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Choreographing the Folk

The Dance Stagings of Zora Neale Hurston

2008
Author:

Anthea Kraut

Choreographing the Folk

Recovers an important dimension of the work of the renowned African American artist

While Zora Neale Hurston and her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God have become widely celebrated, she was also a prolific stage director and choreographer. In Choreographing the Folk, Anthea Kraut traces the significance and influence of Hurston’s little-known choreographic work and with perceptiveness, sensitivity, and originality, Kraut illuminates the important and often-contested place of black folk dance in American culture.

Choreographing the Folk offers a much-needed corrective to historical narratives of dance that have excluded Zora Neale Hurston’s important contributions to the field, even as it provides an authoritative analysis of how ‘the folk’ and ‘authenticity’ have been theorized and deployed as aesthetic categories within dance and performance studies.

Thomas F. DeFrantz, author of Dancing Revelations

While Zora Neale Hurston and her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God have become widely celebrated, she was also a prolific stage director and choreographer. In the 1930s Hurston produced theatrical concerts that depicted a day in the life of a railroad work camp in Florida and featured a rousing Bahamian Fire Dance as the dramatic finale. In Choreographing the Folk, Anthea Kraut traces the significance and influence of Hurston’s little-known choreographic work.

Hurston’s concerts were concrete illustrations of the “real Negro art theatre” she was eager to establish, and they compellingly demonstrate how she used the arena of performance to advance a nuanced understanding of the black diaspora. Her version of the Fire Dance was staged in a variety of venues during the 1930s. In its multiple representations, Kraut asserts, the dance raised critical issues about ownership, artistry, and authenticity.

Choreographing the Folk argues for the significance of Hurston’s choreography, and with perceptiveness, sensitivity, and originality, Kraut illuminates the important and often-contested place of black folk dance in American culture.

Choreographing the Folk

Anthea Kraut is assistant professor of dance at the University of California, Riverside, where she teaches courses in dance history and theory.

Choreographing the Folk

Choreographing the Folk offers a much-needed corrective to historical narratives of dance that have excluded Zora Neale Hurston’s important contributions to the field, even as it provides an authoritative analysis of how ‘the folk’ and ‘authenticity’ have been theorized and deployed as aesthetic categories within dance and performance studies.

Thomas F. DeFrantz, author of Dancing Revelations

A choreographic legacy restored!

The Philadelphia Sunday SUN

Kraut’s exciting book uncovers a long-forgotten aspect of Hurston’s artistic life, her work for the concert dance stage. . . . it suggests that Hurston’s work nor African American dance traditions can be neatly fit in racially marked categories. An important contribution to the literature on dance studies, and valuable to those interested in interdisciplinarity.

Choice

This fine book picks up with a subject that should have been investigated years ago and pushes it toward greater understanding, that of the role of Zora Neale Hurston in developing and blending ‘genuine’ African-American culture and the arts and their contributions to the wider American culture. In her investigations and conclusions Kraut believes that Hurston’s play The Great Day spawned a series of performances that deserve a place in official dance records. They need to be more integrally tied in with African-American studies and American studies in general.

Journal of American Culture

Choreographing the Folk represents a groundbreaking attempt to resituate [Zora Neale Hurston] as an influential dance artist, and also to reveal the cultural struggles for control over black folk dance in the 1930s. Kraut. . . reveals impressive knowledge of both African American and performance studies, and her decision to divide her book into differently themes sections has resulted in a multifaceted analysis of Hurston’s dance stagings. Also impressive is her navigation of the challenges of interpreting an unrecorded theatrical production. Choreographing the Folk thus represents a long-overdue assessment of Hurston’s relationship to dance studies and to embodied representations of African American expression, and is an invaluable resource for both Hurston and dance scholars.

Journal of American Studies

Kraut offers a vivid portrait of the challenges and triumphs Hurston experienced.

Journal of African American History

Kraut’s scholarship is contextually sophisticated, politically sensitive, and academically engaging.

African American Review

Choreographing the Folk arrives as a model of interdisciplinary performance-history scholarship, immediately relevant to scholars of US theatre and dance history, while also of certain interest to specialists in American studies, African American studies, and cultural historians of the African diaspora. Written with a lively attention to detail, the author presents a captivating and provocative portrait of Zora Neale Hurston’s significance within American performance history.

Theatre Journal

Choreographing the Folk gathers together, with intelligence and measured judgment, arguments for a more inclusive understanding of what both ‘choreography’ and ‘folklore’ might mean.

Journal of Theatre Survey

With admirable dexterity of language and a minimum of jargon, Kraut opens the door and invites us in to a world of subtle readings and intertextual implications that surround this little-known piece of American cultural history and performance politics.

American Studies

Choreographing the Folk

Contents

Preface

Introduction: Rediscovering Hurston’s Embodied

Representations of the Folk

1 Commercialization and the Folk
2 Choreography and the Folk
3 Producing The Great Day
4 Hurston’s Embodied Theory of the Folk
5 Interpreting the Fire Dance
6 Black Authenticity, White Artistry

Coda: Hurston’s Choreographic Legacy
Acknowledgments

Appendix A: Chronology of Known Performances by Hurston and the Bahamian Dancers
Appendix B: Known Members of the Bahamian Dancers between 1932 and 1936

Notes

Index