Black culture had a real influence on dance and other art forms in the 20th century. After the American civil war a surge of people from the Caribbean and Deep South migrated into North American cities. In New York the district of Harlem became home to black people from different cultural traditions with their own dances and music.
Josephine Baker (1906-1975) wearing a top hat, black and white photograph. Museum no. 89/1716
Josephine Baker, Henry Good and Son Limited, printed programme for Prince Edward Theatre, 1933
This programme is for the first appearance of the great singer and dancer Josephine Baker in London in 1933. She had been a legend in Paris since her first appearance, wearing little more than a feather, in La Revue Nègre in 1925. The London programme's photographs show her wearing considerably more than her famous banana skirt. Here she wears male evening dress. There was always a certain androgynous (both male and female) quality to Baker. At her first performance, despite her nakedness, more than one reviewer found both male and female qualities in her. So it was not surprising that Baker dressed as a man as part of her act. It is the advertisement on the back cover that hints at her glamour image. Part of Baker's charm was that, behind the sophistication, the nudity, the cross-dressing, the feathers and glitter, she still seemed a naughty child projecting not so much sexuality, as a good time.
Florence Mills, black and white photograph, about 1920
London first saw Florence Mills in C.B.Cochran’s revue Dover Street to Dixie in 1923. There were rumours that an anti-coloured demonstration was planned, but after one song, London was at her feet. Cochran later presented her in the smash hit revue Black Birds. Mills never overtly wooed her audience, yet always aroused them to wild enthusiasm. Cochran remembered her voice, ‘bird-like, with a throb in it such as I have never heard in any other. In her quietest moment her eyes would suddenly flash, her beautiful little vibrant face would light up, and her frail, lithe limbs would become animated with a sort of dancing delirium’.
He considered Mills one of the greatest stars he ever presented. She was born in 1895 to ex-slaves in a Washington, D.C. slum. By the age of four she was performing on stage. By the 1920s she was the toast of Broadway and London and the first black woman featured in Vogue. She became a role model and her success helped audiences accept black performers. Her trademark song, ‘I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird’ was a protest against racial inequality. Mills died in 1927, aged only 31. At her funeral the mourners sang her hit song ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’
Advertising flyer for the musical Ever Green, print on silver card, London, England, 1930
In 1930 Evergreen was the most spectacular musical yet mounted by the celebrated showman C.B.Cochran. Written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and starring Jessie Matthews, it had a cast of 200, a revolving stage and elaborate scenic effects. The dances were by Billy Pierce and Buddy Bradley, the first black dancers to work on an all-white show. The revolving stage was a nightmare for them, as the dancers had never performed on a revolve before. As the floor moved one way, they had to dance in the opposite direction and kept smashing into each other.
The hit song was Dancing on the Ceiling, in which Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale danced around a huge chandelier pointing upwards from the floor. Unusually for Rodgers and Hart, the music was written first. Hart sensed a weightlessness in the melody and wrote the lyrics around a girl dreaming that her lover is dancing above her on the ceiling. The BBC banned the song for a while because the word 'bed' occurred three times.
Printed programme for musical Ever Green, Adelphi Theatre, London, England, 1930
American born Buddy Bradley was an important teacher and choreographer in British dance from the 1930s, when C.B. Cochran brought him in to work on the Rodgers and Hart musical Ever Green. He was the first black choreographer to work on an all white theatre production. He set up a studio in London, and until 1967 worked with the greatest names in British musical theatre, including Jessie Matthews, Jack Buchanan and Anna Neagle.
Bruce Forsyth went to him as a boy to learn American-style tap dancing. The revolving stage in Ever Green was a nightmare for Bradley and his co- choreographer Billy Pierce.The dancers had never performed on a revolve before. They had rehearsed on the non-moving floor of the dance studio and didn’t get to work with the revolve until the pre-London try-out in Glasgow. As the floor moved one way, the dancers moved in the opposite direction and they kept smashing into each other.
Newspaper cutting, Fair Attractions in Ever Green, King's Theatre Glasgow, Scotland, about 1930
Calypso, black and white photograph, Playhouse Theatre London, England, 1948. Museum no. 8687-24
Calypso opened in London in 1948. It was the first musical based on a West Indian subject with a predominantly West Indian cast. The date was significant. The opening night was just a month before the Windrush brought the first West Indian immigrants to Britain. Calypso was devised by English actor, dancer and designer Hedley Briggs, who became fascinated by Trinidad culture when he was stationed there in World War II.
Calypso took local songs and dances and pasted them into a standard musical comedy story of lovers' misunderstandings. The plot was old, but the West Indian dances were performed with a dash and verve that were new to English audiences in the late 1940s. The leading role was played by West Indian actor Edric Connor, who spent his life working to increase opportunities for black British performers. He set up an agency to represent them and campaigned for black British actors to replace visiting African American casts after six months. In 1958 he was the first black actor to perform in Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon.