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Celebrating Donald McKayle: His Choreography Shed Light On Social Injustice

Photo by Esta McKayle, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

This past week, the University of California, Irvine, Etude Ensemble paid tribute to Donald McKayle, with a performance of Journey of the Heart: A Celebration of Works by Donald McKayle. The renowned choreographer created the student performance group in 1995 when he was an active professor in the dance program. The tribute included audience favorites, Death and Eros (2000), Crossing the Rubicon (2017) and Songs of the Disinherited (1972).

Choreographer, dancer and teacher Donald McKayle established a strong foothold for dancers of color by creating work that commented on social injustices, challenged racial norms and conveyed the black experience. As a member of the politically active dance collective New Dance Group in the late 1940s, he developed an emotionally rich choreographic style inspired by several dance techniques. Over the span of his six-decade career, he has choreographed more than 90 works.

Born in New York City in 1930, McKayle was introduced to dance as a teenager via a school dance club. After seeing Afro-Caribbean choreographer Pearl Primus perform at a local high school, he decided to pursue dance seriously. He auditioned for and received a scholarship to the NYC-based New Dance Group, where Primus taught, and began studying ballet, Afro-Caribbean and modern. This training gave McKayle both a diverse and technically sound movement style and a socially conscious approach to choreography.

At 19, he joined the Contemporary Dance Group—a small company directed by concert and Broadway choreographer Helen Tamiris. In a concert with fellow company members the next year, he premiered Games, a group dance about the hardships of growing up in an urban environment. The critical success of Games launched his choreographic career and secured his reputation as a socially minded artist.

Donald McKayle's Games (1951). Photo by W. Sorell, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

McKayle continued to choreograph and perform while studying with Martha Graham and postmodern choreographer Merce Cunningham. He set work on his own company, Donald McKayle and Company, and accepted commissions to choreograph for theater and television. In 1959, he created what is now considered his greatest work, Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder—a heart-rending piece about the tragic lives of Southern chain-gang prisoners.

McKayle also had a successful career on Broadway. He performed in House of Flowers (1954) and West Side Story (1957) and began choreographing for Broadway in 1959, including Sophisticated Ladies (1981). He was nominated for five Tony Awards—four for best choreography and one for best direction of a musical (Raisin, 1974).

After teaching stints at the New Dance Group, Juilliard, Sarah Lawrence, Bard College and Bennington College, he joined the faculty at University of California, Irvine, in 1989 as a professor of dance. He retired from UCI in 2010, but was invited back last year as a professor emeritus of dance.

UC Irvine students in McKayle's Bittersweet Farewell. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum, courtesy of UC Irvine


McKayle has a diverse technical vocabulary at his disposal. From Martha Graham, he acquired the use of the torso—contracting, arching and twisting to punctuate emotion. Like Cunningham, McKayle often kept arm and leg movement independent of each other. Circular arm movements and fan kicks are common motifs in his choreography, as well as unison and pedestrian movement. Most of his works tell a story and are emotionally driven.

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