Talley Beatty

Defining black tradition in dance

Beatty in Saudados do Brazil

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 precursor 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  

Additional Resources:

ARTICLES:

“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 

BOOKS:

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

FILM:

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

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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