Defining black tradition in dance
Before there was Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Revelations (1960) and its signature solo “I Want To Be Ready,” Talley Beatty (1923–1995) broke boundaries with his first professional piece, Southern Landscape (1947). This five-section dance, inspired by Howard Fast’s Southern Reconstruction novel Freedom Road, and Beatty’s own experience with racial discrimination, also had a dance solo that read like a prayer (“Mourner’s Bench”), and it exemplified what would become his choreographic genius: transforming experiences of social injustice into brilliant physical expressions of the human spirit.
Over a long career, Beatty developed a broad-ranging dance style drawn from the vocabularies of Katherine Dunham, Jack Cole, Lester Horton, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham and ballet technique. The virtuoso performer, choreographer and teacher danced onstage and in films, nightclubs and Broadway musicals. His choreography has been performed by modern and ballet companies, from Boston Ballet to Ballet Hispanico to Batsheva Dance Company. Of his more than 50 works, the Ailey company holds six in its repertory.
Although Beatty helped define black tradition in American dance theater and made audiences feel through movement what it was like to be black in the United States, he never achieved much status outside of the dance world. His acclaim, wrote dance critic Jennifer Dunning, was “eclipsed, perhaps, by the dazzling commercial success of Alvin Ailey.” According to New York Times senior dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, Beatty was “one of America’s best and most underrated choreographers.”
Beatty was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, but grew up in Chicago. When he was 11, a young teacher named Katherine Dunham encouraged him to take dance. Before long he was studying ballet every day. Beatty made his professional debut at 14 with the Chicago Civic Opera, and three years later he joined Dunham’s original company, where he rose to principal dancer and became instrumental in her renditions of Afro-Caribbean dance rituals. Following his appearance in the 1943 film Stormy Weather, he left the troupe to freelance. His extraordinary technique, expressive capacities and musicality made him a sought-after performer. But he continued his association with Dunham for almost six decades, performing with the company in musical theater and film and later as a Dunham teacher.
Throughout the 1940s, Beatty broadened his explorations in dance. He studied with Graham, toured California nightclubs with ex-Dunham dancer Janet Collins (their act was called Rea and Rico to deflect speculation that they were black), starred in Maya Deren’s A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) and worked with George Balanchine on Cabin in the Sky (1945). He also danced for Syvilla Fort and Helen Tamiris, and in Lew Christensen’s minstrel ballet. In 1952, Beatty formed his own company to tour a showcase of his works entitled Tropicana. He disbanded the troupe five years later to focus on concert dance and choreography in New York City.
It was as a teacher at Phillips-Fort Dance Studio that Beatty established his famous lifelong association with Alvin Ailey. Ailey invited Beatty to be a guest artist in the historical 1958 92nd Street Y concert, the precurser to AAADT. Some of the works Beatty set on AAADT include: The Road to Phoebe Snow (1959), Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot (1960) (with its popular sections: “Congo Tango Palace” and “Toccata”) and The Stack-Up (1983).
Although Beatty grounded his ballets in his observations of the harshness of life, his physically challenging works were equally devoted to pure technical dance, where performers embodied jazz music’s teasing rhythms as they agilely exploded through space. Ailey Artistic Director Judith Jamison wrote, “If you haven’t studied at least four techniques, you’ll never get through one of his ballets.” Another signature element was the absence of specific plot or characters. He favored abstract ideas, like love, alienation and violence. “My wish is to be able to make the statement in terms of design and to extend the idea past a natural gesture,” he said in a 1981 interview.
Beatty was known for being a demanding perfectionist. “Talley could say something, cut his eyes and walk away, and you knew you had to dance it to the level he was talking about,” says former principal Ailey dancer Donna Wood. Ailey dancer Dudley Williams recalls asking for counts to a phrase: “He cursed me out and said, ‘I don’t dance by count; I dance by music.’” That experience, says Williams, caused him to dance deeper, “to learn the music before the steps.” As quoted in Dick Russell’s book Black Genius, noted Massachusetts dance teacher Elma Lewis always prepared her students for his guest-teaching visits: “He’s going to use bad language, confound your expectations of what is acceptable human behavior and may even throw a chair at you. The cost of being this close to genius is frequently expensive in terms of your emotions and humanity . . . so endure it and show him proper respect.”
In 1993 the American Dance Festival bestowed its lifetime achievement award on Beatty. A year later, his last piece, Ellingtonia, was premiered at ADF by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble to honor the late Duke Ellington, with whom he had collaborated. Beatty died the following April at age 76 of complications from diabetes. His work will forever document a monumental time in our country’s history. DT
“Ailey Company’s Homage to Talley Beatty,” by Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times, December 21, 1989
“Talley Beatty, 76, a Leader in Lyrical Jazz Choreography,” by Jennifer Dunning, New York Times, May 1, 1995
Alvin Ailey, by Jennifer Dunning. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1996
The Black Tradition in American Dance, by Richard Long. New York: Rizzoli, 1989
Dancing Spirit: An Autobiography, by Judith Jamison. New York: Doubleday, 1983
International Encyclopedia of Dance, “Talley Beatty,” by Melanye P. White-Dixon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
Carnival of Rhythm, directed by Stanley Martin, Warner Bros. Pictures, 1941
Great Performances: Free to Dance, directed by Madison Davis Lacy, Thirteen/WNET New York, 2001
Stormy Weather, directed by Andrew L. Stone, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1943
A Study in Choreography for Camera, directed by Maya Deren, 1945
Freelance writer Rachel Straus is based in New York City. She holds degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
Photo by Bruno Hollywood NYC, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives