What did a 1930s ballet say about cultural appropriation in modernist Chicago? | Spring Theater and Dance | Chicago Reader

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What did a 1930s ballet say about cultural appropriation in modernist Chicago?

La Guiablesse was imagined by and starring a white woman who choreographed the piece for her city’s most talented black dancers.

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Ruth Page in Expanding Universe - COURTESY NEWBERRY LIBRARY
  • courtesy Newberry Library
  • Ruth Page in Expanding Universe

On a steamy summer evening in 1933, a group of young black dancers readied themselves into position behind the plush curtains of Chicago's Auditorium Theatre. They were the last act on a program of music and dance, a lineup that had been full of Chopin and orchestral favorites. Theirs was a new ballet, La Guiablesse, the story of a "she-devil" from the island of Martinique who lures a young lover away from his beloved, pushes him over a cliff, and disappears in a puff of smoke. Beyond the curtains sat an audience, including many elite Chicagoans, who would have been familiar with the venerable theater but hardly with what they were about to see.

If there was something provocative in this folktale of sex and death, it was not just the story. Based on a nineteenth-century travel sketch by wayfaring writer Lafcadio Hearn, La Guiablesse played upon ancient ideas about the dangers of female sexuality—women wielding tricks and disguises, from Dido and Circe to Jezebel and Lorelei. The ballet adapted this seduction plot, but the production was as much about style, which repurposed many different forms. (La Guiablesse itself was a dialectal variation of diablesse, a demon of Caribbean folklore.) With the first notes of the piano, the curtains parted, and the audience beheld a set that was minimal to the point of abstraction, mostly tall fishing poles and an elevated hill upstage. The set was created by Russian émigré Nicholas Remisoff, the designer for a short-lived group called Chicago Allied Arts, which loosely modeled itself on Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, and which included Adolph Bolm, another Russian who had danced with Diaghilev. The music of La Guiablesse, too, was wildly new. Short, colorful sections tripped and changed, playing with jazzy riffs and shifting tempos. Composed by the Harlem virtuoso William Grant Still, the score declared variety its bold ambition.

But the most radical vision was the dancers themselves. When they turned onto the stage—scantily clad, holding long poles—the audience could see that the only white dancer was Chicago choreographer Ruth Page, age 34, playing the lead role, and at the height of her career as a dancer. Page had worked with Bolm intermittently to choreograph La Guiablesse since the mid-1920s, developing the ballet as she travelled the world, including through Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. She had performed as a teenager with Anna Pavlova in South America, later trained with Diaghilev in Monte Carlo, and then studied with Mary Wigman in Dresden and Berlin. Page would travel extensively throughout her career, trying out techniques from around the globe—from Balinese legong to Brazilian capoeira—but her commitment was to Chicago, a city where she aimed one day to create her own ballet company.

Page is an extraordinary if under-recognized figure in the cultural history of Chicago, perhaps best remembered for her annual Nutcracker, staged since 1965. (Page received in 1978 one of many angry letters protesting "a negro boy as a companion to the little white girl." She responded: "The Nutcracker, as you know, is a fairy tale, and the color of anyone's skin does not matter at all.") La Guiablesse was part of Page's much more avant-garde period, a decade that is documented in artful and exquisite professional photographs. In the 1930s she danced with long elastic bands and sticks in a piece called Variations on Euclid; she writhed barefoot on the floor in Tropic; she wrapped her face and limbs in tape in a pas de deux with German partner Harald Kreutzberg; she wore a blue jersey "sack" designed by Isamu Noguchi for Expanding Universe. Page later looked back on these productions and called them, amusingly, her "sack, mask, and stick period."

It was also her black period. Page's attraction to the forms and styles of African and African-American dance might have been influenced by what she knew about her city. During the 1930s and 1940s, the most avant-garde art—the aesthetic experiments better known as modernism—did not come from Page's north-side neighborhood. Rather, the creative ferment of the city could be found in Bronzeville, that thin corridor seven miles long and one and a half miles wide, where the city's black population crammed into kitchenettes under the force of the city's racist, restrictive housing covenants. Despite entrenched lines of segregation, inhabitants of Bronzeville were emboldened by their community's quest for economic and cultural self-determination, expressed in exciting ways across the arts, from jazz and blues to film and dance.

Ruth Page and Harald Kreutzberg, ca. 1934. - COURTESY NEWBERRY LIBRARY
  • courtesy Newberry Library
  • Ruth Page and Harald Kreutzberg, ca. 1934.

