Diasporic cultures and colonialism: Katherine Dunham and Berto Pasuka's dance translations
This paper discusses two examples of the translation of African diasporic dance forms from the Caribbean to Great Britain and the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. It examines the American choreographer Katherine Dunham and the Jamaican choreographer Berto Pasuka’s staging of movement material relating to spirit possession for theatres in New York and London. Stuart Hall, who was born in Jamaica, has argued that the distinctiveness of Caribbean culture is the result of creolization of African diasporic cultural forms. Caribbean culture, in his view, has absorbed a number of influences from different sources – from the American hemisphere, European colonial countries, India and Asia as well as from Africa. Unequal power relations, he argues, have always influenced the extent to which these influences have been accepted or resisted. Where religion is concerned, Hall uses the term translation to describe this process. Acknowledging the complex role of religion in Caribbean life, he points to the ‘translation’ between Christianity and the African religions and the mixtures in Caribbean music. In Jamaican revivalist churches, music and dancing can lead to expressions of ecstasy. Katherine Dunham’s experience as participant observer in Haitian vaudun ceremonies informed the pieces like L’Ag’Ya and Shango that she choreographed and performed in the United States in the late 1930s and 1940s. Her aim was to teach both Black and white Americans about the rich cultural heritage of people of African descent. Pasuka, developed his ideas about Africa and religion through his work with Marcus Garvey’s Eidelweiss project. Emigrating to Britain in 1939, he founded Les Ballets Nègres in 1946 with his savings from performing in British wartime films. The anti-colonial stance of his ballets like De Prophet and They Came are marked by a tension between pride in his African heritage and the need for emancipation from residual African religious superstitions. This paper examines the way each choreographer negotiated between the different things that African diasporic culture meant to them and the limitations arising when these were translated and framed through the cultural forms and conventions of European and North American theatrical practices.
Citation : Burt, R. (2019) Diasporic cultures and colonialism: Katherine Dunham and Berto Pasuka's dance translations. In: Ott, M. and Weber, T. (Eds.) Situated in Translations: Cultural Communities and Media Practices. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, pp. 179-189.
ISBN : 9783837643435
Research Institute : Institute of Drama, Dance and Performance Studies
- School of Arts