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Title: The black female dancing body in the films and writings of Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham
Author: Durkin, Hannah
ISNI:       0000 0004 2743 0318
Awarding Body: University of Nottingham
Current Institution: University of Nottingham
Date of Award: 2011
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This project investigates the international film careers and writings of African American dancers Josephine Baker (1906-1975) and Katherine Dunham (1909- 2006) as dynamic sites of identity construction to illuminate the conflicting ways in which individual performances complicate categorisations of "race" and "gender." By exploring the ways in which these two artists mediate popular constructions of black women's identities, my investigation interrogates widely held conceptions of authorship and artistic hierarchies. It provides insights into intercultural identity formations by positioning black women's physical performances as sites on which historical struggles over cultural meanings have been played out and contested. Consequently, this study examines transatlantic struggles for control over pre-Civil Rights era cultural embodiments of black womanhood and seeks to establish these representations as not only diverse, but also deeply complex and polysemous. The thesis turns first to Baker and Dunham's writings. Chapter One analyses three of Baker's co-authored autobiographies, Voyages et aventures de Josephine Baker (1931), Une vie de toutes les couleurs (1935), and Josephine (1978); Chapter Two examines Dunham's anthropological memoirs, Journey to Accompong (1946) and Island Possessed (1969). I argue that these texts complicate contemporaneous racial ideologies and shed light on the autobiographical and intellectual underpinnings of dance performances that were, and continue to be, dismissed as exotic entertainment. Indeed, as with their dance performances, this thesis argues that Baker and Dunham's writings were acts of self-invention and re-invention, as they challenged rigid racial frameworks. I then turn to Baker and Dunham' s films to evidence the contrasting ways in which their performances were translated and received on both sides of the Atlantic. Chapters Three and Four scrutinise Baker's diverse performance strat~gies in French cinema, first as a silent performer and then as a glamorous "star"; Chapter Five considers Dunham's intervention in Second World War-era Hollywood racial codes and Chapter Six compares her representations with her reception in European post-war cinema. Together, Baker and Dunham' s films demonstrate that they sought to intervene in frequently demeaning cultural frameworks by adopting black diasporic dance formations as vehicles for artistic experimentation. Although their creative intentions were complicated by audience interpretations, I show how Baker and Dunham used dance performance to both engage with and contest contemporary racial and gender representations.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available