Page recruited her dancers for La Guiablesse from Bronzeville, where she also held all of her rehearsals. Among the roughly 50 dancers who would perform in La Guiablesse, astonishingly, were both Katherine Dunham (who played the betrayed beloved) and—in a later remount—Talley Beatty. Both would become pathbreaking artists of mid-century America, touring internationally with their own black dance troupes, and challenging the assumption that ballet was a "high art" achieved only by white dancers. Also in the cast of young villagers was the 19-year-old artist Charles Sebree, whose paintings would soon hang in Chicago galleries that also featured work by European modernists like Léger, Matisse, Modigliani, and Picasso.

What did this extravagant ballet—imagined by and starring a white woman, who choreographed the piece for her city's most talented dancers—proclaim about interracial mixing in modernist Chicago? About cultural appropriation? And what might it tell us today?

Like many groundbreaking moments in the history of performance, the details are tantalizing but it is hard to know what La Guiablesse was really like. Dance is notoriously difficult to archive. There is no footage of this particular production and no photographs have been located. Thanks to the archival sleuthing of scholar Joellen Meglin—and to Page's choreography notebook now held at the Newberry Library (where I work)—at least there is some account of the ballet's pastiche of movement.

It begins with children playing tug-of-war, dancing a flat-footed "shuffle" with elements of the Charleston, a popular dance with fast-kicking steps. Then two young lovers (one of them Dunham) dance a duet, including a "slow negro walk," which Page describes in her notebook as a "cakewalk," which is a paired dance that can be traced back to slave plantations. Historically the cakewalk has been danced, with subversive power, to mock slave owners. It also became a staple of minstrel shows. We can only speculate how Dunham might have danced it.

Ruth Page in Variations on Euclid - COURTESY NEWBERRY LIBRARY
  • courtesy Newberry Library
  • Ruth Page in Variations on Euclid

On an overhanging ledge of the hill, La Guiablesse (Page) watches in a white robe with sleeves like "veils" or "wings." She winds her way down the hill, swinging her veils as she runs across the stage, casts off her robe, and kisses the young lover on the forehead. They move together in a "jazz dance," a seduction of stamps and lunges. He shakes loose from the villagers to follow her into the mountains, losing his way. At the moment when La Guiablesse reveals her true, horrid self—an ugly hag, wrapping the lover in the veils of her strangling embrace—a haunting offstage voice merges with the music's wordless melody.

The voice, in 1933, was that of Mabelle Roberta Walker, a contralto from Evanston whose local performances were mentioned a few times in the Chicago Defender, the most important African-American newspaper in the country. The Defender noted Walker's "achievement" in La Guiablesse but little else. As Walker sang, the lover fell to his death and La Guiablesse disappeared (through a trapdoor) into the supernatural smoke.

In just 18 minutes, the ballet was over.

With black newspaper critics as spectators, and possibly members of the dancers' own Bronzeville community, the mixed-race audience would have allowed for "cross-viewing," in the words of Northwestern University dance scholar Susan Manning—the ability to see how audience members across the racial divide responded to the performance. This phenomenon was much more frequent after World War II when theaters desegregated: cross-viewing as a possibility for La Guiablesse makes the ballet even more intriguing. Yet accounts of the ballet by both the white and black press—the Tribune, the Times, and the Defender—are positive if conspicuously vague about the performance. And there is scant record of La Guiablesse and its reception, even though there is a substantial record of Ruth Page dancing other ballets during the 1930s.

A newspaper clipping shows Katherine Dunham in the title role of La Guiablesse, likely in 1934. - COURTESY NEWBERRY LIBRARY
  • courtesy Newberry Library
  • A newspaper clipping shows Katherine Dunham in the title role of La Guiablesse, likely in 1934.

Perhaps La Guiablesse was too black, too daring, and too much of a challenge to the standards of classical ballet, which still clung to its origins as an elite, hierarchical, and strictly European art form. Not a single reviewer comments on the erotic physical contact between a white woman and a black man, during an era when interracial marriage was not just scandalous but also illegal. Lynchings across America were frequent—a violent expression of white supremacy, to which there was no bigger threat than a black man with a white woman.

