"Rites de Passage", "Southland”, Cleo Parker Robinson, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Cleo Parker Robinson dance company, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, Cold War, DU's Newman Center for the Performing Arts, Dunham legacy, Dunham Technique, Edgar Page, El Teatro Municipal, Gates Hall, Harry Belafonte, Julie Belafonte, Katherine Dunham, Katherine Dunham choreography, Katherine Dunham dance, Katherine Dunham Technique, NEA, pre-Civil Rights protest, social-political dance, Susan Richardson, Symphony Theater of Chile, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Newman Center for the Performing Arts, Theo Jamison, U.S. State Department, University of Denver
Cleo Parker Robinson revives Katherine Dunham’s controversial “Southland” ballet after 6 decades
Thanks to its uncompromising subject matter and censorship by the U.S. State Department, “Southland” became one of countless American dance pieces lost to the eroding currents of time.
So the quest to bring it to life in Denver has not only been about gathering the funding and goodwill to perform such a polarizing work, but being able to reconstruct it at all.
“This has been a difficult process because you’re working with documentary materials and just piecing things together,” said Theo Jamison, a choreographer and former Dunham company member helping to restage “Southland” for Cleo Parker Robinson dance company. Denver dance maven Cleo Parker Robinson’s mission to revive “Southland” kicked into overdrive in spring 2010 when she won $100,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to exclusively restage and tour Dunham’s works, including “Southland” and 1941′s “Rites de Passage.”
But the journey began long before that. Robinson was a friend, student and supporter of the late Dunham, the great 20th century activist, anthropologist and black dance pioneer who died in 2006 at the age of 96.
“We’ve had lots of milestones in our 42 years, but I see this as real critical moment for the company and our legacy, along with the Dunham legacy,” said Robinson, who will introduce “Southland” on stage at Gates Hall at DU’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts Sept. 14-16. “And also what it means to have it done in my own community first before we venture out on the road with it — I’m elated and I’m also anxious.”
Even in our relatively desensitized media environment, “Southland” is still a bracing work. The two-act ballet traces the story of a black field hand accused of raping a white woman — and one scene unflinchingly depicts the lynching of that man, making it a potent, pre-Civil Rights movement protest piece.
“Southland” premiered at El Teatro Municipal in Santiago, Chile, in 1951 after it was commissioned by the Symphony Theater of Chile, but according to an abstract available through the Library of Congress, the performance was shut down by the U.S. embassy after being deemed shockingly anti-American. The embassy also forbade reviews of the piece, which was not performed again until a short run in Paris in 1953. After that, it was shuttered and began to fade from memory.
But Dunham’s art continued to cost her dearly as she lost favor with the U.S. State Department at the height of the Cold War. The government denied her applications for financial support, even as it continued sending many other dance companies abroad as cultural goodwill ambassadors.
The return of “Southland” marks not only a triumph for Dunham’s legacy, but a reminder of what she represented in her life and work, according to former Dunham company dancer Julie Belafonte.
“Cleo and I had discussed (restaging) ‘Southland’ more than once but we never dreamed that it would really come to be,” said the 83-year-old Belafonte. “I feel personally I owe it to her, because I danced with the company for seven years from her school, where I grew as a young adult, to where she finally integrated me into her professional company when she went to Europe.”
Belafonte, who was married to musician and activist Harry Belafonte for 47 years, is one of the only known surviving members of the original “Southland” cast. Since February, she has been traveling to Denver to consult with Robinson’s choreographers, set designers and costume designers to tweak the presentation of “Southland” and keep it as close as possible to the original production.
Still, the six decades between stagings have erased much of “Southland’s” original creative materials, despite Robinson’s exhaustive, years-long research.
“Every day it just keeps evolving,” Robinson said last week between rehearsals. “We are working through scores and notes, and as you do these reconstructions you learn so much about the unique time that Ms. Dunham was in and the role of artists at that time — how they were really more involved in these consciousness-raising pieces.”
The NEA grant only covers about half of “Southland’s” restaging and expected touring costs, but Robinson said she couldn’t wait to marshal all of it before committing to the project.
“We have so much fundraising to do, but I know if we had waited we might not have some of these people alive and may have missed a total opportunity. These (productions) are living things and time is fragile.”
As for the show’s reception, Robinson and others have said “Southland’s” themes are as relevant today as when it premiered, particularly in our highly polarized political environment.
“I’m hoping this will again bring recognition to Ms. Dunham’s legacy and her social-political statements and activism,” said choreographer Jamison. “It should be something that stimulates something in not just black people, but all people, that we should consider our humanity to each other and what it means to be humane.”
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble production.
The Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver.
Friday-Saturday, Sept. 14-15, 7:30 p.m. Sunday Sept. 16, 2:00 p.m.
Tickets $28-$40. 303-871-7720
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