Hemsley Winfield (April 20, 1906 – March? 1934) was an African-American dancer who, together with Edna Guy, created the New Negro Art Theater Dance Group.
He was born Osborne Hemsley Winfield to a middle-class, African-American family in Yonkers, New York. Winfield struggled in Yonkers as jobs available to African-Americans remained menial. Contrary to the natural inclination to the residents of Yonkers at that time, Winfield pursued a career in the Arts, developing a strong background as an actor, director, stage technician, dancer and eventually a choreographer. With combination of Winfield's middle-class ambition as well as the growing cultural movement of the African-Americans at that time, Winfield was able to achieve acclaim by the Art world. Winfield first won his fame as the leading role of Oscar Wilde's Salome, which he won acclaim to in 1929. Winfield came upon the role as Salome when the female lead of the company fell ill, causing Winfield to dress in drag as the show was staged at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, New York. Winfield, during this time, continued to attend concerts by the great trailblazers of modern dance, who later served as an influence and sponsor for his choreographic work.
The New Negro Art Theater Dance Group
In 1929, Winfield, along with African-American trailblazer for dance Edna Guy, created the "New Negro Art Theater Dance Group", which was coined for the company's New York City debut. Winfield served as the head organizer and director of the company. Sponsored by Ruth St. Denis of the Denis-Shawn School of Dance, Winfield's concerts soon grew to draw massive crowds. Winfield's choreographic work during this time fused uniquely German Expressionism with African-American themes and spirituals. The leading female dancers of the company included Oille Burgoyne and Edna Guy.
In 1933, the company appeared in the premier of Louis Gruenberg's opera The Emperor Jones at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Winfield took on the role of the Congo witch doctor in the piece. Controversy around the work resulted from the Met's original request to blacken White dancers' faces rather than use Black dancers, but Tibbett threatened to quit, and the Met relented.
Winfield's most influential contribution was his ongoing support of the "new negro", promoting a rush of African-American talent during this period of time. Winfield used the black body in dance and other art forms as raw material in order to show racial configuration within his company to an audience. Winfield projected this "new negro" in support of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement referring to the artistic and sociocultural awakening among African-Americans during the 1920s and 1930s as a response to the political and economic events resulting from World War 1.
Response to his work
The majority of supporters of the Harlem Renaissance Movement endorsed the work of Winfield and his counterparts such as Dunham and Edna guy. Critics considered Winfield to be "the initiator and chief exponent of Negro concert dancing in the United States." Some, however, did not quite support the message he had been trying to create with his choreographic style. Critic John Martin remarked that he felt as though the "Negro dancers [were] performing material associated with white dancers." This inevitable gap between what the public thought to be suitable for black and white dancers respectively was, in fact, the gap that Winfield spent his career trying to fill. Part of Winfield's struggle both politically and choreographically, naturally, was where he drew inspiration from. Having come from a period of time where the past was predominately filled with white dancers, Winfeild drew much insipiration from Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis, as did many artists of the time. The question of what black dancers should look like, move like, and reflect on, was brought to the table by Winfield and his peers. The question was not completely solved until the 1940s.
- Foulkes, Julia L. Modern Bodies. North Carolina: UNC P, 2002.
- Manning, Susan. Modern Dance, Negro Dance. Univ. of Minnesota P, 2004.
- "Great Performances: Free To Dance - Behind The Dance", PBS.org.
- "Great Performances: Free To Dance - Behind The Dance" (1933-1936), PBS.org.