Photo by Kristin Smith

 

In the beginning, I had great hopes of turning out a thesis for the University of Chicago which would take care of the entire field of primitive dance. It was to be entitled “A Comparative Analysis of Primitive Dance.” I ended up by limiting my thesis to “A Comparative Analysis of the Dances of Haiti: Their Form, Function, Social Organization, and the Interrelation of Form and Function.” (Still too much for one sitting!) In the West Indies the peasant native (primarily Negroes of Koromantee, Ibo, Congo, Dahomey, Mandingo, and other west coast derivation, mixed perhaps with a little Carib Indian and varying degrees of European stock) think very much and behave basically very much as did their African forebears. Consequently they dance very much in the same fashion. Differences there are, of course, due to the shift from tribal to folk culture, to miscegenation, cultural contact, and other items making for social change. But the elements of the dance are still what, in my analysis, would be termed “primitive.” Almost all social activity is dancing or some type of rhythmic motion (it may be the unified movement of the combite or work society of Haiti in cutting sugar cane, a similar activity in the work societies of the Jamaican Maroons, or the cross-country trek of a Carnival band.) Out of the maze of material from the concentrated fields of study—Jamaica, Haiti, Martinique, and Trinidad—one important fact stood out: in these societies the theater of the people (“theater” being practically synonymous with dance activity) served a well-integrated, well-defined function in the community; in the case of the Carnival dances of social integration and sexual stimulus and release; in the funeral dance the externalization of grief; the social dances, exhibitionism and social selection along with social cohesion; in the ceremonial dances, group “ethos” solidarity in an established mechanism of worship, whether through hypnosis, hysteria, or ecstasy. And so on through the several categories of dances arrived at.

It was one thing to write a thesis and have it approved for a master’s degree. It was another thing to begin earning a living on Broadway. In making use of field training to choreograph for my group, I found persistently recurring in the back of my mind in some form or another “function.” It never seemed important to portray, as such, the behavior of other peoples as exotics. But the cultural and psychological framework, the “why” became increasingly important. It became a matter of course to attack a stage or production situation in the same way in which I would approach a new primitive community or work to analyze a dance category. As in the primitive community certain movement patterns which I cannot go into here, were always related to certain functions, so in the modern theater there would be a correlation between a dance movement and the function of that dance within the theater framework. And certainly a broad and general knowledge of cultures and cultural patterns can be advantageously brought to bear upon the problems of relating form and function in the modern theater. Or so has been my theory and so my practice in my own theater experience.

What would be the connection between the Carnival dance, whose function is sexual stimulus and release, and almost any similar situation in a Broadway musical—for example, the temptation scene on the River Nile in Cabin in the Sky? It would be the similarity in function, and through this similarity in function the transference of certain elements of form would be legitimate.

 

Photo by Gabor Bibor