By Sara Elizabeth Taylor
CALGARY — In 1925, Josephine Baker, an African-American woman of humble beginnings, arrived in Paris to become a dancer in La Revue Nègre. Though she had already achieved moderate success in the U.S. due to her ability to add a comedic touch to her dance routines, it was La Revue Nègre – and especially her appearance in nothing but a feather skirt for her routine the Danse Sauvage – that made her an overnight sensation.
Baker went on to become a major celebrity in Europe, turning audiences’ heads with her boundary-pushing routines, such as when she famously performed in a costume that consisted of 16 bananas strung into a skirt. During this time, she earned more than any other entertainer in Europe, and was one of the most photographed women in the world. Significantly, Baker was also the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou in 1934.
Sadly, racism prevented Baker from achieving the same amount of acceptance in the U.S.; when she starred in a Broadway revue in 1935, The New York Times called her a “Negro wench.” Though she returned to Europe heartbroken by her home country’s cold reception, she continued to visit the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s, fighting racism head-on and eventually earning a day named in her honour by the National Associated for the Advancement of Colored People. When she performed in New York again in 1973, almost 40 years after the devastating rejection, she earned a standing ovation from the audience before the concert even began.
This month, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks is kicking off its 2014-15 season, and honouring Baker’s legacy, with Year of the Horse: The Completely Fictional Adventures of Josephine Baker. With eight dancers, three live musicians playing original contemporary jazz, eight mechanical horses – and yes, some nudity – DJD Artistic Director and choreographer Kimberley Cooper has crafted a fictional fantasy in an exotic, erotic, otherworldly setting.
“I have been interested in the idea of Josephine Baker for some time,” Cooper explains. “She was such a brilliant jazz dance icon and an interesting and inspirational person. Last year, visual artist Lisa Brawn told me she was buying a collection of mechanical horses, the kind you put the quarter in and rode at the mall when you were little. I fell in love with the idea of Josephine Baker in all of her scantily clad, wildly physical, sexual but comical, mad survival instinct glory dancing in a landscape filled with these sandblasted ponies. Josephine was born in the Year of the Horse so it all seemed to fit. It is going to be abstract, dream-like and non-linear.”
Year of the Horse: The Completely Fictional Adventures of Josephine Baker runs at Theatre Junction GRAND November 7-15. Be sure to join Kimberley Cooper, the three musicians and one dancer from the production in a free 30-minute panel discussion following the matinee performance on Sunday, November 9.AB, Alberta, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, Josephine Baker, Theatre Junction GRAND, Year of the Horse