Divine Technique: Katherine Dunham Archive
On February 22, 2022, Selkirk will offer a unique, one-lot auction titled, Divine Technique: Katherine Dunham Ephemera And Documents. Please scroll down to enjoy more supporting materials.
One of the most significant dancers, artists, and anthropologic figures of the 20th century, Katherine Dunham defied racial and gender boundaries during a time of stringent societal limitations. Beyond her legacies for performance and instruction, her movements translated one of the original expressions of human emotion into an art form which created the landscape for the future of anthropology. Full Biography follows at the bottom of this page.
Her name transcended being her own and became an honored technique of performing arts inspired by her interpretations of indigenous African and Afro-Caribbean dances. The school of her namesake, The Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theater, established in New York in 1945, was an honored institution instructing the likes of James Dean, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty.
The following PDFs give a glimpse into 16 folders of her archive which Selkirk Auctioneers is proud to bring to auction during Black History Month.
1) The Minefield, a 1985 bound type copy edition belonging to the artist with handwritten edits and notes throughout. This widely known unpublished memoir is a recollection of the artist’s life circa 1937-47 from her own perspective.
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2) 1954-1955 Itinerary Book with explicit direction as to the production process and booked locations of her performances. Much of the time covered is for Hollywood USA, parts of Italy, and Munich, Germany.
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3) Dunham’s Personal Address Book having the contact information of societal figures including artist Romare Bearden, dancer Alvin Ailey, then St. Louis, Missouri mayor Alphonso Cervantes, Coretta Scott King, Her Imperial Majesty Empress Mysikiitta Fa Senntao, also titled The Ambassadress of the Sun God and Resurrector of the Gheez Nation, and more.
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4) Financial Records, both personal and company oriented, spanning decades, beginning in 1968 but mainly focusing on small portions of the 1980s. The hundreds of copies of personal checks are all hand signed in ink: Katherine Dunham.
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5) Photography collection of over 40 color and black and white photos from the 1960’s through three decades. Most images capture the essence of the moment via visual documentation, including images of Leclerc. Undeveloped vintage negatives are included.
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6) “Special” Correspondence with intimate friends and artistic associates including seven letters handwritten by Katherine Dunham. Special correspondences addressed to Miss Dunham from Alvin Ailey, Vanoye Aikens, Mor Thiam, Veve A. Clark, Betty Abbott and more.
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7) Dunham’s 1983 Kennedy Honors Invitations sent from the White House by President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Invitations to family members and close assistants are included. An original mailing envelope is included with other later invitations to the future Kennedy Honors.
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8) Travel and Leisure Communication including notes from Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, close friends of the family and personal assistants. Several internationally mailed correspondences from Africa and the Caribbean.
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9) Faust Playbill, Katherine’s personal playbill from an opera by Charles Gounod which took place on Valentine’s Day weekend 1964 in Godfrey, Illinois USA. The copy is personally signed and noted by several members of the performance company with notes to Katherine.
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10) Multimedia included in the auction includes record albums, audio and video cassettes, and significant original text copy titled THE WORLD IN DANCE AND RITUAL PRESENTATION EXTRACTS. Katherine Dunham, Hotel Chelsea, 13 April 1964 and A SONG, A DANCE, AND A PLAY An Interpretive Study of Three African American Artists by Leslie Morgan Collins.
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11) Material Culture items including Haitian tourist mementos, carved figures, costume jewelry, fashion accessories, whatnots and more. Not all items are photographed.
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12) Sketchbook circa 1990 having all images in graphite on paper and host a variety of well composed yet innocent and simplistic figural drawings, some with notations. The work was likely a gift to Katherine Dunham from her goddaughter, and her personal assistant Jeanelle Stovall’s birth daughter, Katherine Stovall.
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13) Miscellaneous Ephemera letters, postcards, and more. Various articles from notable figures of the arts, education, and political world. Hundreds of paper copies of communications from afar and domestic. Historically significant communication between Katherine Dunham and University of California Berkeley Anthropology Department, circa 1970’s is included.
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14) Awards & Honors including Katherine Dunham’s honorary degrees from high profile institutions including Washington University in St. Louis and University of California, Berkely, a hand signed large format vintage Fulbright Award, and several other pieces of documentation highlighting Katherine’s accomplishments.
