Vanoye Aikens, famous the world over as dancing partner to the late, great choreographer, Katherine Dunham, has passed away according to close friend, Robert Wood. Aikens left us peacefully around 12 p.m. on Saturday, August 24, 2013, in Los Angeles, California. Having known Aikens for well over four decades, Wood was pleased to offer us this exclusive report.
His early youth and education in Georgia allowed Aikens to attend Morehouse College until he entered the Navy. Upon discharge from duty he headed to New York City with a small amount of money he had managed to save. He was hopeful he could find employment perhaps as a dishwasher at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, however his life moved him in another direction when he aspired to audition for Katherine Dunham and suddenly found himself a member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company.
Aikens was a quick study, learning the Dunham technique rapidly through sheer determination, diligence, and a hard work ethic. His efforts paid off as he rose from a Dunham dancer to Miss Dunham’s principal dancing partner from 1943 until the company dissolved in 1963.
Appearing with Miss Dunham in some of her most spectacular dance creations such as Floyd’s Guitar Blues, L’Ag’ya, and Barrelhouse, they also performed on Broadway with her dance company in: Tropical Revue in 1943 (original performer), Carib Song in 1945 (the Leader of the Shango Dancers), Bal Negre in 1946 (original performer), and Katherine Dunham and Her Company in 1950, as well as a special dance revival of the same name, again in 1955.
Aikens was introduced to Josephine Baker by her long time friend and confidant, Stephen Papich, when the Dunham Company was appearing in Paris. He would delight in telling the story of himself and “big sis” Josephine heading out to a party. She was wearing a tiny little chapeau with a three-foot-long feather that stood straight up. When they went to get into the taxi she refused to take off her hat so she could make her grand entrance into the affair they were headed. She backed into the taxi down onto the floorboard as to not bend or break the feather. She delighted in this type of humor and filled the taxi with laughter and fun.
Life Magazine accompanied and documented Katherine Dunham and Producer Stephen Papich when they embarked on a tour of Nigeria and Morocco in search of authentic dancers to appear in Dunham’s newest creation she was mounting to showcase her greatest dance achievement for Broadway, Bamboche!
With the consent of His Majesty Hassan II, the King of Morocco and his country as well as His Excellency Leopold Senghor, President of the Republic of Senegal, and Sir Adesoji Aderemi, Oni of Ife, Governor of Western Provinces of Nigeria; the production was in place for Katherine Dunham to stage and choreograph. Word soon went out to Aikens, who was in Rome filming Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor, to hurry home to America to appear with her in Bamboche!
However, fate would not be on their side; following swiftly on the heels of the “Bay of Pigs” invasion and opening in late October 1962, just days before the longest running New York City newspapers strike, the show was doomed for publicity. There was no way the world would hear of Dunham’s theatrical achievement, leaving them with an empty theatre and depriving the world of her great masterpiece.
Bringing to a close their world-renowned dance career, Vanoye Aikens and Katherine Dunham went their separate ways, but remained always at the ready when one needed the other. Vanoye settled in Sweden where he began anew, teaching dance at the university, touring occasionally, and appearing in TV specials.
When the call did come, he returned home to America, landing in Los Angeles and occasionally teaching and performing at Cal Arts. Aikens and Dunham worked tirelessly to recreate fifteen of her dances for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, The Magic of Katherine Dunham. Through the joint efforts of Vanoye Aikens and Katherine Dunham, these masterpieces will live on, preserved for all time.
I will truly miss you my dear Vanoye.