From Africa to Avant-Garde

Article excerpt


Free to Dance, produced by Thirteen/WNET's Dance in America, is a three-hour, self-titled "evening-long performance documentary" tracing the African influence on modern dance. Extraordinary historical footage, signature performances, interviews with critics, historians, and artists, and a historical dramatization should keep viewers glued to the screen. Dance in America has produced many programs that featured prominent artists of the African American tradition--Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, Garth Fagan, and Bill T. Jones, among others. Here, their contributions are woven with those of other seminal figures, and contextualized to offer a more comprehensive tale.

The program is divided into three segments. In the first, dance historian Katrina Hazzard-Donald explains that African people meeting a stranger might ask, "What do you dance?" well before posing questions about heritage, citizenship, or vocation. She makes the point that for Africans, dance is a vital part of one's identity. When Africans were brought to America as slaves, dance created community. The ring shout and early tap performances (among other examples of early African American dance in fields, streets, and ballrooms) point to the immediate cross-pollination with European forms.

The segment recounts, rather speedily, the history of African American dance in the beginning of the twentieth century, before making an awkward transition from a documentary to a dramatization of the relationship between Edna Guy, a young black dancer, and Ruth St. Denis. These scenes are less effective than their revealing letters. Guy is determined to become an artist. Although she excels in her studies with St. Denis and acts as her wardrobe assistant, she is never invited to join the company. African Americans had to forge their own paths to the concert stage and Guy ultimately did.

The second part of the program, "Steps of Gods," continues the history of Katherine Dunham's research in the Caribbean. One of her dancers remembers that after Dunham returned to the United States in 1936, she taught a whole new movement vocabulary. "She told us we were learning the `steps of the gods,'" says Carmencita Romero. Dunham and African choreographer Asadata Dafora reacquaint black dancers of the 1930s with their African dance heritage. But it is Dunham who develops a training technique that incorporates the principal of isolation--each part moving separately as if it had no connection to other parts. …