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15) Documents from John Pratt (Katherine Dunham’s second husband and legendary theatre figure), and records other than banking include travel, communications, receipts, and some literature having Pratt featured. John Pratt (American, deceased 1986) death certificate.
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16) Handwritten Letters from 1969 to 1987. Eight intimate letters to Katherine’s assistant Jeanne Stovall, and goddaughter Katherine Stovall. Personal and business information is communicated.
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BIOGRAPHY – KATHERINE DUNHAM (1909–2006)
Anthropologist, Ethnologue, Choreographer, Producer, Dancer, creator of the Dunham Technique, Author, Scholar, Civil Rights activist.
Katherine Dunham the legendary dancer, choreographer anthropologist, and purportedly Mambo was born on June 22, 1909 in Chicago, to an African American father and a French Canadian mother. She sang in her local Methodist Church in Joliet; but for a financial crisis at her church, she might never have sung anything but gospel songs. Katherine Dunham joined the Terpsichorean Club in school and begins to learn a kind of free-style modern dance based on ideas of Jaques-Dalcroze and Rudolf von Laban. At fourteen, to help raise money for her church, and somewhat to their embarrassment she organizes a “cabaret party.” She is the producer, director, and star of the show. She never thought about a career in dance. Instead, she consented to her family’s wish that she become a teacher, and followed her brother Albert Dunham Jr. to the University of Chicago, where she became one of the first African American women to attend this University. There she attends a lecture by Robert Redfield, a professor of anthropology who specialized in American Indian and African cultures. From him she learns that much of black culture in modern America had begun in Africa. She decides to major in anthropology and to focus on dances of the African diaspora. In the course of her studies, she attends classes taught by Redfield, A. R. Radcliffe-Browne, Edward Sapir, Lloyd Warner, and others. She earns her bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology. After graduation, she founded the Negro Dance Group Ballet Nègre. They performed at the Chicago Beaux Arts Theater in ‘A Negro Rhapsody’, dancing with the Chicago Opera Company. They disband shortly afterwards.
Around the same time she became a student of Ludmilla Speranzeva, formerly of the Moscow Theater, who had come to America with a Franco-Russian vaudeville troupe known as the Chauve-Souris. Speranzeva, one of the first ballet teachers to accept black dancers as students, she introduces Dunham to the Spanish dancers La Argentina, Quill Monroe, and Vicente Escudero. Dunham also studies ballet with Mark Turbyfill and Ruth Page and, through Vera Mirova, is exposed to East Indian, Javanese, and Balinese dance forms. Dunham consults Speranzeva about her idea to open a school for young black dancers, where she could teach them about their African heritage. Speranzeva advises her to forgo ballet, to focus on modern dance, and to develop her own style. Dunham opens her first dance school, the Negro Dance Group, in Chicago. With Speranzeva’s help, it survives a rocky start and Dunham’s subsequent absences when she was engaged in anthropological fieldwork. In a Chicago Opera production, Dunham dances the leading role in Ruth Page’s ballet La Guiablesse (The Devil Woman). Based on a Martinican legend, it has an all-black cast. Dunham continues to appear as a guest artist with the Chicago Opera, where she acts as assistant to its ballet director, Ruth Page. Dunham revives her company, Ballet Nègre, with students from her school, the Negro Dance Group. Works in the repertory choreographed by Dunham include Spanish Dance and Fantasie Nègre. Dunham and her company appear at the Chicago World’s Fair.
While performing at the Chicago Beaux Arts Theater in ‘A Negro Rhapsody’, dancing with the Chicago Opera Company one of the performances was attended by Mrs. Alfred Rosenwald Stern, who was sufficiently impressed to arrange an invitation for Dunham to appear before the Rosenwald Foundation, which offered to finance any study contributing toward her dance career that she cared to name. Thus, armed with foundation money, Dunham spent most of the next two years in the Caribbean studying all aspects of dance and the motivations behind dance. Although she traveled throughout the region, including Trinidad and Jamaica, it was in Haiti that she found special personal and artistic resonances. She wrote some scholarly essays during her trip and sold magazine articles about the Caribbean under the name of K. Dunn.
