Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Performing Arts Grace TV Again ; Black Dancers and African a Cappella Group Overcome Racism

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Performing Arts Grace TV Again ; Black Dancers and African a Cappella Group Overcome Racism

Article excerpt

Television producers are getting better at presenting the performing arts on TV. It's taken a long time, and even the best documentaries are never a substitute for live performance. But something fresh and lively can be captured as dance, theater, and music (occasionally even opera) find their way onto the small box.

This week, three fine documentaries highlight these performing arts, sometimes to dazzling effect. Great Performances presents "Dance in America: Free to Dance" (PBS, June 24, 8-11 p.m.); Egg The Art Show presents "Experiments in Theater" (PBS, check local listings); and a moving documentary about the relationship between apartheid and the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, "On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom" is on Cinemax June 26, 7:35-8:15 p.m..

Free to Dance chronicles the history of African-American dance and its influence on American culture. "Without the African contribution, we would not have had American dance as we know it," says author Katrina Hazzard Donald. The film carefully demonstrates why she's right. From wonderful archival footage taken by anthropologist and dancer Katherine Dunham of descendants of slaves she studied in the Caribbean during the 1920s, we see the origins of African dance there and in the United States.

The contributions to dance of Ms. Dunham, herself an African- American, are well-known. But perhaps less well-known are the contributions of Edna Guy, a young girl who broke into the world of professional dance against the will of the public and of her teacher, Ruth St. Denis.

A social racist, Ms. St. Denis nevertheless seemed to have cared very much for the dark-skinned Edna. St. Denis fluctuated between encouraging and protecting Edna and discouraging and patronizing her. It was an odd, but somehow fruitful relationship for Ms. Guy, who broke with St. Denis to form her own company.

Some of Guy's dances, based on African-American spirituals, are re-created here, although there is no positive record of what they looked like. Guy was a pioneer who helped open the gates of theatrical expression to renowned African-American dancers such as Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, Pearl Primus, and Alvin Ailey, says producer Madison Davis Lacy. "The whole tradition of the spiritual in dance started with her," he says.

The religious nature of some African dance, Guy's creative response to her church's music, and the expression of hope amidst sorrow in a piece like "The Mourner's Bench," by Talley Beatty, speak of the human spirit rising in the face of suffering to reach toward the divine, to express the divine, and to find comfort there. "We are called to do what we do," says dancer Rosalynde Lacy.

The world of dance is also a world of muscular discipline and even daredevil risk-taking, defying gravity and the ordinary movements of the body. …

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