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Donald McKayle (1931- )

By Irlanda Esteli Jacinto

In 1960, after the live broadcast on Camera Three of They Called Her Moses, onethe most celebrated pieces by choreographer Donald McKayle, Walter Cronkite broke into the telecast to report on the anti-segregation sit-ins being conducted by African Americans in Greensboro, North Carolina. The coincidence that occurred on that Sunday morning in 1960 only intensified the parallels that existed, and persist to this day, between social justice movements and the work of renowned choreographer, dancer, and teacher Donald McKayle. His ability to create dances that critique social injustices with aesthetic rigor, and break racial paradigms, is what marks McKayle’s long-standing career in dance as exceptional.

Born on July 6, 1931, McKayle grew up in an integrated neighborhood in New York City. During his childhood McKayle was surrounded by social dancing, culture, and political awareness.  He attended DeWitt Clinton High School, where his English teacher was Abel Meeropol (also known by his pen name Lewis Allan), author of “Strange Fruit,” the powerful poem about lynching in the American South, later set to music and made legendary by Billie Holiday. In order to actively study African American history, which was not taught in his regular classes, he joined the Frederick Douglass Society. McKayle states that his interest in African American heritage was so deep that he “hunted through the biography section of the Washington Heights Children’s Library” (21).  After exhausting the collection housed at Washington Heights he was directed by a librarian to the Schomburg Collection, the research center of the New York Public Library devoted to history and culture of the African diaspora. This social and historical awareness shaped the vantage point of the young McKayle, which would later prove pivotal in his expressiveness as a master dancer, teacher, and choreographer.   

McKayle first experienced dance at a creative dance group organized by his friend, Anna Kaufman. In his short time with the club, he studied with Pearl Cromone, and created his first dance, set to the spiritual “Go Down Moses”. It was at a performance by Pearl Primus, at Central High School of Needle Trades, that McKayle first realized he wanted to be a dancer. In his autobiography, McKayle describes his impression of Primus’s performance as a “living sculpture on view” that imprinted him with images, and filled him with a desire to move (22). During his senior year in high school, McKayle auditioned for a scholarship to the New Dance Group, and was one of seven students to receive the honor.

During his time at the New Dance Group he took a variety of dance technique classes that enabled him to develop a rich movement vocabulary. McKayle’s teachersincluded Sophie Maslow, Nona Shurman,Mary Anthony,Nina Golovina,andPearl Primus. McKayle also studied at the Martha Graham School; he left in 1951 to join the Contemporary Dance Group, alongside Daniel Nagrin. In 1951, at a performance given by the Contemporary Dance Group at Charles Weidman’s studio, McKayle premiered Games, which launched the young choreographer’s career. After the performance at Weidman’s studio, he was hit with an abundance of dancing opportunities, which included rejoining the Graham Company for the 1955-56 season, performing alongside Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow, Alvin Ailey, and Carmen de Lavallade, as well as creating dances for television, film, and Broadway. Throughout all of these performances, McKayle remained resilient in his determination to build a profession where artists of all colors were seen as equals.

Games allowed McKayle to develop in the eye of audiences as a storyteller and social critic who rooted movement in the ethos of the human condition. This view was solidified with works such as They Call her Moses (1960), District Storyville (1962), and Songs of the Disinherited (1972). Perhaps his best known work is Rainbow Round My Shoulder (1959), which developed out of an improvisation that occurred at Crystal Lake with folk singer Leon Bibb; it premiered in 1959 at the Kaufman Concert Hall, and was regarded almost instantaneously as a classic. Set in the United States South, Rainbow Round My Shoulder depicts the lost loves, desires, and aspirations for freedom of prisoners working on chain gangs. Rainbow presents to the audience the idea that the prisoner’s body is a tool, used to achieve a task. Because the prisoner is regarded as expendable, his body is required to continue with the arduous labor even though other, more effective tools exist.  This in turn manifests the notion that on occasion the punishment does not fit the crime, and that at times the crime is “just being a black man” (McKayle, ADF video). McKayle emphasizes the endless drudgery the chain gangs experienced by utilizing angular movements repeatedly. Critics such as P.W. Manchester have stated that McKayle as a choreographer is a humanist, because all of his masterpieces are created with a deep sense of history, rooted in the American experience, and “deal not with abstractions, but with people; living, laughing, suffering, bitter, protesting, superbly human beings” (Reynolds and McCormick, 347).

