Katherine Dunham Company

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The Katherine Dunham Company was an African American modern dance troupe founded by Katherine Dunham to serve her unique artistic vision. The company would go through several iterations involving various changes of name and personnel over the course of its more than twenty years of existence (approximately 1937-1960). In 1930, while still a student at the University of Chicago, Dunham formed Ballet Nègre, one of the first black ballet companies in the United States. The company would give its first performance at the Beaux Arts Ball in Chicago the following year, but soon disbanded. One of Dunham's dance mentors, Ludmilla Speranzeva, advised Dunham to focus on modern dance and develop her own style. In 1933, Dunham opened her first dance school, the Negro Dance Group, on Chicago's South Side. During that same year, Dunham was cast by Ruth Page in a role for the Chicago premiere of her ballet, La Guiablesse, choreographed to a commissioned score by William Grant Still. The following year, Page decided to revive the work as part of a planned evening of her original choreography to be presented during the Chicago Civic Opera's 1934-1935 season. Occupied with other pieces on the program, Page invited Dunham to restage the work and take over the title role. Dunham cast some of the students from her school, including Talley Beatty, in the Page ballet. She also reconstituted Ballet Nègre, performing with the company in her own pieces, Spanish Dance and Fantasie Nègre at the Chicago World's Fair in 1934.

During 1935-1936, Dunham conducted fieldwork in Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and Haiti. When she returned to Chicago, she received her degree and assembled a small troupe, beginning to create new works that were informed by her studies of Afro-Carribbean dance forms. Dunham and her company went to New York to participate in the program, A Negro Dance Evening, held at the 92nd Street Y on March 7, 1937. In addition to the Dunham company, the roster of performers included Alison Burroughs, Asadata Dafora, Edna Guy, and Clarence Yates. On the first half of the program, Dunham presented a suite of West Indian dances. In the second half, Modern Trends, Dunham presented Tropic Death, which featured Talley Beatty as a fugitive from a lynch mob. Over the next few years, Dunham continued to develop the dance aesthetic and pedagogic approach that would become the Dunham Technique. In January 1938, her company appeared in a Federal Dance Project program, Ballet Fedré, which presented them alongside white dance companies. Ballet Fedré included the premiere of Dunham's full-length work, L'Ag'Ya, which arguably was her first composition to fuse all of the influences of her earlier dance training and studies with the dance forms of the African diaspora she encountered during her fieldwork. That same year, Dunham would be appointed director of the Negro Unit of the Chicago branch of the Federal Theater Project (FTP), staging dances in Run Li'l Chil'lun and The Emperor Jones. During this time, the company continued to evolve and grow. John Pratt (whom Dunham would later marry) would become the company's resident designer. In addition to dancers, the troupe always would include a complement of singers and musicians, such as the Haitian drummer, Papa Augustine. Dunham continued to choreograph and present new pieces for the concert stage, including Barrelhouse (1938) and Bahiana (1939).

In 1939, she also was invited to contribute new choreography for an updated edition of the long-running revue, Pins and Needles (which had transferred from the Labor Stage Theatre to the Windsor Theatre in January 1939). Dunham left part of her troupe in Chicago and took three company members (Beatty, Roberta McLaurin, and Carmencita Romero) to New York to appear in the chorus of Pins and Needles. Dunham created a dance to music by Harold Rome for the number, "Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl." Dunham also would reconnect with dancer Archie Savage while working on Pins and Needles; he would join the Dunham company, frequently partnering Dunham in duets. Appearing as Katherine Dunham and Her Dance Group, the company would begin holding a series of dance concerts on Sundays at the Windsor, which received great critical acclaim. Dunham also was involved with staging and choreographing Tropical Pinafore, a swing version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, for the American Negro Light Opera Association in Chicago. For this production, she recruited two new dancers, Lucille Ellis and Tommy Gomez, who quickly would become prominent members of the company. Returning to New York, she resumed the Windsor Theatre Sunday recitals. Following the closing of Pins and Needles, Dunham went back to Chicago with her dancers, which now also numbered Lavinia Williams among its ranks, and the company would appear at a few venues in Chicago that summer.

