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Seconding the Motion: Katherine Dunham
Seconding the Motion: Katherine Dunham
TitleSeconding the Motion: Katherine Dunham
DescriptionGives general introduction to Katherine Dunham's educational and artistic background, and then discusses her role as choreographer of a Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Aida. The author reports that while there is some controversy among reviewers about the marriage of Dunham's West Indies dance choreography and the classical Opera of Giuseppe Verdi, a "substantial body" of the audience seemed to love it. There is some discussion throughout of the difficulty of securing government subsidies and general funding for artistic productions.
CollectionSCRC Text (Southern Illinois University Carbondale)
SubcollectionKatherine Dunham Papers
Original Publication SourceOpera News
Subjects -titlesAida
Subjects -peopleMerrill, Nathaniel ; Limon, Jose ; Strasburg, Paula ; Page, Ruth ; Pratt, John ; Dunham Pratt, Marie-Christine ; Verdi, Giuseppe ; Dunham, Katherine
Other topicsA Touch of Innocence (Book) ; Performing Arts Subsidies ; Belly dancing ; Metropolitan Opera Ballet
Collection ID/Box#FP20_7_F1DUNHAM_B103_F14_03
Rights StatementFor permission to reproduce, distribute, or otherwise use this image, please contact the Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Phone: + 1 (618) 453-2516. Email:
Nafhaniel Men ill
"People Mmctimcs caU me Bob, " said Nathaniel C, Memll, stage director of ti\^ Merin|X Iit^n'& new Aida^ during a rehearsal break in his liny office at the Opera House. "Thai's panly because I toot over RoberE Herman'; $iaging chores on his promotion lo the admini^iia- tion, partly because of Robert MerriJI, ihe baiilune—ru relalion, Soineiintcs 1 gcc his maiE, and he gels credit For my siagingl"
As a physical lype, Nal Merrill i; ihc dnlilhtsis of ihe lempera- mental opera singcf. Lean, bcs| cciacled and p^h^h be mighi well be die mnlhcmalidan he wished to become until h DnrHnoulh colleague asked, "Unle&s you wan! ir be an actuary all your life, whai will yuu do in msihemalicsr^ Widi good credit^ in music hislofy, Merrill switched majors, "l studied ihcuiy and even compovd Stiing pjcccs and tati^. When did 1 slop writing music? As won as 1 realized
' bad I
MccriJI was bom in 1927 in Newton, M;.swK.liusciis, where his fjilher was presiJcnl of ihc National Association of iteal EslQic Boards; hi^ brolhcr runs a Fann in Vermont, whcit; Mcrnll. his wife Barbara aikd m'o childi'en relax CHch summer after a hectic six wer^ks in Coliirador At the Central City Opefa, as eJsewbtre, he collaborates iviih designer RcjJrerc O'Hcdm; the present Mda is dieir liFiccndi imxluctiun since L957,
"1 approach opeia cmircly ihruugh the music, " \lerril| declared. 'TJtcaicr diieclois aie used to pacing ihc action as ihcy please, but the music delonnincs timing almost lo a split second. Tl tells how liiji^ a singer may lake lo gel from this doof to thai chair or up the ^icps, and the stage musi be ki accordjnglyr" The director smdJed wilh Boris Coldovsky in Boston, where he met his wife, a voice stu¬ dent; after assisting the ¦m|fie^ 'o ai Tanglewood, Merrill worked in scvciiil German cities and Glyndehoume. En 1958 he staged Vflessfl in Salzhurg. Al tlie Metropolitan he has taken charge of L'Elisir d'Amoie, T-unaidoU Die Meincrsinger and AAriana Lecotivrear.
The conversation shifted ro the eucrvni MeiropoMian season, during u'hich Mcriill will be m command of the Wagner operas, Il Tiovalore and Macbeth as weCJ as Ai^- "For every netv production. Bob O'Heam and I siudy the original stage insiruciions nobody has looked up for ages, '* he said. "We spent icn months on Aidn-" The director's S[ieciqlly prepared piano score revealed sheets of wriring | apef-- covered wilh cryptic notes and symbols—bound between the music pages. "The Triumphal Scene is a iremerulous challenge: eleven minutes of coniinuoua parading, dances and mHtehes Dverlajtping, three hundi^^d people onstage, pouring in from all sides. We like space and grandeur. It's a standing joke between us, whatever one is suggesting, the other says, 'I had something larger in mind.'"
Asked why he has die Kin^ descend the steps eo gni:t Radames, Merrill explained, "Normally Pharaoh himself went to battle. By sending Radames he almost lifts him to royal status, RadaiiKS' helmet resembles the crown, djd you notice?"
