Europe’s first all-Black dance troupe, Les Ballets Nègres, dazzled audiences for eight years. Founded by the Jamaican dancers and choreographers Richie Riley and Berto Pasuka, the London-based group aimed to create a new dance language, fusing classical ballet’s emphasis on physical and technical discipline with the undulating pelvic movements and relaxed, flexible limbs of Black Jamaican traditional dance.
Les Ballets Nègres sought to convey aspects of the Afro-Caribbean experience to a white audience, working with Leonard Salzedo’s scores for piano, tom-toms, and maracas to develop works including Market day, a joyous, dramatic recreation of the Jamaican market-place, and They came, which depicted the racial clash between Christianity and indigenous religion, but advocated the possibility of racial harmony.
Most critics were simultaneously impressed and baffled by the company’s first performances in 1946, and, as if lacking the vocabulary to comment on the dancing, focused more on the “tribal tom-toms”. The public, however, needed no convincing; the group’s first season was such a triumph that Les Ballets Nègres embarked on a tour of Europe. Still, plagued by persistent economic difficulties, the group—in Riley’s words—“went to sleep” in 1953.
Langston Hughes, who saw the production, said that Shuffle along marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Both black and white audiences swarmed to the show, which prompted the integration of subsequent Broadway audiences. The dances were such a smash that choreographers for white Broadway shows hired Shuffle along chorus girls to teach their chorus lines the new steps.
The editors have assembled the full score and libretto for this critical edition from the original performance materials, and the critical report thoroughly explains all sources and editorial decisions. The accompanying scholarly essay examines the music, dances, and script of Shuffle along and places this influential show in its social, racial, and historical context.
Above, a publicity photo from 1921; below, a recording from the production that includes the show’s breakout hit I’m just wild about Harry.
When Wieland Wagner engaged the 24-year-old Grace Bumbry for the role of Venus in the 1961 Bayreuth production of Tannhäuser he received hundreds of letters of protest, and the German press exploded with sensational headlines about the Black intruder in the sacred Aryan shrine.
But Wieland Wagner stood by the artist who had been dubbed die schwarze Venus (the black Venus), saying that the role “must convey eroticism without resorting to the clichés of a Hollywood sex bomb, yet she cannot personify the classic passive idea…When I heard Grace Bumbry I knew she was the perfect Venus; grandfather would have been delighted!”
Indeed, following the production’s first performance on 24 July a jubilant audience commanded 42 curtain calls during its 30-minute ovation, the most rousing demonstrations occurring during Bumbry’s bows.
This according to “Grace Bumbry: Modern diva” by Rosalyn M. Story, an essay included in And so I sing: African-American divas of opera and concert (New York: Warner, 1990, pp. 141–56).
Today is Bumbry’s 80th birthday! Above and below, the historic production.
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