Beryl McBurnie: the flowering of La Belle Rosette

Ray Funk traces Trinidadian dancer Beryl McBurnie’s stellar career in 1940s New York

Belle Rosette and drummers. Photograph courtesy the Ray Funk CollectionBeryl McBurnie photographed at her home in St James, Trinidad, in 1992. Photograph by Mark LyndersayBeryl McBurnie, in the days when she used the stage name of La Belle Rosette. Photograph courtesy the Ray Funk Collection

In the spring of 1941, Beryl McBurnie, under her stage name of La Belle Rosette, started to feature in the New York press. From then until the end of 1945 she was one of the most active and celebrated black dancers in the city.

Public notice of McBurnie outside Harlem started in spring 1941, with the Coffee Concerts, a series at the Museum of Modern Art organised by the young theatrical agent Louise Crane. Crane developed an amazingly adventurous series of events, which ranged from jazz to gospel to avant garde, as well as featuring musicians from the Caribbean and Latin America.

McBurnie first came to Crane’s attention through an article in the New York Amsterdam News. Crane went to see McBurnie dancing in the calypso show at the Village Vanguard with calypsonian MacBeth the Great. She quickly signed McBurnie as a client, and scheduled her to appear in Coffee Concert called the South American Panorama, with a Brazilian soprano, Elsie Houston.

The night belonged to La Belle Rosette, as the reporter for the New York Amsterdam News noted: “So far, it had been a nice evening of South American Music at the Museum of Modern Art. The audience was remotely polite, applauding the mediocre efforts of the artists at the proper time. But it was an uninspired audience, overburdened by dull music interpreted lugubriously. There hadn’t been a single lift—that is until the curtain parted to reveal Belle Rosette—a slender bronze girl in a flowing and colorful costume—an infectious grin lighting her face.

“She poised there on her toes for a split second and then, at the first beat of the drums from the trio of Haitians huddled in the shadow of the stage, Belle Rosette executed the first sinuous and sensuous movements of the [Shango], a dance she brought from her native Trinidad.

“Excitement ran high. No longer was the audience nice and polite and remote. It completely lost its face and became rowdy in paying obeisance to this girl from Trinidad who completely stole the show from the star. When it quieted down after a third encore, Belle Rosette sang a Calypso song about the Germans surrendering to the British.

She was no longer a dancer—but a minx kidding the life out of the Axis dictators.”

Though she would rarely sing calypso on her return to Trinidad, McBurnie was hailed as one of the first female calypso singers in the US. Her Coffee Concert success led immediately to her being booked for a private party in Philadelphia. She continued performing at the Village Vanguard, along with various calypsonians, accompanied by Gerald Clark and the Caribbean Serenaders, New York’s leading resident calypso band.

McBurnie had first gone to Columbia University in 1938, to further her education, and was influenced by two of the great dance forces in New York, Martha Graham at Columbia and Charles Weidman at the Academy of American Arts. Molly Ahye’s book on McBurnie and the Little Carib Theatre, Cradle of Caribbean Dance, briefly outlines her travels to the US. Soon, McBurnie moved from student to teacher and started to lecture and teach Caribbean dance. Most famously, she taught Katherine Dunham dances like the shango, bongo and kalinda, in private sessions.

Crane booked her to star in a Coffee Concert on November 10, 1941, Antillana. It proved to be yet another distinguished event, and drew a review by the famous poet HD (Hilda Doolittle). She gushed that the concert featured “superb performers of this specialized folk art, whether exuding a cabaret species of glamour as did Belle Rosette, or a nonchalance which was hilarious to watch.”

This was followed by a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a month later, with the Trinidadian pianist Jack Celestain accompanying. Belle Rosette performed three dances, The Obeah Woman, “Bourroquite” Dance (a Trinidad Carnival character), and Shango. She also sang and danced to a series of calypsoes, including two famous Roaring Lion songs, his classic Ugly Woman from 1934, and his recent hit Woopsin’, as well as a number identified only as Calypso News, which may have been extempo or a compilation of recent events told in a calypso. During the final segment, she sang folk songs from other Caribbean islands, including St Lucia, Antigua, Dominica, and Martinique.

In April 1942, McBurnie performed at the 92nd “Y” (YMCA). It is hard now to gauge the importance of a dancer’s being chosen to give recitals at locations like the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the 92nd Y, but these were among the premiere venues for modern dance at the time. The 92nd Y’s dance programme had been championed by the New York Times dance critic John Martin and had featured artists such as Doris Humphrey and Graham. When McBurnie appeared there, the venue had previously only had a few evenings of black dance. Her recital featured a number of great supporting dancers, including Pearl Primus, with Celestain on piano, and the Haitian drummers Cimber and Coker on drums.

Primus would go on to great fame as an important scholar and exponent of African and Caribbean dance in the US. Trinidad-born, but raised in the US, Primus had only started taking dance lessons the year before. Within a couple of years, she became one of the best known dancers in New York. Primus later met and married one of McBurnie’s dancers in Trinidad, Percy Borde.

