UCI’s McKayle: ‘I Never Quite Knew What to Expect’

The late Jerome Robbins touched many careers during his life, including that of modern-dance choreographer and UC Irvine dance professor Donald McKayle.

McKayle, 68, worked with Robbins twice: in “West Side Story” on Broadway in 1957, and earlier collaborating on plans, ultimately unsuccessful, to work with a dance troupe in Israel.

Robbins first saw McKayle in a production of Langston Hughes’ “Simple Speaks His Mind” in Harlem in 1948.

“Robbins had come and watched my work. . . . [Later] he asked me to be the dance captain on ‘West Side Story,’ ” McKayle recalled by phone Thursday between classes at UCI.


“Howard Jeffries was the [first] dance captain. When he was away on vacation, I filled in for a year or so. I [also] danced it,” he said. “Whenever any of the Sharks were injured, I would jump in.”

In 1953, McKayle, Robbins and modern dancer Anna Sokolow made plans to go to Israel to work with the Imbal Company, a Yemenite dance group.

“But we never got to do it.” McKayle said. “The funds didn’t come through. It was about the time of the McCarthy hearings, which became a big problem because Jerry had named people and was not greeted with a great deal of cordiality.

“He was an extremely talented man,” McKayle said. “But not very personable. Not really. . . .


“Sometimes he would say hello. Sometimes he wouldn’t,” he said. “I never quite knew what to expect from him, so I didn’t expect anything. Jerry’s reputation is very well-known. That didn’t take away from his talent.”