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Flash Profile, 7-3: American Independent
Donald McKayle celebrates 60 years of dance-making

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1998, 2008 Paul Ben-Itzak

(The Dance Insider is celebrating its 10th anniversary. This story was first published in the DI's inaugural Summer 1998 print issue, and is posted online today for the first time. 60 years after his first dance premiered at the American Dance Festival, Donald McKayle's latest work bows August 15 in Portland, Oregon, as part of the Northwest Professional Dance Project.)

Donald McKayle's hunger to dance was born one evening in 1947 at the High School of Trades in Manhattan's garment district, where a friend took him to see a concert by Pearl Primus. "I saw something I'd never seen before," McKayle remembers. "I said, 'I want to do that.' My friend said, 'There's a scholarship audition at the New Dance Group, where you can take class with Pearl.' And I said, 'No, I mean I want to do that tonight.' So we went back to her parents' house and pushed the chairs aside and she taught me part of Pearl's 'Dance of Springs.'"

Before there was Alvin Ailey, before there was Lar Lubovitch, before there was Eliot Feld, there was Donald McKayle, a giant of theatrical dance in whose troupe all of these men danced.

"Donald had a prophetic voice in modern dance," says the historian Joe Nash. "When 'Games' premiered in 1951, the issue of child abuse was not paramount in the thoughts of Americans," Nash says of McKayle's first group work. "His idea was that terror courses through the lives of children when they're playing. The terror concludes the work -- the shock of youngsters realizing that in the midst of games, there is this terror that lurks in the background. Today it is an issue -- children being killed by their parents -- whereas in 1951 many hospitals knew about child abuse, but they would not say anything."

The 1959 "Rainbow 'Round my Shoulder" also deals with a horror that has not gone away: life on the chain gang. Set to field recordings by John and Alan Lomax arranged by Robert de Cormier and Milton Okun, 'Rainbow,' says Nash, is "a masterpiece because he captures the feelings of these men" and because it is "a tour de force for male dancers," as well as for the one female dancer, who gets to play four women of the various men's dreams.

One of those who made the woman's role her own when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater revived 'Rainbow' in 1995 was Elizabeth Roxas, who says, "Donald is the only person who reminds me of Alvin, because he doesn't just allow you to dance, he teaches the very core of what his pieces are about while he's teaching you the steps. He coaches you, and you don't see that anymore. You also don't have those kinds of pieces any more. It's become a techno kind of world."

"His significance will be felt for years to come if his work is continually seen, because he is a humanist," says Jeraldyne Blunden, artistic director of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. "He has choreographed about many things, and never failed to bring the human interest into it."

Since McKayle disbanded his own company in 1969, it has been up to companies like DCDC to preserve the work. DCDC performs "Games" and 'Rainbow' August 15 at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park, as part of Donald McKayle: Dancing the Dream, which also includes performances August 20 and 21 by the Limon Dance Company, where McKayle is curently Mentor, and a panel discussion on August 14 featuring McKayle, Blunden, and Nash. Artifacts from his life in dance will be on display at the library of the University of California at Irvine, where McKayle teaches, through September 3. From June 18-20 in Durham, North Carolina, as part of the American Dance Festival's Masterpieces of the Black Tradition weekend, DCDC and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble present programs including 'Rainbow' and McKayle's "Songs of the Disinherited" and "District Storyville."

McKayle's inspiration for "District Storyville" came while he was touring the Far East in 1955 as a member of the Martha Graham company. "Everywhere we went I heard jazz music, and I wondered, What is it that allows this aspect of our American culture to translate so quickly to all parts of the world? I realized there is something so innately human about this expression that it translated. I traced the beginning of jazz to New Orleans's District Storyville."

With 50 ballets, five Tony nominations, and an Emmy nomination, McKayle has demonstrated that he is more than a great "black choreographer." "He's one of the great choreographers, period," says Charles Reinhart, with Stephanie Reinhart the director of ADF, where McKayle is one of few to win top awards for both artistic achievement and teaching.