And die final scene, a vast, receding vault—hfiw could Aida and JtadamcS SuEocate so quicklyi^ ^'They don't!" exclaimed the director, pointing lo the word "labyrinth" iri the scorc- "In Fact. Itadames doesn't die at all. Noihing m the music irwlicaies die end of life-no gasp, no chord. Egyptians didn t fear death; it was the beginning of a happy ijme, and this is the nieaning of Verdi's serene melody. The lovers bid farewell to earth and gradually ebb away inlo bliss. Thai's why 1 replace the customary temple above die tomb widi the heavens opening." And Amneris? "I dt'n I want her to weep! She was the only [icrson who could have saved Radames, and failing diat slie could have gone herself intu the tumb to die with him. Instead she atxepts the verdict of the priestSr" A, H.L.
Katherine Dmiliani
Katherine Dunham is a woman uf many gifts. Five years ago the dancer-choreiigrHpher took lo the typewriter for a critically acclaimed autobiography, A Toimh of f^nocencf—"not just to tell the story of my youth, " she ejLplains, "but to write scnnething well." A precise, pcisuasive speaker, she held a Senate cummitcce spellbound scmie weeks back expounding her belief in subsidy for the arts. In continu¬ ous world lours since 1947 Miss Dunham has seen first-hand die impact of the government-sjWnsored I^Jshoi Ballet and Peking Opera on other lands. Her own troupe of diiriy-live, skimping along without such aid, has also left an rniprint. hut often at the price of its l wd tears. "The EJni]r;d States could win the world's respect by sending the best of our performing art abiciad, " she maintains.
At die moment, the Dunham troupe is disbaniled, "waiting to be teiinjtedr We can't operate herej It costs too much. Last season we opened on Broadway the mghi the Cuh^ crisis began, and closed in five daysr We hoped lo reopen, but the newspaper sirike came along." Since then Hiss Dunham has started a new dance school, her first in New York in eight jears. "I lost il50, COO on the last one, " she smiles; its curriculum extended to thirty courses in the Humanjiics, given by such teachers as Jos^ Lmn and Paula Scrasberg, There were over 400 students, half of them nn schclarship.
f^tiienne Ehinham's quiet Chicago childhood did not promise a far-dung career in the iheatfr. "I always loved motion, " she recalls. At eight, slie staged and danced in a chureh beneht that raised %12. to the amazement of her elders. In high school Katherine studied euryihmics, which led to ballet training, work widi Ruth Page, the founding of her first school (ui I9i4) and, iinally, die winning of a Fellowship to study ethnic dancing in die West Indies. Along the way ahe earned a Ph^B. in anthropokigy at the University of Chicago, Her dance career skyrocketed in such films as Stormy Weather and Star-Spanned Rhythm, whilf on Broadway she started in Cahln m the Sky. She also produced the musicals Tropical Revue and Bal Negre, and Milhaud, Stravinsky and Copland composed for her. Oil- stage she is marrjed to desigiier John Pratt, who creates her decors, and has a daughter, Marie-ChT stiner
Her choreography For the new Metropolitan Aida has ei-oked a storm of controversy! "Dandy for voodoo but not for Verdi, " quipped the Uerdd Trihuae'5 Walter Terry. A substantial body of the public, Ikowever, awarded the ballet long applause. As For Miss Dunham, sbe loves Aida's arias and duets but finds the dance music less than stimulating. "If Verdi were alive today, he'd throw it out and do something new!" she feels. "1 told the dancers we'd leam the steps in spite of the music" To this end, she iflughi the movements to die thumping of drums, mm Verdi, and then combined it with Aida. During rehearsal the choreo^pher felt the draw of opera's purse strings; twice die number of dancers, she thinks, would have been better suited to the spectacle. "Backstage we don't have all those djarmnds you see out fronli"
For the Triumphal Scene the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, aug¬ mented by members of the I unham tioupe, is divided into five gmupsi camp-foHoweis in gray, desert girls in blue, two sets of mer¬ cenaries C'from the Sudan"^ and concubines. The last are a projec¬ tion of Miss Dunham's imagination—"women groomed for the plea¬ sure of men. Funny, no one h^s mentioned that theii legs are chained; thsit's why they move only dieJr arms, bellies and heads. Rclly dancing must be very old." Her choreography tries to capture the heterogene¬ ous quality of a big city rather dian look like a trained Spectacle for Pharaoh' "If I'd wanted that, I'd have put the girls on point and the whole ballet back in Verdi's ume." fi.F.
The Aida ditceioi and cho
in phoio hy &oh iMchiudso
Original dimensions (cm.)22 x 28
Digital Object TypeImage
Digital File Format.tif
Digital File PublisherSpecial Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
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