Attitudes and Vocabulary: Moments in Black Dance in Britain
Insights prompted by research related to the ADAD promoted photographic exhibition, Peepul Centre, Leicester, from 15th January 2007 to the 31st May 2007.
By Dick Matchett
I thought readers of Hotfoot might be challenged by considering a few of the statements and reviews I discovered while researching Buddy Bradley and Katherine Dunham.
I invite you to make your own judgements, but I will comment briefly here in the introduction, that context is all. I ask you to remember that what was accepted without question 70 or 80 years ago may seem totally unacceptable in today’s changed environment. The words mean the same ��" however the situation in which they may or may not be used changes radically.
I have to start by making clear that most of the reviews that I read were positive and the language in which they were expressed would be no different today. Nevertheless for the purpose of this article I have chosen to concentrate on the few occasions where the difference of attitude or the tone of expression was most noticeable and therefore possibly most revealing. Please bear in mind, that to reviewers of that period (the 1930s and 1940s) the elements of the work which they reacted to most powerfully were where it was most different to the norms of the day. For some of them, the powerfulness of their reaction affected the tone and vocabulary of their response.
The ‘N’ Word
In 1932 Buddy Bradley was invited by the Camargo Society to choreograph a ballet to the music of Spike Jones. Frederick Ashton worked with Buddy to present “High Yellow” at the Savoy Theatre with Alicia Markova in the lead.
All the dancers had to ‘black up’ and the reviews and recollections of the artists involved make for interesting reading.
The Dancing Times didn’t hold back. “The first new ballet of the season was a nigger fantasia - syncopation a la mode - the voodoo monotony of the rhythm make it seem too long”.
To me, the attitude which comes through most strongly is the negative response to the music - which is strange since it was the composer who Ashton and Markova were initially inspired by.
Markova indeed collected his music recordings and in her Knightsbridge flat there is still a large collection of them which were much loved by her all her life.
Anton Dolin who was not involved with the project, writes in his autobiography “I personally hated seeing Markova dancing in High Yellow”. He added that Olga Spessivtseva, Diaghlev, Prima Ballerina, withdrew from the programme seemingly because she found it impossible to dance Swan Lake Act 2 on the same stage as Buddy’s jazz ballet. Markova’s attitude was more balanced. In her book ‘Markova Remembers’ she admitted “Frederick Ashton collaborated with the American Jazz choreographer Buddy Bradley in High Yellow for which I was coached for 6 weeks in Jazz dancing and the snake hips by Buddy Bradley who told me I reminded him of his adored Florence Mills”.
In the book ‘Markova the Legend’ we read “she danced a black girl there being no black ballerina”. Alicia received excellent notices for her authenticity in Buddy’s ballet - not so the corps. And what about Dolin? Well if you read on in his autobiography you discover the following seven or so years later - “Buddy Bradley produced and arranged a new kind of dance for me, the dance of The Tiger God” which was one of the triumphs of a most successful revue at Blackpool Opera House.
It is also interesting to consider that the money for “High Yellow” was put up by Lady Cunard. Dolin reports in his book that “I know it shocked Lady Cunard”. This is very ironic when you consider that Lady Cunard was the mother of Nancy Cunard who published ‘Negro’ in 1934, one of the first significant works of black aesthetics. This is the same Lady Cunard who when she discovered what her daughter was publishing and the company she kept in order to make it possible, allegedly delivered herself of the
“Do you mean to say my daughter actually knows a negro?”. Now that is attitude.
“Light Up” was a revue at the Savoy Theatre in 1940. It had choreography by both Buddy Bradley and the well known English choreographer Antony Tudor. It was the former, however, who stole the reviews with a piece that I suspect would be titled differently today.
“The sensation of the evening was a dope fiend dance called ‘Marihuana’ which brought the house down” commented the Evening Standard. Contrast this with Mr Tudor’s contribution, which was called ‘An Old Dance Hall’ using the music of the polka and the gallop. Buddy was also responsible for a piece called ‘Hashish Hop’ which a contemporary reviewer described as “A frighteningly macabre dance which ought to sweep the town.”. Buddy’s American Jazz style was obviously able to cover powerful issues and contemporary social arguments which the British dance of the period didn’t seem able to. What Buddy’s career makes clear is that drug taking (and its effect on society) as an issue for dance makers did not arrive in the dance scene until the Hip Hop artists of more recent times.