Unlike other choreographers who establish companies to ensure their works’ legacy, McKayle has established his works in the repertoires of dance companies throughout the United States, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Lula Washington Dance Theater, and Cleo Parker Dance Ensemble. McKayle has also contributed in the field of dance education: he has taught at the Juilliard School, The American Dance Festival, Bennington College, and the University of California, Irvine. He believes that in order to enhance dance education, students need to be given access to choreographic works of art. For this reason, he contributed the Rainbow Etude to the American Dance Legacy Institute Repertory Etudes Project (the first piece to be included in the institute project). He has won numerous honors and awards for his incalculable devotion to the art form, including the Capezio Award (1962), Samuel H. Scripps/ American Dance Festival Award (1992), National Black Arts Festival Living Legend Award (1994), and a UCI Medal (2000).

McKayle opened doors for dancers of color, and contributed to the enduring strength of modern dance. In his over 100 choreographic pieces the voice of the African American struggle can be seen. Through his teaching he has enabled dancers to discover how they can use their bodies as instruments of artistic creation and expression. For these reasons, Donald McKayle is regarded as one of the most influential personalities in dance.


Sources Used:

Donald McKayle: Speaking of Dance - Conversations with Contemporary Masters of American Modern Dance. Directed by Rosenberg, Douglas. American Dance Festival, 1993. Streamed video found in database Dance in Video.

Kowal, Rebekah J.. How to Do Things with Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010.

Manning, Susan. Modern Dance, Negro Dance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

McKayle, Donald. Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life. London: Routledge, 2002.

Reynolds, Nancy and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.


Irlanda Jacinto holds bachelor degrees in History and Anthropology from the University of Texas at El Paso. She will graduate with an MA from The University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Science in May 2013. As an undergraduate she took ballet and became enamored with dance. She is a Knowledge River Scholar, an ARL CEP Fellow, and a 2012 Dance Heritage Coalition Archival Fellow. She has worked at the University of Arizona Special Collections, Center for Creative Photography, and the El Paso Museum of Art. As a Dance Heritage Coalition Fellow she worked at UCLA Special Collections and with Lula Washington Dance Theatre. She has a deep interest in photography, moving images, and the preservation of ephemeral arts. Sources Cited: McKayle, Donald. Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life. London: Routledge, 2002. Reynolds, Nancy and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 

 

Books & Articles

McKayle, Donald. Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life. London: Routledge, 2002.

Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance from 1619 to Today. Princeton: Princeton Book Company Publishers. 1972

Kowal, Rebekah J. How to Do Things with Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010.

Manning, Susan. Modern Dance, Negro Dance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Reynolds, Nancy and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Online Resources

Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre

American Dance Legacy Institute

Cleo Parker Dance Ensemble

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company

Donald McKayle

Lula Washington Dance Theatre

Moving Image

About I’ve Known River. Choreographed by Donald McKayle. Danced by Stephanie Powell. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViI6FxdbO8I. TEDx.

Angelitos Negros from Songs of the Disinherited. Choreographed by Donald McKayle. Danced by Lula Washington Dance Theatre. http://vimeo.com/29883239

   

Dancing in the Light. New York, NY: Educational Broadcasting Corporation; West Long Branch, NJ: Distributed by Kultur, 2007. DVD.

Donald McKayle: Heartbeats of a DanceMaker. Directed by Donald McKayle. 2008. DVD.

Archives

Donald McKayle Papers. MS-P 23. Special Collections and Archives, The UCI Libraries, Irvine, California. http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf1k400389/admin/