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Collection Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection

Rites de Passage

As a trained anthropologist, Katherine Dunham was well aware of Arnold van Gennep's seminal study Les rites de passage (Paris, 1909). It was van Gennep who established the term rites de passage as the term anthropologists use to define the category of rituals that mark the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage to another over time, from one role or social position to another, integrating the human and cultural experiences with biological destiny: birth, reproduction, and death.

Katherine Dunham's ballet Rites de Passage premiered at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco in December 1941. It was in four parts: Puberty, Fertility, Death, and Women's Mysteries. In the first scene, a youth on the eve of manhood sees in a dream the chief warrior of his tribe and imagines a heroic future in the world of men. The men of the tribe celebrate the youth's initiation. In the second scene, against a background of village life in which women pound grain and men hunt and play games, a man and woman are drawn together by mutual attraction. Their union is celebrated by the entire community. The third scene is devoted to funeral rites, and the fourth to the rituals exclusive to women: coming of age, menstruation and purification, giving birth.

Over the years, Dunham altered and developed her choreography of Rites de Passage. By 1955, when the work was presented at the Broadway Theatre in New York, under the title Rituals, the scenario and choreography of each scene were markedly different from the originals. The first three scenes bore the same names as in the original version -- Puberty Ritual, Fertility Ritual, and Death -- but the fourth had been replaced by the ballet Shango, created in 1945 for the musical play Carib Song. The first two scenes were set to music by Paquita Anderson; the third was set to music by Dorothea Freitag; and the fourth, Shango, was set to music by Baldwin Bergersen.

In the playbill for the 1955 performances, Dunham's program note said, in part, "The rites herein represented do not refer to any one particular society, neither do they pretend to represent the enaction of a realistic ceremony. They have been created in an effort to present, at least partially, the deep emotional interest which every primitive community feels in the individual and to expose the intense personal experience which accompanies every profound change."

Reviewing these performances, Walter Terry wrote, "Miss Dunham's most impressive choreography is to be found in her 'Rituals,' including the rites celebrating puberty, fertility, death, and religious possession. In the first two rituals especially, Miss Dunham has created movements which are physically brilliant, dramatically pertinent, powerful in the projection of emotion" (New York Herald Tribune, 23 November 1955).

Rites de Passage was videotaped in 1980, with Glory Van Scott, Vanoye Aikens, Doris Bennett-Glasper, Norman Davis, and Emilio Lastarria dancing the leading roles. It was later broadcast on the PBS television series Dance in America in a program entitled "Divine Drumbeats: Katherine Dunham and Her People," narrated by James Earl Jones.

Related digital items: Browse "Rites de Passage"

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