Primus, Pearl

Primus, Pearl
born Nov. 29, 1919, Port of Spain, Trin.
died Oct. 29, 1994, New Rochelle, N.Y., U.S.

U.S. dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist.

Her family moved to New York City when she was two years old. She made her dance debut as the first black member of the New Dance Group in 1943 and formed her own company the next year. Her anthropological research in Africa and the Caribbean led her to choreograph works such as African Ceremonial (1944) and The Wedding (1961), and she obtained a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

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▪ 1995

      U.S. dancer, choreographer, and teacher (b. Nov. 29, 1919, Trinidad—d. Oct. 29, 1994, New Rochelle, N.Y.), pioneered the use of authentic African elements in her works and influenced a number of black dancers and choreographers, among them Alvin Ailey and Donald McKayle. Primus moved with her family to the U.S. when she was three. She planned to be a doctor and studied biology at Hunter College, New York City, receiving a bachelor's degree. She sought laboratory work but could not find a job open to blacks, so she applied to the National Youth Administration and was placed in a dance group. She made her solo performing debut in 1943 with the New Dance Group and soon was appearing at Café Society Downtown, one of the first fully integrated nightclubs. She founded (1944) her own company, which performed on Broadway and toured the U.S. Primus had begun using African themes in her choreography, notably her first major work, African Ceremonial (1944), and in 1948 she was awarded a Rosenwald fellowship and studied dance in Africa. She made several more trips over the following years and eventually, in 1978, earned a Ph.D. in African and Caribbean studies. In 1954 she married Percival Borde, a dancer she had met on a trip to Trinidad, and they frequently performed and toured together. In addition to African themes, Primus often incorporated experiences of U.S. blacks in her dances. In the mid-1940s she created Strange Fruit, which depicted a woman's reactions to a lynching, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers, which was inspired by a poem by Langston Hughes and portrayed the difficulty of life along the Mississippi. Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore (1979) was about the mother of a Birmingham, Ala., church-bombing victim. Primus danced until 1980 and thereafter directed a black studies program at the State University of New York at Buffalo and taught ethnic studies at five Massachusetts colleges. Among the awards she received was the National Medal of the Arts in 1991.

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▪ American anthropologist, dancer, and choreographer
born Nov. 29, 1919, Trinidad
died Oct. 29, 1994, New Rochelle, N.Y., U.S.
 American dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, and teacher whose performance work drew on the African American experience and on her research in Africa and the Caribbean.

      Primus's family moved to New York City when she was two years of age. She studied biology at Hunter College in New York City and later joined the New Dance Group, with whom she made her dance debut in 1943. The following year she gave a solo recital, which led to several Broadway engagements. Primus formed her own company in 1944.

      Primus's first major choreographic work, African Ceremonial (1944), attested to her early interest in her black heritage. She traveled to Africa in 1948, the first of many such research trips (which eventually led to her Ph.D. in African and Caribbean studies). Her dances reflected these travels, notably The Wedding (1961) for Alvin Ailey (Ailey, Alvin, Jr.)'s company. Though most of her other dances are based on primitive West Indian forms, she choreographed several pieces about American life, including Strange Fruit (1945), a reference to the practice of lynching; The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1944), based on a poem by Langston Hughes (Hughes, Langston); and Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore (1979), about the racially motivated bombing of churches in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s.

      In addition to choreography, Primus directed a performing arts centre in Liberia and taught at Hunter College.

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Universalium. 2010.

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