Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection
at the Library of Congress
Notes on L'Ag'Ya
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Katherine Dunham's first full-length ballet debuted at the Federal Theater in Chicago on 27 January 1938. It was inspired by an event during her Caribbean field trip in 1935-1936 when she witnessed and filmed the ag'ya, the fighting dance of Martinique. Dunham herself devised the scenario, which consists of five parts: Ouverture, Market Scene, Pas de Deux, Zombie Scene, and Festival Scene. It is a fable of love and revenge and of competition among men for the favors of an attractive woman (originally played by Dunham). Set to a commissioned score by Robert Sanders, Dunham's choreography combined ballet, modern dance, and traditional folk and social dance forms such as the habanera (Cuba), the majumba (Brazil), and the mazouk, the béguine, and the ag’ya (Martinique).
The scene is Vauclin, a tiny eighteenth-century fishing village in Martinique. Loulouse loves and is desired by Alcide. Loulouse is also loved by the mischievous and sinister Julot. Repulsed by Loulouse and filled with hatred and desire for revenge, Julot decides to seek the aid of the king of the zombies. Deep in the jungle, Julot fearfully seeks the lair of the zombies and witnesses their strange rites, which bring the dead back to life. Frightened, but remembering his purpose, Julot pursues Roi Zombie and obtains a cambois, a powerful love charm, from him.
The next evening is a time of gaiety, a festival, opening with the stately Creole mazurka, or mazouk, and moving into the uninhibited excitement of the béguine. Into this scene enters Julot, petrifying the villagers when he exposes the coveted cambois. Under the spell of the charm, Loulouse dances the majumba, love dance of ancient Africa, for him. As Loulouse falls more and more under the charm, Alcide suddenly defies its powers, breaks loose from the villagers, who protect him, and challenges Julot to the ag'ya. In the ensuing combat, Alcide defeats his rival and is about to embrace Loulouse in triumph when the villain Julot creeps up behind him and kills him. Loulouse is left alone with the body of her beloved.