In the fall of 1940, Dunham and her entire troupe returned to New York to begin rehearsals on their most high-profile assignment to date, a new Broadway musical, Cabin in the Sky, directed by George Balanchine. Although Balanchine received sole credit as choreographer on the production, Dunham devised the dances for herself (cast in one of the leading roles as Georgia Brown) and her dancers. The show proved to be a major hit. Following the New York run, the show went on a national tour, ending with an extended engagement in California in the summer of 1941. Dunham and the company remained in California after the tour, premiering new works, including Rites de Passage (1941), and adding new company members in Los Angeles, including, briefly, Janet Collins, as well as Syvilla Fort (who later would become director of the dance program at Dunham's school). The company remained in Los Angeles, finding some work in films, including the Technicolor short, Carnival of Rhythm (1941), but the limited opportunities and pervasive racism within the film industry were frustrating to Dunham. In 1943, she signed with Sol Hurok Attractions to manage the company's bookings and tours. Hurok presented the Dunham company in Tropical Revue at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway and in a national tour. In the same year, Dunham appeared with her company in the film, Stormy Weather.

Although the company continued touring actively in the United States, by 1944, Dunham had shifted her base of operations to New York City. She opened a new school, which eventually was located in New York’s theatre district. Dunham was involved actively in overseeing the school in its early years, helping to train a new group of dancers in the Dunham Technique (and the other wide-ranging dance genres offered as part of the holistic and ambitious curriculum), who joined the ranks of her company, including Vanoye Aikens, Jean-Léon Destiné, Lawaune Ingram, Richardena Jackson, Rosalie King, and Lenwood Robinson. Several of these company members, as well as the musicians, La Rosa Estrada, Julio Mendez, and Candido Vicenty, appeared in one or more of Dunham's Broadway ventures, the short-lived Carib Song (1945) and the lavish revue, Bal Nègre (1946), which opened in New York following a nine-month U.S. tour. Dunham also launched a second company, the Katherine Dunham Experimental Group, featuring an interracial mix of younger performers, which included Peter Gennaro, Eartha Kitt, Walter Nicks, and Julie Robinson. But by April 1947, Dunham would leave New York, taking the company to Mexico. She subsequently would focus almost exclusively on international opportunities for the company, returning to North America only occasionally for limited touring (1953) and two Broadway engagements (1950, 1955). During 1948-1949, the company made highly successful appearances in London, Brussels, Paris, and Rome. In 1951, Dunham began a lengthy tour with the troupe of South America, which included the premiere of the controversial piece, Southland, in Chile.

Throughout the 1950s, the Dunham Company continued to tour extensively in Europe, North Africa, South America, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and East Asia, but never received the official support or funding from the U.S. State Department enjoyed by other dance companies during this period, partly perhaps due to Dunham’s political views and determinedly anti-racist stance. Members of the company during this time included Pearl Reynolds, Glory Van Scott, Ural Wilson, and Camille Yarbrough. In 1959, the company began a third European tour, which ended in Vienna when the company was left stranded due to financial mismanagement. Dunham booked some television appearances and a club date to raise funds, after which the performing company disbanded. In 1962, however, in what would be Dunham’s final appearance on Broadway, she performed in a new revue, Bamboche!, at the 54th Street Theatre with a few of her former company dancers.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Katherine Dunham Dance Companies. [Programs] New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
referencedIn Souvenir programs of ballet, dance, and theatrical productions, ca. 1924-1998. Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Dunham, Katherine. Katherine Dunham papers, 1919-1968. Southern Illinois University, Morris Library
referencedIn Dance theatre programmes collection, c1950-1999 Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance: Laban Archive
referencedIn Dunham, Katherine. Katherine Dunham collection, 1920-2006. Library of Congress. Music Division
referencedIn Ellis, Lucille. [Programs] New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
referencedIn Yarborough, Lavinia Williams. Lavinia Williams papers 1940-1989. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
referencedIn Photograph collection on Katherine Dunham, 1938-1959 University of California, Irvine. Library. Department of Special Collections
referencedIn Dunham, Katherine. Scrapbook: Clippings, announcements, programs and photographs, New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Balanchine, George person
associatedWith Beatty, Talley, 1918-1995 person
associatedWith Collins, Janet, 1917-2003 person
associatedWith Dunham, Katherine. person
associatedWith Ellis, Lucille. person
associatedWith Fort, Syvilla, 1917-1975 person
associatedWith Kitt, Eartha person
associatedWith Nicks, Walter person
associatedWith Page, Ruth person
associatedWith Romero, Carmencita, 1914- 2001 person
associatedWith Savage, Archie person
associatedWith Van Scott, Glory person
associatedWith Yarborough, Lavinia Williams. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Chicago IL US
New York City NY US
Los Angeles CA US
African American dancers
Dance companies
Managing performing arts
Performing artists

Corporate Body

Establishment 1937

Disestablishment 1960


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