Donald McKayle has to be one of the sunniest artists that the oft-stressed world of American dance has ever produced.
In his lengthy, influential career, McKayle has ranged across the postwar dance landscape, performing the works of many choreographic giants ( Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham lead the list) while simultaneously creating seminal works of his own. His dance-making reach extended to Broadway, movies and TV. He created works for companies around the world and he taught and administered dance programs at colleges throughout the United States, most recently at UC Irvine, from which he retired in June as a professor of dance.
McKayle, who turns 80 Tuesday, rocked back in his office chair in UC Irvine’s dance department, serving up a gale of laughter at his own response to the specter of entering his ninth decade. As with many things in his seemingly well led life, the concept tickles the fancy of McKayle, who in 2000 was named by the Dance Heritage Coalition of the Library of Congress as one of America’s First 100 “Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.”
Perhaps he has that upbeat attitude because, unlike many who try to forge a career in dance, McKayle’s professional life hardly ever lacked a paycheck.
“I was only out of work once, here in California,” he recalled. “I went to file for unemployment, but the rules then were you couldn’t have worked for 10 days before you filed, and by the time I was eligible, I had another job.”
Judith Jamison, who has led one of America’s preeminent dance companies, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, for 21 years, calls McKayle “a pioneer, a precedent setter, and a formative talent by any measure — he’s made dances that are significant and profound and go directly to the heart of the artistic and human condition.”
Jamison also credits McKayle for her longtime association with Ailey. In 1964, while working at the New York World’s Fair, pushing a button to start the log flume ride, she heard about an audition call with McKayle for a piece called “The Strollin’ Twenties” that he was mounting with Harry Belafonte as producer.
“I was 22 and hadn’t taken a dance class in three months,” Jamison said. “I showed up in a black leotard and pink tights while the other girls were dolled up in fishnets, with eyelashes long enough to cause a breeze. I was dreadful, but Donald kept calling me back to the last cut — if I would have been auditioning myself, I would have cut myself.”
(In a separate interview, McKayle remembered why he kept bringing her back: “ ‘Who is this strange girl?’ She was soooo tall!”)
McKayle was born in 1930 and grew up in Harlem. In his 2002 autobiography “Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life,” McKayle recollected how his father’s job as a maintenance man at movie theaters and clubs gave McKayle free entry and the motivation to experience New York’s burgeoning popular culture.
In high school he focused on the arts and after witnessing a striking solo dance program he experienced a life-defining experience: He and a friend replicated the dancer’s movements. This led him to the burgeoning postwar dance scene percolating in mid and downtown Manhattan in the early 1950s. His first significant choreographic effort to make a splash came in 1951. “Games” was a piece that McKayle describes as “rooted in the universal truth that play is the serious business of being a child.” Set to children’s songs, McKayle’s work contrasted spirited playfulness with an environment of menace, organized in telling segments titled “Dance of Play,” “Dance of Hunger” and “Dance of Horror.”
He danced in the New York City Opera Ballet and toured with Graham. He was a dance captain in the 1957 Broadway debut of “West Side Story,” appeared in club acts with Belafonte and Rita Moreno and made myriad local appearances in the new medium of television.
In that period, and more important, McKayle was making new dances. Employing a choreographic style that radiated with humanism, his visual storytelling increasingly — though not solely — focused on exploring African American themes. His gestures might be broad, but his dancers moved not only with joyous abandon but lyrical intent, their expressiveness designed to convey the experiences of a challenged but aspirational culture.
By peer and critical consensus, including his own assessment, McKayle’s most successful piece was 1959’s “Rainbow Round My Shoulder.” Set to chants and folk songs from Southern chain gangs, the ensemble piece tapped into the souls of indentured laborers who, exhausted as they toiled, conjured up a female image who symbolized not just freedom but spiritual fulfillment. The piece still packs an emotional wallop.
“I think it’s his pivotal ballet,” says Jamison. The Ailey company continues to mount the piece and Jamison notes that “many women in the history of this company have blossomed by playing the central spirit/mother role that McKayle created.”
As his time as a dancer waned, McKayle didn’t suffer fallout; instead, he eagerly focused on choreography, which took him initially to Broadway — starting with his work in 1964 on “Golden Boy” — and then toward the end of the decade to Hollywood.
McKayle worked on a few movies — “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and “The Great White Hope” the most notable titles — but largely choreographed for television, from arranging dance routines for Oscars and Grammy broadcasts and for the multitude of celebrity specials and variety shows that dotted the network lineups through the 1970s. Pretty much any performer who danced — or tried to dance — came his way.
“In 1969 I was on staff at ‘The Hollywood Palace’ [a popular ABC variety show],” he said. " Diana Ross was guesting and she wanted me to partner her. At 39, I was done with that, but I came back and we spent a week fashioning a duet. She worked hard at it … one time, too hard. In rehearsal, on a lift, she dug her hand into me and then was sad because she’d broke one of her acrylic nails. I looked down and realized I was sad too — blood was oozing down my arm!”
During this time, a new profession in academia came McKayle’s way. The longtime leading light of Los Angeles’ dance community, Bella Lewitsky, hired him as associate dean of CalArts’ dance department. McKayle had taught at many colleges over the years ( Chevy Chase was an unlikely pupil at Bard College), but along with being artistic administrator of the Inner City Repertory Dance Company in L.A. from 1970-74, this role introduced him to work as an administrator.
While Broadway continued to draw him back — he earned a second Tony nomination for “Sophisticated Ladies” in 1981 — McKayle began to transition from Hollywood into building a dual career as educator and choreographer, a role that continues through today.
McKayle’s retirement from UC Irvine doesn’t mean that an end to these pursuits is at hand. He and his wife, Lea, a former dancer herself, have a second home in Arizona, but they’ll continue to live near the campus and he’ll continue to choreograph for the student dance group he founded, Etudes Ensemble.
Other projects abound: a musical called “White Hot, Black Spice” is being developed from his 1962 piece “District Storyville”; he is working on another dance called “Shim Sham,” about Harlem Renaissance figure Buddy Bradley; this week finds him in Seattle working a project about Ethiopian Jews called “Return.”
The inspiration remains the same as when he was a youngster in high school discovering dance. “In the exhilaration of the moment,” McKayle wrote in his autobiography, “a transformation took place. I was a dancer.”