A trip to the ‘Southland’
Published: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 12:50 p.m.
On her 90th birthday, dance pioneer and activist Katherine Dunham spoke to friends and colleagues about her dream. More than anything, she wished to recreate her most controversial ballet: “Southland.”
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s ‘Southland’
What: Denver-based ensemble performs re-creation of Katherine Dunham’s 1951 ballet depicting racial injustice in the South
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday
Where: Phillips Center, 3201 Hull Road
Tickets: $20 general admission, $10 for UF students
Info: 392-2787, Ticketmaster.com
Note: Due to a brief historic re-enactment of a violent act, the performance is not recommended for children under the age of 12
Banned by American embassy officials in 1951 after a single performance in Santiago, Chile, “Southland” tells the story of a black field hand falsely accused of raping a white woman. Now, more than six decades after its creation, the Denver-based Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble has made Dunham’s dream a reality. Last September, “Southland” was presented to its first American audiences for three nights in Denver. And starting Monday, the ensemble brings the piece to Gainesville for two performances at the Phillips Center.
University of Florida Performing Arts Director Michael Blachly says he’s communicated with Cleo Parker Robinson for two years about the production. In spring 2010, Robinson received a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to re-create “Southland.” Blachly says the work will catalyze discussions about equality.
“It’s an opportunity for Gainesville’s audiences to see a historical piece dealing with a sensitive subject reconstructed to create a dialogue around equality,” Blachly says. “I hope audiences gain a better understanding of how far we’ve come and a realistic understanding that we still have far to go.”
Parker Robinson says that in “Southland,” choreographer Dunham confronts issues of racism with stunning, emotionally-charged visuals. One scene depicts the lynching of the main character accused of rape.
“She wanted the audience to really understand what it feels like to see a black body swinging from a magnolia tree and the atrocity of it. The way she handles it is really brilliant,” she says.
Blachly says “Southland” will serve as an assignment for a course required of all enrolled first-year UF students. “What Is The Good Life” engages students in discussions on how to grow, develop and create a rewarding life, he says. Following each performance of “Southland,” Parker Robinson and her artistic advisors, Julie Belafonte and Theo Jamison, will participate in a question-and-answer session with the audience. Parker Robinson says the whole process will be documented by a camera crew, and she hopes the documentary produced will encourage other universities to host similar events.
“We’ll come back out and speak out about our goals and what that meant to be part of this historical performance,” Parker Robinson says. “I believe that those young people will somehow be mobilized and unified in this first experience.”
Jamison, an original member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, helped Parker Robinson stage a re-creation as close as possible to the original using photographs and interviews with Dunham, as did Belafonte, who danced the role of the white woman in the original performance of “Southland” in Chile in 1951 and in a brief run in Paris in 1953.
Jamison says he hopes the new production will give students a better understanding of humanity in all its forms.
“Hopefully this will make them better human beings, and stronger, with more compassion for their fellow man. To see what has been going on in the past and what is continuing today, hopefully they’ll look at it and say, ‘Well, I don’t want to live that kind of life. I want to offer my heart, my soul and my spirit to make it a better world,’” he says.
Jamison says Dunham’s work as both a choreographer and an anthropologist allowed her to fully understand cultures both in America and Haiti, which she visited in the 1930s while on a travel fellowship to study Caribbean dance forms. Not only did she study the particular bodily rhythms of their dances, but she noted their rhythms of daily life.
“She showed us their religious dances, their secular dances. What she did was she showed America as it was lived,” he says about Dunham, who died in 2006 at age 96.
Parker Robinson says Dunham’s work will induce tears and questions about what humanity is capable of, but ultimately its message is one of hope, love and compassion.
“This work allows us to think about not what’s so horrible in the world, but how we can use art or any other talent we’ve been given as a way of elevating each other,” she says. “Her ability to see art in everything was phenomenal. Through her eyes we can see the world. That’s where you want to live life every second.”