Anthropologist, dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham’s most notorious ballet, Southland, opened last weekend at The Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver. This is the first ever performance in the U.S., over sixty years after Dunham first produced it.
Southland debuted in Chile in 1951 and was immediately subjected to repression efforts by the U.S. State Department. The play dramatically stages the lynching of a black man accused of raping a white woman, and in the anti-Communist fervor of the early 1950s it was considered dangerously subversive by government officials in the U.S. Dunham took the ballet to Paris, where it was also met with U.S. suppression efforts and criticism from the American embassy.
Katherine Dunham, 1956
Photo credit: New York World Telegram / Library of Congress
Dunham is often remembered for her roles in Hollywood pictures, but she was a talented anthropologist as well, and she received consecutive Rosenwald grants for anthropological research in 1935 and 1936. Dunham used these grants to travel to Caribbean nations and study indigenous dance forms, research which informed both her choreography and her academic study of the cultural links between African nations and the diaspora. The peripatetic researcher and artist’s first trip abroad was under this Rosenwald fellowship, and she later compiled her research into a Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago.
Constance Valis Hill argued in a 1994 article in Dance Research Journal that Dunham’s Southland was ahead of its time, a work of protest art that may have been received more favorably a decade later during the upheaval of the 1960s. Although the ballet was criticized publicly at the time and caused strife within Dunham’s dance troupe, her artistic and critical vision of the Jim Crow American south is finally getting the treatment it deserves.
Read more about this performance and the history of the ballet at the Denver Post.
By Michael Rose