Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection
at the Library of Congress
Notes on Bal Nègre
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Katherine Dunham devised Bal Nègre as a revue to showcase her company of dancers, singers, and musicians. During a nine-month tour of the United States, the running order of numbers on the program changed frequently, but by the time the production opened on Broadway the show was finely tuned and highly polished.
Billed as "A Native Music and Dance Revue in Three Acts and Six Scenes," Bal Nègre opened at New York's Belasco Theater on 7 November 1946. On opening night, the following information appeared in the playbill: "Directed and choreographed by Katherine Dunham. Costumes by John Pratt. Orchestra under the direction of Gilberto Valdes. Advisor on ragtime material, Tom Fletcher. Produced by Nelson L. Gross and Daniel Melnick." In addition to Katherine Dunham, the principal cast members were Lucille Ellis, Lenwood Morris, Lawaune Ingram, and Vanoye Aikens. Leaders of the Sans-Souci Singers were Jean-Léon Destiné, Eartha Kitt, and Rosalie King. The drummers were La Rosa Estrada, Candido Vicenty, and Julio Mendez.
Act 1 opened with an overture that Dunham had devised to be seen as well as heard. It included "Ylenke-Ylembe," a song by Gilberto Valdes with Afro-Cuban themes, and Congo Paillette, a danced version of a Haitian corn-sorting ritual performed by Dunham and Lenwood Morris, supported by the company. This was followed by three scenes: (1) Motivos, a suite including Rhumba, Son, Nañigo, Choros, and La Comparsa; (2) Haitian Roadside; and (3) Shango. Haitian Roadside included three native songs: "Soleil, O," an invocation sung by Jean-Léon Destiné and a male quartet; "Apollon," a Carnival meringué sung by Jean-Léon Destiné; and "Chocounne," sung by Katherine Dunham.
Act 2 was devoted to the ballet L'Ag'Ya.
Act 3 opened with "Nostalgia," a group of three song-and-dance numbers: Ragtime, Blues, and Flaming Youth, 1927. The Ragtime medley included "Chong," "Under the Bamboo Tree," "Ragtime Cowboy," "Oh! You Beautiful Doll," and "Alexander's Ragtime Band," sung by Rosalie King with the Sans-Souci Singers. Lucille Ellis, Lenwood Morris, and the ensemble danced a waltz, a fox trot, a tango, a maxixe, Ballin' the Jack, and the Turkey Trot. Blues, set to music by Floyd Smith, was danced by Katherine Dunham and Vanoye Aikens. Flaming Youth, 1927 featured Rosalie King as the blues singer and Lucille Ellis as Kansas City Woman. The dancers, led by Lawaune Ingram and Wilbert Bradley, performed the Charleston, the Black Bottom, the Mooch, the Fishtail, and Snake Hips. The finale consisted of two numbers; Havana, 1910 and Para Que Tu Veas, with the entire company.
In his review, critic Robert Sylvester wrote: "Katherine Dunham is the best dancer in America today and has been since the death of the great Argentinita. . . . She also has dramatic talents far in excess of any dancer on the American stage today. . . . As a choreographer, Dunham is close to the top. She moves her youngsters around the Belasco stage with such speed and physical precision that it often seems as though there are twice as many folks up there as there are. . . . If things were run properly in this town, every quote American unquote ballet company would be forced to go up to [the] Dunham school for biweekly lessons" (Daily News, 8 November 1946).
The Broadway run of Bal Nègre ended on 22 December 1946, after fifty-four performances.