Day 14: Completion of First “Work Module,” Followed by First Breakthrough

I’ve actually accomplished a surprising amount in the last two weeks.  I told myself I couldn’t write this blog post until I finished the ‘module’ of work I created for myself, so that I could coherently synthesize my thoughts on a range of related items, but I probably shouldn’t have waited this long.  Lesson learned.  Here’s a bunch of stuff.  The first 2/3rds is an in-depth rundown of my thoughts after the first “work module” I assigned myself, but that’s skippable if you’re more interested in the first major breakthrough that followed it.

One of the things my committee suggested during my defense is that I stop cleaving so desperately to the “postwar” era specifically and consider expanding my periodization to “mid-century” in order to give myself a bit more flexibility in my history-telling.  I immediately agreed with this idea in theory, but realized that in practice one of my weakest areas of historical knowledge between, say, the industrial revolution and the present, is the 1940s.  That late interwar period, those years leading up to WWII and even during it…I don’t have the most thorough grasp of exactly what the key social, political, and economic dynamics were, to say nothing of how they related to dance cultures or screen cultures of the time.  So I decided, by way of introduction, to take a look at a few 1940s texts that I suspect will be key for me and read my way around them, as it were:

  • I watched Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather (1943), both all-black-cast musicals starring Lena Horne and adapted from previous material (a Broadway musical in the former case [whose choreography was incidentally collaboratively created by George Balanchine & Katherine Dunham] and a story + song + Bill Robinson’s life in the latter).
  • I read Shane Vogel’s article “Performing ‘Stormy Weather’: Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham”
  • I re-read the introduction and third chapter (“In the Shadow of War”) of Susan Manning’s Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion.  

The central figure through all of this, for me, anyway, is clearly black dancer & choreographer Katherine Dunham.  She’s also sort of the through-line for old versions of my dissertation, as she had a working relationship with both Maya Deren and Ruth Page, each of whom had chapters devoted to them once-upon-a-prospectus.

Dunham and her dancers in the 'abstract' dance scene of Stormy Weather.

Dunham and her dancers in the ‘abstract’ dance scene of Stormy Weather.

So, what were my thoughts? Because my chair is an expert in sound and music cultures, and because he strongly encouraged me to look for potential scholarly models in the existing work on music cultures’ mixture with screen cultures, I developed a habit while reading for exams: I’m always on the lookout for killer sentences in the music literature where I could simply replace the musical terms with dance terms and the sentence would be totally spot-on for my own argument.  I found one in the Vogel article:

[Interracial] collaborations made popular songs dance a rich sites for the sonic visual articulation and negotiation of dynamic social processes inaugurated by migration, immigration, and urbanization. (95)

Now, maybe this wasn’t true of all dance at the time, but definitely in the Broadway version of Cabin in the Sky.  Excellent.  Also, I have a feeling this isn’t unlike John Perpener’s position in African-American Concert Dance (2001), which I clearly need to read. I also found Vogel’s general reading of the film version of Stormy Weather compelling.  After including a nice little archival treat—an illustration of “the very public dispute between the studio and black classical composer William Grant Still” re: the stereotypical music to be used in the film, c/o The Chicago Defender, a primarily black paper—he offers up his own argument:

