On April 6, one of America’s most distinguished choreographers, dancers, directors and teachers, Donald Cohen McKayle, born July 6, 1930, to Eva and Philip McKayle, died in Irvine, Calif., at the age of 87. McKayle left behind decades of masterpieces for the concert and Broadway stage, movies and television that both delight and enlighten with their brilliance, humanity and, when warranted, sense of humor. The scope of his work was captured in 1963 when he received the Capezio Dance Award for his “translation of American folk material into theater dance of international cast which faithfully reflect life in our land.”
Perfect examples are two of his classics, “Games” (1951) and “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” (1959), which although are born out of the Black experience are both universal and timeless. After all, McKayle once wrote that Black choreographers and dancers “are not limited to nor do they necessarily exclude Negro source material.” Dance, he believed, speaks to all who would listen.
“Games,” with its depiction of childhood innocence shattered by a cop and a gun, grew out of a specific incident from McKayle’s own childhood in East Harlem, and the Black Lives Matter movement is proof of its continuing relevance. “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” although based on the brutality of old Southern prison chain gangs, resonates with the issue of mass incarceration. Timeless. In fact, American Dance Festival’s Charles Reinhart once recalled that after seeing “Games” performed by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, an audience in Russia was stunned “to see their own recent past danced before them.” Universal.
That was the genius of the man drawn to dance after seeing a performance by Pearl Primus and whose talent was nurtured at the legendary New Dance Group Studio, where the door was open to all and art was seen as a catalyst for social change. He honed his genius and learned and practiced his craft with such icons as Primus, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Karel Shook, Sophie Maslow, Mary Anthony and Anna Sokolow. It was a genius that would earn him much praise and many awards, including recognition by the Dance Heritage Coalition as “one of America’s irreplaceable Dance Treasures: the first 100.”
Throughout his career, McKayle choreographed innumerable works for his own company and others throughout the Unites States, Canada, Israel, Europe and South America. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is one of many that serve as a repository for his works, as do the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, Cleveland Ballet, Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. He was also an artistic mentor for the Limón Dance Company. In April 2005, McKayle was honored at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and presented with a medal as a Master of African-American Choreography. In that event’s souvenir booklet, I noted that McKayle belonged to a generation of choreographers whose works are infinitely diverse, and whose approach is at once iconoclastic and trend-setting as it focused on movement and message to shape the face and future of dance. The proof is evident in even a brief summary of his accomplishments.
In concert dance, McKayle’s “Games” and “Rainbow” belong to a body of extraordinary work that includes “District Storyville,” “Her Name Was Harriet,” and “Songs of the Disinherited.” On Broadway his choreography includes such Tony Award nominees and winners as the Duke Ellington tribute “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Doctor Jazz,” “A Time for Singing,” “Golden Boy” and “Raisin,” the musical adaptation of the Lorraine Hansberry classic, which received a Tony Award for Best Musical, and for which he was nominated for a Tony for direction and choreography. “Sophisticated Ladies” won him an Outer Critics Circle Award and the NAACP Image Award. A recent addition to his roster of Tony-nominated work is “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues.” He was also no stranger to Emmy Awards and nominations and motion picture credits for such films as “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “The Great White Hope” and “The Jazz Singer.” An equally impressive list of dance awards includes the Capezio Award, the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award, the American Dance Guild Award, a Living Legend Award from the National Black Arts Festival, National Endowments for the Arts fellowships, the Dance/USA honors and awards from Dance Masters of America and Dance Magazine. Even McKayle’s autobiography, “Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life,” published by Routledge, was honored with the Society of Dance History Scholar’s De La Torre Bueno Prize, and a television documentary of his life, “Heartbeats of a Dance Master,” aired on PBS. He has also been honored by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Retirement was not a word in his vocabulary. Recently, McKayle attended the New York performance of “Rainbow” by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company during the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s Lincoln Center season. In 2016, he created “Bittersweet Farewell” in memory of the many friends he has lost, and, as evidence of his enduring humanitarian spirit, last year he choreographed “Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return,” about the tragedy of millions of people around the world who must migrate from their homes.
McKayle also dedicated his time to educating and inspiring generations of dancers, most recently as distinguished professor of dance at UC Irvine, where he served for more than two decades. Survived by his wife Lea, daughters Gabrielle (Kim Washington) and Liane, son Guy and grandchildren Tyler and Trevor, McKayle will be remembered for his creative generosity and unique vision, for works of beauty and social conscience, his exquisite ability to tell stories in the universal language of dance and his insightful expressions of the human heart.