Katherine Dunham revolutionized American dance in the 1930’s by going to the roots of black dance and rituals transforming them into significant artistic choreography that speaks to all. She was a pioneer in the use of folk and ethnic choreography and one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement. She showed the world that African American heritage is beautiful. She completed groundbreaking work on Caribbean and Brazilian dance anthropology as a new academic discipline. She is credited for bringing these Caribbean and African influences to a European-dominated dance world.
She returned to the United States informed by new methods of movement and expression. Her presentation included photos, films, writings and her own demonstration which was an innovation in itself. She then created the Dunham Technique that transformed the world of dance. Thus began Dunham’s historic journey in American dance.
In 1931, Miss Dunham met one of America’s most highly regarded theatrical designers, John Pratt, forming a powerful personal and creative team that lasted until his death in the 1986. They had their marriage ceremony in Mexico as inter-racial unions were still an issue then in the US. However, as a result of the legality concerns, they had a formal wedding in Las Vegas in the year 1949. They went to adopt their daughter, Marie-Christine, an 18 month-old French child from a nursery run by the Roman Catholic convent in France. Dunham’s first school was in Chicago. In 1944 she rented Caravan Hall, Isadora Duncan’s studio in New York, and opened the K.D. school of Arts and Research. In 1945 she opened the famous Dunham School at 220 W 43rd Street in New York where such artists as Marlon Brando and James Dean took classes.
Dunham’s big breakthrough to popular recognition took place after she moved to New York in 1939 where, in February, she opened at the Windsor Theater in a program called ‘Tropics’ and le ‘Jazz Hot’. It was supposed to be a one-night event but demand was such that Dunham ended up doing 13 weeks, and followed with her own Tropical Revue, which was a hit not only in the United States but also in Canada. She appeared at the Martin Beck Theatre in October of 1940 as Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky, which she also choreographed with George Balanchine.
She then founded the Katherine Dunham Dance group – which later developed into the famous Katherine Dunham Company – devoted to African-American and Afro-Caribbean dance. Miss Dunham worked as a director in the Federal Theater Project, the government-sponsored relief program for artists that also nurtured such talents as Orson Welles and John Houseman. She co-directed and danced in Carib Song at the Adelphi Theater in New York in 1945, and was producer, director, and star of Bal Nègre at the Belasco Theater in New York in 1946.
Katherine Dunham is credited for developing one of the most important pedagogues for teaching dance that is still used throughout the world. Called the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” her groundbreaking repertoire combined innovative interpretations of Caribbean dances, traditional ballet, African rituals and African American rhythms to create the Dunham Technique. Her dance troupe in venues around the world performed many of her original works which include: Batucada, L’ag’ya, Shango, Veracruzana , Nanigo, Choros, Rite de Passage, Los Indios, and many more.
The Dunham Company toured for two decades, stirring audiences around the globe in 57 countries, with their dynamic and highly theatrical performances. Their first appearance in London was at the Prince of Wales Theatre in June 1948, in Caribbean Rhapsody, which was already a success in the United States, and with which she was to tour Europe. It was the first time Europe had seen black dance as an art form, and also the first time that the special elements of American modern dance appeared outside America.
Her mastery of body movement was considered “phenomenal.” She was hailed for her smooth and fluent choreography and dominated a stage with what has been described as “an unmitigated radiant force providing beauty with a feminine touch full of variety and nuance.” The impact of the Dunham show on the European post war generation was fantastic. They had never been exposed to anything so culturally different, and with such a power of total involvement. It was much more than the enthusiastic reaction to a brilliant theatrical experience. It was an exposure to a different culture, and to a sense of magic and of beauty they knew nothing about.
Katherine Dunham also appeared in several films: Carnival of Rhythm (1939), Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Stormy Weather (1943), Casbah (1948), Botta e Risposta (1950 Italy) – Musica en la Noche (1955 Mexico) – Liebes Sender (1954 Germany) – Mambo (1954 Italy) – Karaibishe Rythmen (1960 Vienna). She also choreographed, without appearing: Pardon My Sarong (1942 USA) – Green Mansion (1958, USA) – The Bible (1964 by John Houston, shot in Rome). In 1962 Katherine Dunham and her company appeared in Bamboche, the three-act revue that first introduced to America the dancers of Morocco, who appeared with the consent of King Hassan II.
