Manifest: Black Dance 1940- 2019
The Manifest: Black Dance 1940 – 2019 exhibition showcased the hidden history and impact of Black Dance in Britain using Serendipity’s growing Black Dance Collections. The exhibition provided a unique opportunity for visitors to engage with the history of Black dance in Britain through a variety of objects that reveal the stories of Black dancers and companies. This online collections enables you to digitally flick through the pages of history with original dance programmes, brochures, photographs and costumes relating to Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Les Ballets Negres, Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble and Phoenix Dance Theatre
Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)
In 1948, African-American dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham bought her pioneering performance of Afro-Caribbean dance to Britain for the first time as her company began their first tour in the UK with A Caribbean Rhapsody. The Manchester Guardian called it ‘The show that hit London like a tornado’ and ‘Nothing like it has been seen in England’.
Katherine Dunham was the first to research Caribbean dances and their socio-cultural contexts. In 1935, Dunham travelled to the Caribbean to look more closely at the African roots of popular dance forms, starting with the Maroons of Jamaica and then moving through Martinique and Trinidad before spending several months in Haiti. Her work in the Caribbean led to her creation of the Katherine Dunham Technique, a style of dance that involved a loose torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, combined with both ballet and modern dance. Katherine Dunham and her Company showcased this technique in their tours of Britain in 1948, 1952 and 1959.
Pearl Primus (1919-1994)
Pearl Primus was a dancer and anthologist who travelled to Britain from America to showcase her trailblazing work. She was born in Trinidad and Tobago and moved to America with her parents at the age of two. During the 1940s, Primus conducted an in-depth study of black dance traditions, embracing West Indian, African, and primitive dance. She also spent three years in Africa conducting a survey of native dances and, on her return in 1951, she presented many performances based on the dances and rituals she had studied. She performed in the UK for the first time in 1951 at the Princes Theatre in London.
Les Ballets Nègres (1946-1953)
Jamaican dancer Richie Riley went on to found Les Ballet Nègres, Europe’s very first Black dance company, in London during 1946. Les Ballet Nègres were the first company to present ballet dramas that drew inspiration from Afro-Caribbean folk-tales and rituals to European audiences. They dazzled post-war audiences with ballet dramas featuring elements of traditional Afro-Caribbean dances and theatrical storytelling. Riley described the style of dance performed by Les Ballet Nègres as “in every shape and form, ballet in a black idiom”.
Unfortunately, the company only lasted for six years because of the unwillingness of funders to provide the company with subsidy or capital. In 1952, without sufficient funds to maintain the dancers or create new works, Les Ballet Nègres was forced to disband. Nevertheless, the formative work of Les Ballets Nègres continues to be a significant influence on contemporary black dance companies.
Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble (1984-2005)
In 1984, Adzido Dance was founded by George Dzikunu and Emmanuel Tagoe in London. Adzido took traditional African tribal dance and adapted it for stage performance. Their mission statement was to promote the appreciation, understanding and practice of original African peoples dance in Britain and aboard. The company eventually expanded into Europe’s largest African dance company.
Adzido was famed for their major large productions of African dance-dramas beginning with the critically acclaimed In the village of Africa in 1986. The company’s next production Coming Home in 1988 completed a successful national tour, which culminated in a sold-out season of performances at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Adzido was awarded Dance Company of the Year 1988 by the Black Dance Development Trust following their success with Coming Home.
Phoenix Dance Theatre (1981-Present)
Phoenix Dance Company was formed in 1981 by Leo Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Villmore James in Leeds. The contemporary technique demonstrated by Phoenix won them an international audience. Initially an all Black and male dance company, Phoenix began employing female dancers in 1987 and underwent a complete rebranding changing its name to Phoenix Dance Theatre in 2002. Phoenix is now a multi-cultural dance company with both male and female dancers is the UK’s longest standing contemporary dance company outside of London.