‘Not hearing him sing in the halls is hard’: UCI prepares tribute to dance legend Donald McKayle


Award-winning choreographer and educator Donald McKayle was considered one of the pioneers of 20th-century modern dance. His pieces on the black experience in America still resonate.

He died April 6 at the age of 87. On Nov. 7, the UC Irvine Libraries will present “Donald McKayle: Dancing for All Time” at the UCI Student Center and Langson Library. The fall 2018 exhibition will open with a panel discussing the legacy of Donald Cohen McKayle, the son of Jamaican immigrants who was born in 1930 and raised in Harlem.

The panel will include the Donald McKayle Legacy’s Dennis Nahat, and Debbie Blunden-Diggs, the artistic director of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, which has staged some of McKayle’s signature works, such as “Games” and “Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder.” Jennifer Fisher, associate dance professor at UCI, will moderate.

“I had the office next to his for 15 years, and all I can say is he was one of the legends of dance,” said Fisher. “When I arrived at UCI, I already knew what a great reputation he had.”

McKayle was the first black artist to direct and choreograph major Broadway musicals, including “Raisin,” which won the Tony for Best Musical in 1974, and 1981’s “Sophisticated Ladies.”

“But he was not one of those star choreographers who’d come in, choreograph, then leave for Broadway or Hollywood,” said Fisher. “Even when he officially retired (from UCI in 2010), he was always there in his office, meeting with students.”

Indeed, as professor emeritus, McKayle continued to teach a class each year, despite needing a walker, then a wheelchair, even after recovering from brain-tumor surgery in 2014.

“And he was always out supporting his fellow choreographers in the area — big show, small show, it didn’t matter,” said Fisher. “I’d hear him burst into song sometimes, whether (it was) a spiritual or from musical theater. Not hearing him sing in the halls is hard ... But there’s great solace derived from having the works he left us.”

Though he was a soft-spoken man, McKayle spoke up when necessary. Back when his dance troupe, Donald McKayle and Company, which performed from 1951 to 1969, was expected to appear on a Sunday morning cultural show on CBS, the TV producers requested McKayle remove the black members of his company before televising their performance of “Games.”

McKayle refused and pulled himself and his company out of the committment.

“Donald had to walk a fine line in Jim Crow America and worked at the time of ‘No Negroes Needed Today’ signs at auditions,” Fisher said. “And his experiences, as a black artist and black man in America, he kept putting on stage, in his works. His messages resonate more now than they did back when they were first done.”

Because Fisher teaches dance analysis, theory and history, she said that McKayle would call her the “history” person.

“I may have been a ‘history’ person to him,” she said. “But to me, Donald McKayle was dance history.”

Michael Rydzynski is a contributor to Times Community News.


What: UCI Libraries present “Donald McKayle: Dancing for All Time,” a retrospective exhibition on the life of the late Distinguished Professor of Dance

When: 5:30 to 7:45 p.m. Nov. 7

Where: UCI Student Center & Langson Library

Cost: Free

Information: (714) 824-4651,