La Guiablesse may have inverted racial fear by embodying the sexual power of the shape-shifter in Page herself. It is unclear whether Page imagined that she was an exotic figure of the Caribbean, or if the production played upon her whiteness to stage her as an interloper to the Caribbean scene. It may have been a little bit of both. William Grant Still neatly typed the ballet's scene above the musical score, including a note describing La Guiablesse casting off her robe to reveal a "bronzed body." And yet the program note to the ballet, written by the Chicago dancer, poet, and painter Mark Turbyfill, describes how La Guiablesse "with her white deceit, comes to separate and destroy dark-skinned lovers." Was she black or was she white? Color difference was central to this performance, if also ambiguous. Here was a world of magic, it seems, a stage that gave imaginative license to express possibility beyond the strict categories of racial segregation everywhere else in the city of Chicago.

Though the ballet was part of the city's second World's Fair, dubbed "The Century of Progress," very little "progress" had been made in the realm of race relations. Since the 1919 race riots—the most violent week in Chicago history—civic leaders buckled down on segregation in response to a steady stream of black migrants arriving from the south, and many whites staunchly guarded their zones of work and leisure. Black artists, business people, and entrepreneurs flourished on the south side, but few were represented at the fair's sleek art deco pavilions. Fair organizers used colorful neon to light up the tall buildings of their "rainbow city," and showcased "model homes" made of Masonite and modern appliances. But the fair was as culturally white as Daniel Burnham's 1893 "white city," and the model homes were a perverse counterpoint to the squalid housing conditions in Bronzevillle.

What's more, the massive Auditorium Theatre—designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler and completed in 1889—was built to be the world's grandest institution of high culture, which to most Chicagoans at the time implied white culture. Equipped with electricity and central air conditioning (via 15 tons of ice delivered daily), the Auditorium had hosted historical pageants and presented thunderous presidential announcements from Benjamin Harrison to Theodore Roosevelt. Yet here were 35 black dancers moving through their "evolutions" with "ease and grace" on the city's most venerable stage, wrote the Tribune in its scant review. When Page took the stage for her experimental performance, she was aiming for the Auditorium's civic seal. But she knew that her ballet—the music, the set, and the nearly all-black cast—would be a dramatic risk. Perhaps she chose to express in dance how lines of segregation could be surpassed, creatively, through vigilance, attention, and exertion. Through the creative labor of dance, you could witness the emancipatory potential of art.

What we do know, for certain, is that Ruth Page never danced La Guiablesse again. But Katherine Dunham did, before she would go on to pioneer dance anthropology and become the "matriarch of black dance." Page had been asked to remount the ballet at the Chicago Civic Opera the following year for the opera's very first dance-only program. But Page said that she was too involved in the choreography for a new piece of "Americana" called Hear Ye! Hear Ye! with a musical score by Aaron Copland. So she made the meaningful decision to give the lead role to Dunham, who "remembered every single detail," Page writes in her memoir, "every step." Most importantly, Dunham became the rehearsal director for La Guiablesse, overseeing the whole cast, including, this time around, Talley Beatty. Chicago audiences may have seen blacks on stage at cabarets and dance halls, but rarely at the Auditorium, and almost never at the opera. (A black tenor had performed once in 1932, but not, to date, a full cast.)

Katherine Dunham in L'Afrique, ca. 1949. - COURTESY NEWBERRY LIBRARY
  • courtesy Newberry Library
  • Katherine Dunham in L'Afrique, ca. 1949.

On November 30, 1934, a Friday evening, Dunham danced the lead to a rapturous audience at the opera house. She gave "an astonishing performance," according to the Tribune. A few days later she danced the lead again before the opera's performance of Salomé. Sitting in box seats, no less, were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, on one of their visits to Chicago during Stein's American lecture tour.

Herein lies the complicated transmission of La Guiablesse as an aesthetic form: a folktale written down by a traveling writer (Hearn), which inspired a Russian immigrant dancer (Bolm), who shared it with a white midwestern choreographer (Page), who then gifted her ballet to a black dancer (Dunham), who would become intimately connected to the culture of the Caribbean that originally inspired the story and ballet.

At this point in her life, Dunham was still studying anthropology at the University of Chicago, where she distinguished herself as a brilliant young scholar and writer. She won fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rosenwald Foundations the following year (1935-36) to pursue anthropological fieldwork in the Caribbean. She traveled through Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and Haiti, where she underwent the first level of initiation into voodoo. Her fieldwork was embodied, participatory, and immersive. She would eventually give up a scholarly career in order to pursue a life in dance, becoming famous for her innovative and immensely popular choreography that fused balletic with vernacular and folk traditions. Through a rigorous practice and daunting performance schedule—she spent decades of her life traveling with her dance company—Dunham gave audiences around the globe an experience of the dances of African diaspora.