I want to suggest that Stormy Weather was more than just a nostalgic backward glance at a rapidly vanishing era of black performance. While it was this, some of the performances in the film manage to articulate a critique of the film’s conditions of aesthetic possibility and can be seen as a reflection on the fraught historical trajectory of black American performance and white spectatorship. (105)
This makes a lot of sense to me, and helps to explain why the 1940s represented a bit of a gap in my brain.  If minstrelsy started disappearing from live stages in the ’20s, and was relegated mainly to cartoons and musicals in the ’30s, something had to be happening onscreen in the 1940s, in the absence of actual minstrelsy, that was a prelude to the phenomenon of Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley in the ’50s (Krin Gabbard argues that Brando “may have been the first American actor to practice minstrelsy in whiteface”).  Maybe that ‘something’ of the ’40s was a moment of black critical performance. Vogel’s main vehicle for this argument is—surprise!—Katherine Dunham.  Some key quotes around that:
Dunham’s performance marks a choreographic contradiction within the film between the history of stereotyped minstrel dance and the emergence of modern Negro dance. (107)
Dunham’s kinesthetic rewriting of “Stormy Weather” situates the song and its racial inscription within a diasporic rather than a national horizon. (107)
This abstract representation of stormy weather undoes the suffocating aesthetics of literalism that governed black performance, made all the more totalizing in the age of cinema. (106)
Then, on the more technical side (note to self: good surface-level movement analysis):
As Dunham’s formal modern ballet softens gradually by the end of “Stormy Weather” into more fluent movements centered on the pelvis and a relaxed upper body, we see—as homage, as critique, as citation—traces of vernacular black dance. (108)
Some dancers, arms raised and bent at the elbow, do a stylized version of the shimmy, transforming for the concert stage the upper-body movement that Ethel Waters was known for doing on the saloon stage. What was imagined as a stereotypical association of physicality and naturalness in black performance is revealed instead by Dunham’s choreography to be the product of technical precision and put into syncretic conversation with European dance traditions. (108-109)
And finally, driving it home:
In short, Dunham and her troupe, occupying the role originally held by the Cotton Club’s chorus girls, offered a modernist revision of the racial aesthetic of the black nightclub tradition and restaged the history of black performance. (109)
Ah, Shane Vogel, you never disappoint.  So, as I was reading this, of course nodding a vigorous “yes” at his arguments, I remembered that there’s a very detailed analysis of this very period of Dunham’s stage work in Manning’s book.  So, I ran off to re-read that.  There’s a great deal going on there, and it’s not concerned with the screens at all, but it was a very useful re-read with some new take-aways:
  • In her introduction, Manning keeps mentioning “divided historiography,” which is a nice, clean moniker for a certain tendency in dance history before the 1990s to write histories of African-American concert dance and modern (+ postmodern) dance separately.  But, perhaps more importantly, the recent “more inclusive histories obscure the extent to which modern dance and Negro dance remained conceptually distinct, yet mutually constitutive, categories at midcentury” (xxiii).  Manning’s point here, which is a pretty brilliant one, is not simply that all American dance is a complex intertwining of cultural influences and we should acknowledge it as such, which plenty of smart scholars have now illustrated in various ways; it’s that “spectators at midcentury could not perceive the intercultural fusions that now seem so apparent,” particularly in “modern dance” and “Negro dance” of the period (xxiv).  One of the key questions her book interrogates is why.  She illustrates the cultural landscape & dance spectatorship backdrop over the course of the book, but I think this is going to be a key question for me, in relation to dance on screen spectatorship, as well.  I wonder how my answer will differ from Manning’s.
  • What’s ‘new’ about Katherine Dunham is that she choreographs and performs a newly diasporic understanding of African-American experience.  A lot of this is due to her education in anthropology.  She wasn’t the only one to deal with diaspora, of course—Pearl Primus did so as well, but Manning characterized her approach as a “more fragmented vision of African-American life, juxtaposing African dances with dances of social protest and dances set to spirituals, blues, jazz, and experimental music” (172).  Primus, for example, had a famous piece called “Strange Fruit,” whereas Dunham’s works were more concerned with what Paul Gilroy would call the Black Atlantic.  This, along with a clear preference for the abstract expressivity of “modern dance,” may have something to do with why a dance critic like John Martin seemed to see Primus as more of a “modern” dancer than Dunham. (See Manning’s analysis on 167)
  • This is more of a note to self than a take-home point, but there are numerous mentions in Manning’s third chapter of the activist approach Dunham would take when touring her company around the U.S.  More than once, her reception (especially in the South) was troubling.  It would be interesting for me to compare this live reception with her film’s reception, if Stormy Weather was even played in southern white theaters.  I could compare the reception of Stormy Weather with Dunham’s touring in Louisville, for example, in 1944.  (See Manning 125)

The final thing that happened while I worked my way through my module was the reminder that there’s always more to view, more to read.  I think this will become commonplace in my blog posts—I am now going to list (mainly for myself) the items I discovered which future me is going to want to examine.

FilmsCarnival of Rhythm (1941) [I think it’s based on a suite of dances performed at the Windsor Theatre in 1940 called Island Songs, which starred Dunham, Talley Beatty, and Archie Savage, apparently like the film]; Star Spangled Rhythm (1943)

Archived Periodicals: Dance Observer; Dance Magazine; American Dance[r]; Dance; [The Nation & The New Republic?]

Secondary Sources: John O. Perpener’s African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond; Julia L. Foulkes’s Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey; VèVè Clark’s Kaiso!: Writings by and about Katherine Dunham

And now, the breakthrough. It all started with a conversation with my mom, as so many great breakthroughs do for me.  I’d been doing some work on Ruth Page for the Chicago Film Archives and was commenting, especially in light of my committee’s recommendation that I remove that chapter from my DOS-D, that someone really should write an academic book about Page because her career represents a fascinating story of risk-taking, success, experimenting, and firsts.  “First” feminist ballet, (one of the) “first” times Nureyev danced in the US post-defection, “first” person to conduct ethnographic dance study (using film!) abroad for the purposes of adapting it here in the U.S., “first” and probably only big-name choreographer to see that most of her repertoire be recorded on film, etc. etc.  Discussing it with Mumzot (why she puts up with that nickname I don’t know) helped me realize something: I should be the one to write it.  It would be a book not just about Page and her function as this rich hub in American dance that for some reason has slipped largely under the radar, but also about women and technology and useful cinema and the dance company film.

And then I thought: Oh my gods, this would be a great second book.  Which then helped me figure out what my first book (read: DOS-D) should be about: masculinity.  Funnily enough, I already had a document sitting on my desktop entitled “SECOND BOOK,” and in it was the (very) rough outline of this very book about masculinity, race, and dance on screen at midcentury.  So then I said to myself: “Shit, Pam, this isn’t your second book at all; this is your dissertation!”  Ta-daaaaa!

SO.  The breakthrough is a lovely scholarly progression to be made.  DOS-D/first book = masculinity, race, dance on the commercial screen.  Second book = feminist ballet, women & cinematic technologies, dance on the non-commercial screen.  And there we have it.  Much excitement!

Next questions, then: Which dudes? What periodization? Structured how? Current list of possible dudes to be included:

Fred Astaire
Bill Robinson
Gene Kelly
The Nicholas Brothers
Elvis Presley

Donald McKayle
Talley Beatty
Merce Cunningham?

I feel like Cunningham is more properly saved for later.  (Maybe my third book can be on Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, and their dance/screen combos…hahahaha that’s a good 15 years away, Pam).  And Beatty, while interesting, doesn’t have that much of a screen presence, really…  That leaves 6.  Still too many; better think on it.

Well, reader, that concludes today’s epic blog post.  Obviously I need to post more often to prevent behemoths such as this.  Congratulations if you made it all the way to the end.  Until next time~