BWW Review: Pearl Primus: Pioneer of Modern Dance, African Dance, Dance as Protest
Pearl Primus (also known as Omowale) was a pioneer of modern dance, dance as protest, and African dance in the United States. She was also cited as an inspiration by acclaimed artists such as Camille Brown, Ntozake Shange, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar; a teacher of Judith Jamison and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; a student of Martha Graham; friend of Paul Robeson; and a woman with a degree in medicine. Her medical career was thwarted by racism so she funneled her gifts to the world through the filter of dance instead.
On Sunday March 7th, at the Harkness Dance Center, I had the pleasure of attending the film premiere of Pearl Primus, Omowale, Child Returned Home directed by Stan Sherer working alongside Primus's biographers Peggy and Murray Schwartz. The event featured a ceremonial Youruba welcome to the audience and ancestors led by Louis Ramos II, a live dance and music performance of Primus's Michael Row the Boat Ashore by the Something Positive Dance Company directed by Michael Manswell, then the film followed by a panel discussion with Manswell, the Schwartzes, and Sherer along with educator, Ninoska M'bewe Escobar, and the last surviving member of Primus's dance company, Mary Waithe, with Paul Denis moderating.
Primus's work is all-too-rarely staged, so seeing Michael Row the Boat Ashore live was a triple-treat of music, singing, and dance. Even though Primus was not physically in the room, her uniqueness, passion, and expertise radiated out from the performers.
Then the film commenced. Among several other fascinating facts about Primus's life, we learned that she was an inspiring and strict educator; a thorough anthropologist (she studied the dances of Nigeria, Zaire, Rwanda, Ghana, Liberia, and the "Deep South" of the United States); a cunning storyteller; and an incredible jumper (5 feet high on average.) We get to see Primus's rare footage of traditional African dances as well as little-seen footage of Primus herself.
Primus's preservation and promotion of not just dance moves but also the meaning and subtlety of moves; indigenous cultural traditions; and dance as a means of social change is and has been unquestionably invaluable to the dance world and the conservation of humanity's legacy. Thus, her work has the potential to vastly enrich the lives of all who experience it. It is a tragedy she is not more well known.
Photo Credits: 1. Studio photograph of Pearl Primus with drummer Alphonse Cimber. Photograph by Morris Gordon, Picture Magazine, 1944. From the collection of the American Dance Festival Archives. 2. Photograph of Something Positive Dance Company performing Primus's Michael Row Your Boat Ashore. Photographer by Elizabeth Schneider-Cohen.