 

After the 92nd Y concert, McBurnie flew to Nashville to do a lecture and dance presentation at Fisk University, then flew back the next day for a Paramount Pictures audition. Nothing seems to have come of that, but the celebrated Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda was going to Hollywood, and McBurnie was scheduled to replace her on Broadway. Miranda had been starring at the Winter Garden Theatre in the hit musical revue Sons O’ Fun by Olson and Johnson, who had had a hot hit a few years earlier with Hellzapoppin’. But for reasons never explained, McBurnie resigned after her first night.

But she remained busy, appearing in spring 1942 in a benefit show for the Harlem Children’s Center at the Apollo Theatre, and in the fall in one for servicemen at the Harlem Defense Recreation Center. In December she performed in a programme for, among others, the Advisory Committee for West Indian Broadcasts.

She started out 1943 with recitals at the Museum of Art in Baltimore, followed by many New York events, including the Beaux Arts Victory Ball for the National Urban League, a Carnival dance in Harlem, and the Easter concert of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She appeared in March on the West Indian Radio Newspaper, a half-hour programme beamed nightly to the Caribbean. Started the month before by the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, in collaboration with the US Office of War Information, the show was essentially a presentation of propaganda. McBurnie sang a folk song, Plantain, and then a propaganda song, USA, filled with lyrics in support of the war effort like “What is the land of freedom today? USA.”

At about this time, McBurnie also went to the LOL Studios in Long Island to make two “soundies.” Shot for special jukeboxes in bars and restaurants, these were short music films, like an early version of music videos. They were popular for a few years in the 1940s, when literally over 1,000 were made, mostly of pop acts.

McBurnie’s soundies, Willie, Willie and Quarry Road, both featured songs from Sam Manning’s West Indian Folksongs, an album of four 78 rpm singles. Manning, from Trinidad, had been one of the best known artists in Harlem in the 20s. He issued many records, appeared on Broadway, and created a series of popular shows with Amy Ashwood Garvey, Marcus Garvey’s first wife. He spent the 30s touring the Caribbean and living in England, and had only returned to New York a few years earlier.

It was unusual for the dancer featured in a soundie to get billing in the opening credits, and it was a testament to her popularity at the time. McBurnie had two other dancers with her, one of them her sister Frieda, all in full Martiniquan-style dress. These soundies are the only surviving recordings of McBurnie dancing in her prime.

She returned to the 92nd Y in May 1943 for another recital, this one called simply Tropics. She was again supported by Primus, in a suite of dances titled West Indian Panorama: Colonization, Hosein Festival, Peasants, Ouanga, Our Good Neighbors, Carnival and Calypso.
McBurnie was also teaching dance, taking over from the famous African dancer Asadata Defora at the Mura Deyn Academy of Swing. Defora, from Sierra Leone, had brought African dances to New York City in the 30s.

McBurnie went home to Trinidad for most of 1945, but returned to New York in the fall. This may have caused her to miss a chance to return to Broadway. By that time, Katherine Dunham and her dancers were appearing in a musical with book and lyrics by a Trinidadian, Carib Song, by William Archibald, which opened at the end of September and ran for a month.

McBurnie, however, found herself in an academic setting. She gave a major lecture demonstration on Caribbean dance at Columbia University. The Amsterdam News reviewer described it in this way: “She made a shockingly beautiful picture against the backdrop of drab, gray gym curtains. With West Indian rhythms at the focal point, she spoke illustrating with movements and drums, the folk arts of the island, giving examples of games, folk tales, proverbs, folk songs and dances.”

The Baltimore Afro-American reviewer enthused that she “held the audience spellbound for an hour with her infectious personality. Whether talking of Africa, Haiti, Martinique or Trinidad, her voice maintained a musical quality which intrigued the audience.”

McBurnie was offered a post at Columbia, again an opportunity that she appears to have turned down. But she did teach a course that fall on West Indian Rhythms at the New Dance Group. Since 1932, this group had been one of the leaders in modern dance and it was an honour to be part of their staff. It was a sign of how respected she had become in the New York modern dance world.

 

McBurnie’s last public New York appearance was in the major Caribbean Festival held at Park Palace, 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, on December 9, 1945. Sponsored by the West Indies National Council, it also featured calypsonians, the Gerald Clark Band, and Cuban and Haitian artistes. During her time in New York, La Belle Rosette seemed to be performing everywhere. McBurnie told Ahye she remembered performances at “Hunter College, Henry Street Settlement Playhouse, Madison Square Garden, the Village [Vanguard], and New York City College.” She also made quick trips to Baltimore, Philadelphia and Nashville for concerts.

After her departure in 1945, La Belle Rosette became only a memory in New York. In 1941 she was quoted as saying her whole purpose in going there was to prepare “to return to Trinidad to open a school of dance and dramatic arts.” Now that time had come, and she left, at the height of her popularity. In his column On Broadway, which was syndicated in newspapers across America, Walter Winchell noted in December 1945: “Agents are flocking to West Indian Harlem to see Belle Rosette (Calypso dancer and thrush).”

But when she returned to Trinidad, few there realised she was already a celebrity. It will forever be to McBurnie’s credit that she gave up a very promising career in New York to follow her dream home to Trinidad.

 

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