Donald McKayle, groundbreaking choreographer and beloved UCI professor, dies

In this Jan. 25, 2012 photo, Donald McKayle watches a dancer in a studio on the UC Irvine campus. McKayle, a modern dancer and choreographer who brought the black experience in America to the Broadway stage, has died. He was 87.
(Courtesy of University of California, Irvine)

Donald McKayle, a trailblazer in modern dance, a longtime UC Irvine professor and the first African American man to direct and choreograph a Broadway musical (“Raisin”), died April 6 in Orange. He was 87.

McKayle, who taught dance at UC Irvine for nearly 30 years, was a groundbreaking performer, choreographer, director, teacher and writer. He created socially conscious works that explored the human condition and the African American experience, including “Games,” “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” “District Storyville” and “Songs of the Disinherited.” In his later years, he served as a UCI professor emeritus and continued teaching until just before his death.

“Teaching was a passion of his,” said Lea Vivante McKayle, his wife of 53 years. “It became his passion and love. With all the things he was doing — Broadway shows, his TV work — education became his passion, because he loved seeing those dancers, who started out awkward, develop and grow. Thousands of dancers of his are now choreographers and dancers, from Cirque du Soleil to professional dance companies.”

Stephen Barker, dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, said McKayle “transcended the medium in which he worked.”

“He was a dance teacher and mentor, but I would say he was a kind of life coach,” Barker said. “He investigated every individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. He had an incredible disposition. All of us who worked with him learned a lot about how to interact with people.”

McKayle was born in New York City in 1930. He began dancing during his senior year in high school. As a teenager, he saw a performance by Pearl Primus that inspired him to become a dancer. Though he lacked formal dance training, he won a scholarship to the New Dance Group in 1947.

In his early years as a dancer, his instructors included Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow and Paul Draper. He was 18 when he premiered a solo piece, “Saturday’s Child,” and would go on to choreograph dozens of works for stage, TV and film. He formed his own dance company, Donald McKayle and Dancers, from 1951-69. He taught at the Juilliard School, Bennington College, Bard College, the American Dance Festival and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. He received an honorary doctor of fine arts from Juilliard, and joined the faculty at UCI in 1989. He lived in Irvine since 1996.

“As a person, he was very joyous, generous, and he always would sing in our department,” said Lisa Naugle, chair of the dance department at UCI. “He was respectful of everyone. He supported everyone, especially the students. He was a great teacher. He’s always been someone who helped dancers become professional. He was completely generous as a teacher, choreographer and a human being.”

McKayle’s works included the Tony-award winning “Raisin” in 1973, “Sophisticated Ladies” in 1981, “Uprooted: Pero Relantado” in 2015 and “Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return” in 2017. In film, he choreographed the dancing in Disney’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “The Great White Hope” and “The Jazz Singer.”

In television, he received an Emmy nomination for his work on the TV special, “Free to Be You and Me.” He also wrote a memoir titled “Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life” (2002).

“He was socially conscious; his works were activist in some respects,” Naugle said.

“The quality of the movement itself in his choreography was very, very active. It was powerful, strong, muscular, dynamic. He utilized full body expression.”

The Dance Heritage Coalition put him on its original list of America’s 100 “Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.” He also received an NAACP Image Award, the Capezio Dance Award and the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for lifetime achievement.

In April 2005, he was honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and presented with a medal as a Master of African American Choreography. He was nominated for five Tony Awards, and received UCI’s highest honor, the UCI Medal, in 2000.

McKayle is survived by his wife, Lea; daughters Gabrielle and Liane; son Guy; and two grandchildren. Funeral services will be private, but a memorial service will be held at the time of his final concert in June, his wife said.

Donations can be made to UCI’s McKayle Memorial Scholarship fund or to the Donald Cohen McKayle Trust in Arizona, dedicated to the preservation of his work.

Richard Chang is a contributor to the Daily Pilot.