In the early 1960s Katherine Dunham was commissioned to provide choreography for a new production of Aida at New York's Metropolitan Opera. One of Giuseppe Verdi's greatest works and certainly one of the grandest of grand operas, Aida had its premiere at the Cairo Opera House on Christmas Eve 1871. It tells the story of a love triangle in ancient Egypt: Radames, a captain of the Egyptian guard, is secretly in love with Aida, daughter of the king of Ethiopia and a slave at the Egyptian court; she returns his love, but he is also beloved by Amneris, the powerful daughter of the king of Egypt. Tricked into revealing military secrets, Radames is condemned to be buried alive. Aida joins him in a tomb beneath the temple, resolved to die with him. As they sing their final aria, bidding farewell to Earth, Amneris mourns and prays in the temple above.
The Met's new production, starring Leontyne Price in the title role, opened in December 1963. Dunham had choreographed the Priestesses' Scene in act 1, scene 2, and the grand Triumphal Scene in act 2. A program note explained her approach: "Katherine Dunham has brought an unusual perspective and point of view to the dances, regarding Verdi's music not merely as an interpolation in a nineteenth-century Italian opera, but as the opportunity to recreate a vista of life as it might have been in the period of the pharoahs."
Dunham herself commented on act 1, scene 2: "The priestesses' scene in Aida is for me essentially a rite of Women's Mysteries. . . . The main objective must not then be one of dance, in the conventional sense, but should aim to capture in design and emotional projection the importance of the ritual moment in terms of the entire opera." The dance of the virgin priestesses, which began in slowly rising pools of light behind a scrim, was appropriately mystical and ritualistic. To Verdi's hypnotic music, the dancers moved almost like somnambulists as they performed their patterns and prostrations.
The program note further explains that for the Triumphal Scene -- a grand march and parade in which legions of the victorious Egyptian army display the booty and slaves they have captured in the war with Ethiopia -- Dunham's conception included Bedouin girls "swathed voluminously in shades of pale and indigo blue, antecedents perhaps of the Blue Women of Gulimin in southern Morocco" a "band of four high-leaping Somalis from southern Ethiopia" a band of Nubian warriors; women "brought in as slaves, hostages, or concubines" from across the Red Sea; and townswomen, who enter "for a grand climax of revelry."
Critical response to Dunham's vision and choreography was mixed. Walter Terry, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, quipped that the dances were "dandy for voodoo but not for Verdi." Other critics were less flippant and more appreciative.
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