February 22, 2013
In honor of February being Black History Month, Atlanta Ballet celebrates some of the African-American pioneers in dance.
Here are just a few of the notables who have contributed greatly to the dance art form and paved the way for others. We round out the list with some of today’s innovators and trend setters that represent the new voices in dance today.
1. Katherine Dunham – Renowned dancer, choreographer, and social activist. Often regarded as the “matriarch of black dance.” Her company, The Katherine Dunham Dance Company, has also been noted as the first self-supporting all-black modern dance troupe (Associated Press).
2. Arthur Mitchell – First African-American male principle dancer of a major company – New York City Ballet. Mitchell is also the founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which continues to perform today.
3. Alvin Ailey – Choreographer and founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ailey is credited with popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American participation in 20th century concert dance. His company gained the nickname "Cultural Ambassador to the World" because of its extensive international touring.
4. Bill T. Jones – Choreographer, dancer, director, and writer. Recent works include the Tony Award-winning musical Fela!, which returns to the Fox Theatre
5. New Voices/New Generation – Misty Copeland; Aesha Ash; Tai Jimenez; Lauren Anderson; Kyle Abraham; Ronald K. Brown; Camille A. Brown; Juel D. Lane; and Atlanta Ballet's own Kiara Felder, Amber Bates, and Kalab Elmore.
Katherine Dunham is probably best known as a legendary dancer who propelled the awareness of the cultures of the African Diaspora via her choreography. Dunham revolutionized American dance in the 1930's by going to the roots of black dance and ritual and transforming them into significant artistic choreography that speaks to all. She is a pioneer in the use of folk and ethnic choreography; she is one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement. Between her initial education and her appointment to Southern Illinois University in 1967, Ms. Dunham did ground breaking work in every aspect of dance, theater, music and education. She danced, choreographed, and directed on Broadway. She formed and danced with Ballet Negre, one of the first Black ballet companies in America, and appeared in the films Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky, which she co-choreographed with George Balanchine. She later formed the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, which toured in more than 60 countries, amassing cultural and theatrical experiences that she recounted in eight books and many articles and short stories. Throughout her years, Dunham continued to fight for racial equality. She devoted much of her talent and insight to re-directing the energy of violent street gangs through the performing arts. Her work resulted in the formation of the Performing Arts Training Center. She also founded the Katherine Dunham Museum and Children's School, which continues today. Ms. Dunham was the recipient of ten honorary doctorates and numerous awards, including the Kennedy Center Honors.
(Bio courtesy of The Library of Congress, Women’s International Center, The Katherine Dunham Center for Arts and Humanities, and PBS.)
Arthur Mitchell is known around the world as an accomplished artistic director, educator, choreographer and dancer. Born in New York City on March 27, 1934, he began his dance training at New York City’s High School of the Performing Arts. Mitchell continued his classical training when he received a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet. In 1955, he was the first African-American male to become a permanent member of a major ballet company when he joined the New York City Ballet. During his 15-year career with the New York City Ballet, Mitchell rose quickly to the rank of principal dancer. Mitchell is best known for two roles choreographed especially for him by the late George Balanchine: the pas de deux from Agon and the lighthearted Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Performing in nightclubs, on Broadway, in film, and on television, Mitchell was a popular guest artist in the United States and abroad. In 1966, Mitchell was asked to organize the American Negro Dance Company, which represented the United States at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Senegal, Africa. In 1967, at the request of the US International Association, he founded the National Ballet Company of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. In 1969, with financial assistance from Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel, the Ford Foundation, and his own savings, Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with his mentor and ballet instructor Karel Shook. As a professional dance company and a school of the allied arts, the continued expansion of Dance Theatre of Harlem into a multicultural institution has attracted thousands of professional dancers and students from around the world. Arthur Mitchell adds to the legacy every day as Dance Theatre of Harlem’s founding artistic director.
(Bio Courtesy of The Dance Theatre of Harlem.)
Alvin Ailey, African-American dancer and choreographer, is remembered by many as a modern dance genius. His spiritual and gospel background, along with his desire to enlighten and entertain, formed the backbone of his unique choreography. Ailey began his dance training with the Lester Horton Dance Theater in Los Angeles, CA in 1949. Following Horton’s death in 1953, Ailey was director of the company until it disbanded in 1954. The same year he moved to New York City and performed in various stage productions and studied acting with Stella Adler and dance with Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Charles Weidman, and others. In 1958 Ailey formed his own dance company. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, composed primarily of blacks, toured extensively both in the United States and abroad. In addition to pieces by Ailey, the company performed the works of several pioneer choreographers of modern dance, including Horton, Pearl Primus, and Katherine Dunham. The company’s signature piece is Revelations (1960), a powerful early work by Ailey that is set to African-American spirituals. In all, Ailey created 79 ballets during his lifetime. Alvin Ailey died in 1989 at the age of 58. In 1992, he was inducted into the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame.
(Bio courtesy of About.com and The Encyclopedia Britannica.)
Bill T. Jones
Bill T. Jones, a multi-talented artist, choreographer, dancer, theater director, and writer, has received major honors ranging from a 1994 MacArthur “Genius” Award to Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2009 and named “An Irreplaceable Dance Treasure” by the Dance Heritage Coalition in 2000. His ventures into Broadway theater resulted in a 2010 Tony Award for Best Choreography for the critically acclaimed Fela!, the musical co-conceived, co-written, directed and choreographed by Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones began his dance training at the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY), where he studied classical ballet and modern dance. After living in Amsterdam, Mr. Jones returned to SUNY and became co-founder of the American Dance Asylum in 1973. In 1982, he formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company (then called Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Company) with his late partner, Arnie Zane. In 2010, Mr. Jones was named executive artistic director of New York Live Arts, a new model of an artist-led, producing/presenting/touring arts organization. Formed by a merger of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and Dance Theater Workshop, New York Live Arts is a unique company in the United States. In addition to creating more than 140 works for his own company, Mr. Jones has received many commissions to create dances for modern and ballet companies that include Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Boston Ballet, Lyon Opera Ballet, and Berlin Opera Ballet, among others. In 1995, Mr. Jones directed and performed in a collaborative work with Toni Morrison and Max Roach, Degga, at Alice Tully Hall, which was commissioned by Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun Festival. His collaboration with Jessye Norman, How! Do! We! Do!, premiered at New York’s City Center in 1999.
(Bio Courtesy of New York Live Arts.)
Look out next month for our feature on strong female voices in dance in celebration of Women’s History Month.