It was at ADF in the summer of 1948 that McKayle premiered his first choreography, the solo "Saturday's Child." He has never forgotten the humanistic element in dance -- nor the dramatic.

"He once said, 'Dance is my medium, but the theater is my home,'" says Nash. "McKayle, Ailey, and Talley Beatty believed you must be clear to the audience, state your theme, and develop it, like a good story. His work is universal -- anyone can respond to it. When 'Rainbow' was performed in Russia, people reacted in stunned silence because they understood the theme of repression, people in a situation not of their own choosing, and how you overcome that frustration."

Explains McKayle, "When you find the linkage between dance and story, you have found something very rich. Dance doesn't tell stories the same way you could in other areas, it doesn't give finite points, but it gives a deeper, richer emotional context."

60 years of making dances: Donald McKayle working on his latest with dancers from the Northwest Professional Dance Project. Blaine Covert photo copyright Blaine Covert and courtesy Northwest Professional Dance Project.

In addition to teaching his students to appreciate theater dance, McKayle also teaches them about their history. "I think it is very important that young artists realize that they didn't get here by spontaneous generation," he says. "Because I have this long background and such a good memory gesturally as well as intellectually, I can give them things that are not being taught any more and see how this person did it and that person and what the importance was to the field. There are so many things of great beauty being lost because no one is preserving them. So that when companies come along like the American Repertory Dance Company in Los Angeles and do all these solos of great historical importance, the audience goes crazy. This is something we should honor. Classical companies [honor their past], but with modern companies that's not done, because it's always about presenting something new. That's why these companies that are repositories for my work, like Dayton and Cleo and Ailey, and that present it side by side with new work, are so exciting for me. We certainly can have a living vibrant museum that is not of mustiness but of great vitality."

The choreographer is working on a commission from the national Museum of African American Art in Wilburforce, Ohio, with DCDC and Ronald K. Brown, which will premiere as part of an exhibit, African American Dance in the Americas, opening in February 1999 and traveling to Chicago, Seattle, and Charleston, South Carolina. In addition, he will create a ballet for the Ailey's millenium season, 1999, to be performed on the eve of New Year's Day, 2000.

McKayle's autobiography, "I Will Dance With You," will soon be published by Gordon and Breach. In this exclusive excerpt, he recalls an experience performing with the New York City Center Opera Ballet:

The rehearsals for "Hansel and Gretel" were... full and detailed.... I was one of the archangels; the other three were Al Shulman, Marvin Gordon, and Harvey Lichtenstein. Harvey was later to become the much honored executive director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The day of the dress rehearsal, I arrived early but found Marvin, Al, and Harvey already there. I heard raucous laughter coming from the dressing room and opened the door to find Marvin in a long white dress with tiny golden wings sprouting from his shoulder blades. As I stood in the doorway joining in the mirth, four wig blocks were carried in, bearing identical long blonde sausage-curl wigs.

We quickly got into our gowns, wings, and wigs and faced each other. A vagrant blonde curl fell across Marvin's cheek and rested there beguilingly pointing toward his broken nose bridge, a prizefighter in drag; Harvey's shaggy, John L. Lewis eyebrows and hooked nose jutted out in alarm, a peek-a-boo family of wrens nested in a blonde shrub; Al's unshaven pug and pursed lips were caught up in a gesture of shock, undeniably an escaped hood from the musical comedy "Kiss Me Kate," somehow lost in opera heaven; blonde ringlets trembled around my sepia complexion, a peroxide cherub in a quartet of questionable seraphs. We took our places backstage and mounted the escape steps for our heavenly descent.

We were the last four angels to float down to earth through the parting curtains of clouds, where we hovered over the sleeping Hansel and Gretel. My first task was to assist Harvey in lifting and rocking the somnolent Hansel, a role that was traditionally assigned to a mezzo-soprano. As my curls brushed across Francis Bible's face, and she cracked open her closed eyelids and caught a glimpse of me, she began to shake with laughter. The harder she tried to hold back her mirth the more impossible control became. This infectious state of affairs quickly spread across the entire stage, and the ballet ended in a shambles of hilarity.

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