherine Dunham is, I believe, one of the greatest performing artists to have ever appeared on the Australian stage. Her company, earned critical acclaim here in Australia, as well as in over sixty other countries around the world. Her choreographical works included: ‘L’ag’ya’ (1938), “Bal Negre,” (1946) in which she featured “Shango,” (1945) an African-West Indies Yoruba tribal voodoo sacrificial ritual to Shango; the thunder deity. ‘Bal Negre’ (Revue), and ‘Rites de Passage’ (1943-1944), which portrays, the individuals exigent path – common to all mankind – through birth, pubery, mating, malting and death.

Between 1941 and 1959, Katherine Dunham appeared in several European films as well as nine American films including: ‘Carnival of Rhythm’, Warner Brothers (1940), ‘Star Spangled Rhythm’, Paramount Pictures(1942), ‘Pardon My Sarong’ (choreography) Universal Pictures (1942), ‘Stormy Weather’, Twentieth Century Fox, and ‘Cabin in the Sky’ (1943). ‘Casbah’, Universal Pictures, (1948). ‘Botta e Risposta’, Teatri della Farnesina, Italy, (1949). ‘Mambo’, Paramount Pictures, Italy, and ‘Liebes Sender’, Germany, (1954). ‘Musica en la Noche’, Alianza Cinematografica, Mexico (1955). ‘Green Mansions’, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1959). ‘The Bible’, Dino de Laurentiis, Twentieth Century Fox and Seven Arts (1964). ‘Free To Dance’, Documentary, Pan African Film Arts Festival (2000).

Katherine Dunham has lectured, written articles, and six books which include: Kasamance: A Fantasy (Okpaku Communications Corporation, 1974). Dances of Haiti (Center for Afro-American Studies, 1983). Black Dance: From 1619 to Today with Lynne Fauley Emery (Princeton Book Co. Publishing, 1991) A Touch of Innocence (University of Chicago Press, 1994), Island Possessed (University of Chicago Press, 1994), and Katherine Dunham’s Journey to Accompong (Reprint Services Corporation, 1995).

Katherine Dunham married John Pratt (theatrical designer) in 1940. He was her artistic collaborator during their forty-seven year marriage until his death in 1986.

For the past fifty years I have admired Katherine Dunham as a champion in improving race relations in the United States, and for her role as protagonist for introducing classical elements to primitive and ceremonial Afro-Caribbean rhythms, music; and dance movement.

The above Photograph Katherine Dunham in : ‘Tropical Revue’, 1945-46. © used with the kind permission of The Dance Collection, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

A synopsis of Katherine Dunham and her remarkable achievements can be seen on line at: Katherine Dunham center for arts, and humanities.