A small, torn newspaper clipping (from the papers of Chicago dance critic Ann Barzel) shows Katherine Dunham in the title role of La Guiablesse, likely in 1934. Dunham wears anklets of fur and feathers like the Greek god Hermes, a boundary-crosser. She raises her winglike veils over a cowering young lover. The physical exertion of dance is often eclipsed by its sheer beauty, but this photograph reveals Dunham's hardworking body: the angle of her elbows, the inward turn of her hands, the musculature of her torso. The male dancer playing her lover is identified as Jordis McGee, which is a misspelling of Jordis McCoo, the man who was briefly Dunham's first husband.

Onward Dunham flew. Did Ruth Page's La Guiablesse influence Dunham's fusion of Caribbean forms that she would make her own? When Dunham returned from the Caribbean, she worked as director of Chicago's "Negro Unit" of the Federal Theatre Project, where she met the highly inventive John Pratt, a white costume and set designer who eventually became her longtime collaborator and husband. In January 1938, Dunham premiered a ballet that was set in a fishing village in Martinique called L'Ag'Ya, a fantastical blend of martial arts and Afro-Caribbean movement, danced to the music of drums and sticks. Like La Guiablesse, Dunham's new ballet staged a love triangle through sexualized movements and courtship rituals, including a dramatic disrobing infused with magic. Dunham would eventually formalize many of the movements in L'Ag'Ya as she codified the "Dunham Technique," a method and practice that helped to take "our dance"—a reference to dancing by black people—"out of the burlesque."

L'Ag'Ya became a staple of Dunham's repertoire for the next decade as she built her touring company, established a school in New York, and soared to international fame. Page may have felt, in seeing Dunham's success, that La Guiablesse had really "belonged" to Dunham, or she may have realized, by mid-century, that there was little point in her dancing the ballet, when Dunham and other black dancers like Pearl Primus could better express African and African-American traditions.

Katherine Dunham in L’Ag’Ya - COURTESY NEWBERRY LIBRARY
  • courtesy Newberry Library
  • Katherine Dunham in L’Ag’Ya

It may be tempting to see Dunham as the rightful heir to the ballet, as she certainly understood the culture from which it was derived. But must artists have an embodied connection to their practice? Today, the ethics of artistic appropriation have become more complicated than ever, as we negotiate how and when it is "OK" to imagine stories, languages, and movements that are not our own.

Dunham's legacy has been dramatically defined by questions of cultural appropriation, and offers us one way of thinking about its risks. Dunham was often criticized for the highly sexualized nature of her dances, for toying with stereotypes of nonwhite people in ways that would appeal to a wide audience, and for not offering "positive" representations of the race. Critics then and now play on Dunham's primitivism, her idealization of non-Western people as simple, unsophisticated, ruled by passion rather than intellect. But as her recent biographer Joanna Dee Das acknowledges, the trope of the primitive also liberated Dunham to create groundbreaking modernist forms, like it did so many other artists of the twentieth century. What's more, Dunham believed that her dances revealed how African-Americans retained complex African cultural practices, and challenged the idea that the primitive was inferior to Eurocentric dance. If she hadn't introduced the larger world to the movements and styles of Caribbean dance—at a moment when those dances were threatened by the homogenizing forces of postwar globalization—then what might have been lost?

Page and Dunham engaged in complex if murky practices of appropriation and wild invention. Supreme modernists, both of them. But they were also performing acts of recovery. During a period when choreographers were often men—and when a ballerina gave her body to the authority of the male choreographer—both Page and Dunham challenged stereotypes that equated the feminine with the body and reduced women to their biology.

The recent scandals at the New York City Ballet, where powerful male dancers and former ballet master Peter Martins have been accused of violence and sexual harassment against young women, reminds us what it meant for Page and Dunham to be avant­-garde, to be ahead of their times. They controlled and cultivated their bodies, a physical primacy that they put at the center of the stage. Both Page and Dunham challenged the concept of dance as "naturalized expression": their art was never simply innate but the product of sweat, thought, and refinement. It was technique. A woman in 1933 at the center of a Chicago stage, dancing movements that she herself had choreographed, Page exuberantly resisted a world that largely restricted her body, and her labor. For a black woman whose body only two generations earlier could have been sold on the auction block of slavery, Dunham's dancing was not only resistance, but also an act of reclamation.   v

The Legacy of Chicago Dance 4/27- 7/6. Roger J. Trienens Galleries, 60 W. Walton, newberry.org.  F

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