Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Nowhere to Call Home

Katherine Dunham, who died this past weekend aged 96, "was one of the first American artists to focus on black dance and dancers as prime material for the stage... Though Miss Dunham's academic credentials as an anthropologist were impeccable, including a doctorate from the University of Chicago, it was her gift for seduction that helped most to pave the way for choreographers like Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty and Alvin Ailey." The New York Times 05/23/06

I briefly worked with Katherine Dunham, though I doubt she would have remembered me. I was 24 years old, the Executive Director of an Arts Council in Missouri and I had engaged her dance troupe to perform at various public venues across southern Missouri. She was spry and happy in her obvious pride for her troupe of young students. At the time, it never occurred to me that she was 90 years old.

During my four years with the Arts Council, I dealt with various levels of professionalism regarding artists. For instance, I remember a Mississippi Riverboat Band that required a “place to smoke their pipes” between performance sites; a classical guitarist that necessitated we provide a first-class seat for his guitar when traveling; and an upstate NY photographer that wanted our gallery to invest $2000 in a key-lock system just to “lock” each and every one of her frames to the wall for the duration of the exhibit. Needless to say, the frugality of Ms. Dunham’s East Saint Louis dance troupe has always stuck with me. She was probably one of the more famous artists we worked with, but she didn’t spend all her time reminding everyone of her “importance”, she only cared about her students having the best opportunity to perform.

Despite Ms. Dunham’s fame, she spent much of her life and money on her hometown of East St. Louis. I lived in St. Louis for a few years, so I can say with an adequate amount of knowledge that East St. Louis is a first-class dive. The fact that Ms. Dunham left that place, made her name elsewhere and returned – says a lot about our human desire to have a place “to call home”. Unfortunately, this power of “home” eludes me. I doubt I could ever return to the place I was raised and eek out an existence that would make me swell with pride. I enjoy my travels and value the interactions I have had with various new communities. Probably, the most important thing I have learned over the years is the uniqueness of every place that exhibits itself as a truly individual culture. At the same time, every place seems ripe with individuals willing to do anything to go somewhere else. What is it about leaving behind our origins that makes some of us feel more successful? What must occur for a person to return home with a sense of pride and fulfillment? Is the need to return home learned, acquired or just some freaky-ass form of genetic underwear that I simply don’t own? – DN


Anonymous said...

The whole world is my oyster? eat them up raw!

Anonymous said...

in response to your auestion about the "underwear" you don't own, I believe I have an answer. No it's nothing one needs, but I believe there are those that feel only happy when they finally return to the place they were raised. I don't have a lot of respect for most people like that becuase it shows a few things that might explain their reasoning for doing so. First, they fear change. It's not because where they live right now stinks, but because they are not competant enough to adapt to a new environment, so they eventually eturn to the placed they were raised becuase that's all they are accustomed to. The second is that they recieve a "euphoria" of nostaglia when returning to their home town to stay. It's like looking into a memory book, or watching home movies of your child when they were a baby. the difference is that they become addicted to this and feel that they will lose their memory if they leave the spot they're in. The third is simply fear. Like the first two they feel they might not function well outside, so they stay inside, thinking they are only secure here. The thing that seperates this one from the others though, is that this one is experienced mostly by people who rarely leave their town. I hear people around hear say that they might just stay here because they are afraid they might do well out in a different town and state.

People like you and me, North, is that we WANT to see the world, regarldess of the dangers. We want to stay constantly moving. We don't one set of friends in one area, but rather multiple friends from around the country, or even the world. Monotony is not a choice for either of us, and it is in that perspective that seperates you from the people you speak of. Home is where the heart is, no matter how many times it changes places

Anonymous said...

My aunt got me a little wall plate that reads:
Home is where the Army sends you.

What I loved best about leaving Poplar Bluff, Missouri is that I was given a fresh start; an opportunity to present my best self (or recreate myself) without any hint of my past growing pains. I don't understand how anyone can live as an adult in the place they grew up. When I think of all the dumb stuff I did as a kid...Anyway, it was very freeing to leave "home" for the first time, even though it was only an hour and a half away. No one knew me, my family, my parents financial status, my backwoods country upbringing or the fact that I used to be a geeky fat girl with glasses and stringy hair. After I left PB I'll admit to bouts of home sickness, not so much for the place but for my sister. Then, when a weekend would come and I could go "home" for a couple of days, I would get a sick feeling at thinking that I'd run into someone at Wal-Mart and I'd be "that person" all over again. Not the "new" me. Weird, I know. Daniel and I are probably two of the most fullfilled and personally accomplished people from our hometown but I still get a feeling that if I'm in PB I'll somehow have to prove myself and let's face it, a brief passing with old teachers, classmates, or friend's parents at the bread rack at the grocery store just isn't enough time. Just yesterday I thought about the Arts Council, my former and best loved job, and I realized that it was only when I started working there that I felt myself putting down roots and calling another place home. I know I'll never return to a life in PB but it is somewhat comforting to know it's there if I needed it. I've lived in so many places now because of the Army that I've learned to make a home anywhere. Now that I'm married and have joined my life to another person who is equally free in his heart from the ties of his hometown, the world really is our oyster. I am very thankful for art though. I take it with me; it is my constant companion and I can make a life anywhere because making art puts my heart as rest.