Buddy Bradley co produced a show in the early 1940s called ‘Orchids and Onions’. One of the reviewers commented favourably on the “Tapfoot rhythms caught in the jungle and tamed by Mr Buddy Bradley has here a profound slickness”.
Likewise a local paper review covering Katherine Dunham’s visit to Bournemouth highlighted “A warm world where passions flame and emotions are as uninhibited as the great trees of the jungle”.
The review continues “Hypnotic and writhing bodies told stories as primitive as time”. And that one sentence contains 3 elements of vocabulary which “black” work evokes in British writing of that period.
3) Some variation on…
…the word writhing to indicate I suppose the opposite of classical ballets line.
The Bournemouth critic went on to praise Dunham’s scholarship and still commenting on how “The audience went silent, overwhelmed by the realism of a performance staggering in its integrity”.
The critic also felt it necessary to draw the audiences’ attention to the fact that some of the repertoire may “shock” them and indicated that “They may not like everything they see, but see it they must”.
That was the critic’s conclusion despite the show being “somewhat sensual” for a town like Bournemouth’s reputation for culture and all that is good and nice in entertainment. Isn’t it fascinating (and very English) the contrast that is drawn between culture and the sensual.
This debate is carried on in a very interesting article in Ballet Today, September 1948 which evaluated the energy of Dunham’s company against the fact that British ballet had “become the preserve of suburbia”. These suburban values contrasted with the values in Dunham’s work “which got right under our civilised façade and touched something sacred and primitive in us”.
CB Cochran, the greatest impresario of his time wrote an autobiography “I had almost forgotten” in 1932. He was a man who admired many black artists and presented more shows with a black aesthetic than anyone of his era. Nevertheless some of his ideas and expressions might be questioned today.
Discussing the ‘Dover Street to Dixie’ show he makes it clear that most of the audience had turned up to demonstrate against “this plantation cabaret”. He goes on “But within a few moments of the curtain rising on these extraordinary artists, London had taken the darkies to that big heart which always beats to real art”. Writing about Florence Mills he describes her as one of the greatest artists that ever walked on a stage. However, realistically, he goes on “but for her colour she would have been internationally accepted as one of the half dozen leading theatrical personalities of their age and worth all the money in the world”. But it is a comparison which he makes between artist like Florence Mills and Paul Robeson “who can compete on equal terms with the stars of the white theatre” and “many of their darkey colleagues who remain children - and sometimes spoiled children at that” which is most difficult to come to terms with in our times.
His book makes it clear that employing black artists in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s was fraught with difficulties. He draws attention to “the antagonism which some people had towards coloured people”. He emphasises that “the presentation of a big company of coloured performers is something of a responsibility”. All of this first hand evidence makes me appreciate nowadays how difficult it has always been even for producers who are committed to “black work” to bring it to the attention of British audiences. The exhibition at the Theatre Museum is called “Moments” ��" but producing and presenting these moments has never been easy or for the faint hearted.
To conclude, I want to draw your attention to one review of Buddy Bradley’s contribution to “Follow the Sun” a 1936 dance extravaganza at the Adelphi Theatre. This review offers a unique insight into the attitudes of the day - and it is perhaps appropriate that it comes not from a dance specialist but from the well known drama critic of the Sunday Times, James Agate.
It displays a point of view which no dance critic that I have read ever produced; and its inversion of the common reaction to work coming from a black perspective repays consideration today.
Agate writes “Are we watching the natural exuberance of a primitive people or are they (the dancers) the sophisticated entertainers and we the gaping singletons. Against their enormous physical energy all else fades. I imagine they must be calm and collected inside what looks like epilepsy and paranoia is the merest simulacrum and that it is the onlooker who is apoplexed”. This questioning of the obvious superiority of the view of the onlooker is rare in the writing of that time and the placing of the “primitive peoples art form with all its physical energy in the “sophisticated camp” is unique.
Go and see the exhibition and decide for yourself.
Black Dance in Britain: 1930’s ��" 1990’s Moments… Photographic exhibition finished at the Theatre Museum on 31st December 2007.
The exhibition will be open to the public at the Peepul Centre from 15th January 2007 to the 31st May 2007.
Tel: 0116 261 6000