Dunham choreographed Aida in 1963 at the Met, and continued to secure her place in artistic history by becoming the first African American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera. She also made several recordings for the Decca label of songs that were in the show. The last time the Dunham Company performed was in 1965 at the Apollo theatre.
Katherine Dunham wrote several books: ‘Journey to Accompong’, (1946), her first which describes her experiences with the Maroons; Las Danzas de Haiti, (1947), in Mexico; Les Danses d’Haiti, published in France in (1957) with the preface of Claude Lévi-Strauss; The coffee table book of Dances of Haiti (1983); A Touch of Innocence (1959) an autobiography of her childhood; Island Possessed (1969); Kasamance, an African fable (1974). During her touring years, there were also articles and short stories to her credit. Main unpublished works are Minefields – excerpts of it in ‘Kaiso’; and Berenson letters – (her correspondence with Bernard Berenson) Her writing career began amazingly at age 11 with Dunham’s short story, “Come Back to Arizona,” written when she was twelve years old, it appears in volume 2 (August 1921) of The Brownies’ Book, a periodical edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.
In 1965 Miss Dunham was invited to be an Artist in Residence at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. While there she directed a production of Faust and established a dance anthropology program at SIU in Edwardsville. In 1966, President Leopold Sedar Senghor invited Miss Dunham to come to Dakar for the famous ‘Festival des Arts Nègres’ and to serve as Director of the ‘Ballet National’ and consultant for the year. The following year, Dunham created “The Performing Arts Training Center” and the Dunham Dynamic Museum in East St. Louis, Illinois. In 1972 she choreographed and directed Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha at Wolftrap that played in Washington, Atlanta and St. Louis.
Most of Miss Dunham’s awards were for her contribution to the arts, but whenever she was engaged in conversation, she used the opportunity to teach and strategize to solve the social problems created by poverty and racism. She used her talent and insight to re-direct the energy of violent street gangs through the performing arts. Miss Dunham’s efforts continue at her Centers in the St. Louis Metropolitan region. It is the only multi-disciplinary arts organization devoted to the study, appreciation, and celebration of diverse cultures.
Katherine Dunham was always a formidable advocate for racial equality, refusing to perform at segregated venues in the United States and using her performances to highlight discrimination. On the West Coast in Hollywood, Dunham refused to sign a contract with a studio when the producer expressed that she would need to replace some of her dancers that were too black. Her company also found it difficult to find lodging where they toured because many hotels didn’t allow African Americans despite the fact they were not subject to the Jim Crow laws of the South. Katherine Dunham was in the eye of the storm in 1980, when her entourage was turned away at a five-star hotel in Brazil. She was credited to have made a storm over the incident with extensive publicity across many channels. This storm led to the promulgation of the Afonso Arinos Law, which made racism an act of felony in the South American nation of Brazil. She was politically active on both domestic and international rights issues and made national and international headlines by staging a hunger strike of 47 days in 1993 at the age of 82, to protest the U.S. government’s repatriation policy for Haitian immigrants. She attempted to raise people’s consciousness in the United States about issues in Haiti.
By that time, she was considered a living, breathing, historical institution in and of herself. Throughout her distinguished career, Katherine Dunham earned numerous honorary doctorates, awards and honors. Among the list are: the Presidential Medal of Arts, The Kennedy Center Honors with Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Elia Kazan and Virgil Thompson, the plaque d’Honneur Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce Award, French Legion of Honor, Southern Cross of Brazil, Grand Cross of Haiti, NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award, The Albert Schweitzer Music Award at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Academy Laureate, and the Urban Leagues’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Miss Dunham’s recognitions also include a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, inclusion in the book I Have a Dream, and the Women’s International Center’s Living Legacy Award. In her final years, she received an Honorary Degree in Fine Arts from Harvard and Jacobs Pillow gave a special Tribute to Katherine Dunham for her 93rd birthday. In 2000 Katherine Dunham was named America’s irreplaceable Dance Treasure. The living Dunham tradition has persisted. She was a woman far ahead of her time. Her technique was “a way of life”.
Katherine Dunham died on May 21 2006.
Sources  The Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts & Humanities  Grand Canyon University  SunSigns  The Library of Congress