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HISTORIC ESSAYS

Pioneers in Negro Concert Dance: 1931 to 1937
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1937

Florence Warwick, dance instructor at Spelman College, spoke about the freedom of the Negro artist to "develop his vital folk improvisations into more substantial art forms," and the role of colleges in introducing students to serious dance courses.

The headline event for the year was the debut of Eugene Von Grona's American Negro Ballet at Harlem's Lafayette Theatre on November 21, 1937. Von Grona, an exponent of the Wigman school of dance, rehearsed the company for three years and created a repertoire that reflected his background and training. James Weldon Johnson praised Von Grona for "defying the traditions that would limit the Negro's art to native or instinctive art," and further stated that "this performance marks an epoch in the life of the American dance forms." Music by Forsythe, Bach, Ellington, Handy, and Stravinsky inspired choreographic episodes. Lavinia Williams, Al Bledger, Hetty Stephens, Valerie Cavell, Beryl Clark, and Jon Edward were outstanding and received good press. The media were viewing the Negro dancer as a serious dance artist instead of a specialist only in jazz dances.

Bernice Brown, unknown on the East Coast, organized the first interracial dance company for performances in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The company made its debut on February 23, 1940 (the same month and year that Katherine Dunham made her debut at the Windsor Theater in New York City), appearing in "Negro Lament" and "Statement for Peace" with Gertrude Lippincott's Modern Dance Group. They were favorably received in a city unaccustomed to intercultural groups together on the stage.

The Bernice Brown Modern Dance Company was active until 1942, performing such diverse works by Miss Brown as "Chain Gang Songs," "Street Cries," "I saw the Congo," "Juba," "Two Psalms," and the large-scale work "The Negro in American Life," with choral accompaniment. Miss Brown's untimely death due to an automobile accident ended a career that was moving in the direction initiated by Hemsley Winfield.

A "summing up" of the first years of Negro concert dance and the diversity of evolving styles took place on Sunday evening, March 7, at the Kaufman Auditorium in New York City, under the direction of Edna Guy and Alison Burroughs. To use a familiar saying, the seeds planted by Hemsley Winfield and Edna Guy were beginning to flower. The "Negro Dance Evening" was significant on many levels: the program assembled dancers and choreographers who found their heritage in the beat of the drum, the blues, spirituals, and folk songs; it revealed the creativity of individuals who individually and collectively represented a cultural force, expressing the diversity of black humanity; it focused on thematic choices determined by the imagination and not by imposed limitations; dancers and choreographers were motivated to create dances as works of art rather than works of ethnic art; dance was a synthesis of feeling, intellect, style, form, technique, and content flavored by the "black vital force."

Importantly, the Negro concert movement would be viewed as part of the American modern dance continuum, not as an isolated phenomenon. The future direction of African-American creativity was very much in evidence. The program was a model of design, for the viewers saw authentic West African dances performed by Asadata Dafora, Alma Sutton, and Abdul Assen, then dances of Latin America and the United States. Katherine Dunham and her group performed "Haitian Ceremonial Dances" and "Carnival Dances," featuring Talley Beatty. In the third section, Edna Guy and Clarence Yates teamed for a "Cakewalk." The fourth section, Modern Trends, had solos by Edna Guy ("After Gauguin") and Katherine Dunham ("Moorish Dance"); "Negro Songs of Protest" by Guy; Yates; Burroughs; and a dramatic offering starring Talley Beatty, "Tropic Death."

Belle Rosette, who had been generating interest in traditional West Indian dances, contemplated leaving Trinidad to study in New York. Maudelle Weston, described in the LOS ANGELES TIMES as "an artist who is exploring a hitherto unknown world of dance," became the first black dancer to work with Lester Horton on the West Coast. Black dance artists were now on the eve of greater recognition not only for shaping the African-American modern dance tradition but also for extending the scope of American modern dance itself.

Copyright © 2001 by Joe Nash

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