Black Performers You Probably Don't Know About — But Should

Donald McKayle (image via Wikimedia Commons)

“‘Ah haaa!’ – The most ferocious sound in the room at the David H. Koch Theater was coming from an 85-year-old man in a wheelchair. But the years melted away as that man — Donald McKayle, the modern dance and Broadway choreographer known for exploring African-American themes in his work — watched a recent rehearsal of “Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder,” his 1959 masterwork about life on a chain gang...”

 – The New York Times, March 21, 2016

Donald McKayle,
b. July 6, 1930 – d. April 7, 2018

Dr. McKayle was an iconic American modern dancer, choreographer, master teacher, director and writer who made a vast and wide-ranging impact on America’s creative and cultural landscape, specifically Orange County and the University of California, Irvine. 

Donald McKayle was best known for creating socially conscious concert works during the 1950s and '60s that focused on expressing the human condition and more specifically, the Black experience in America. His core values as an artist (e.g., his celebration of the human spirit and investigation of the human condition; his rigorous creative process and training methodology; and his tremendous investment in and support for the next generation of creative artists) influenced his work, his teaching, and his life which spoke to the best facets of our culture.

Dr. McKayle’s career spanned more than six decades. The Harlem, New York-born McKayle began dancing during his senior year in high school after being inspired by a Pearl Primus performance.  He won a scholarship to the socially conscious performing-arts organization New Dance Group where he studied with Primus, Sophie Maslow, Jean Erdman and others. He made his professional dancing debut in 1948. During his career he danced with virtually every well-known dance master in the world, including Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow and Charles Wiedman.

Dr. McKayle joined the University of California, Irvine Department of Dance in 1989. His choreographic masterworks are considered modern dance classics. Games, Rainbow Round My Shoulder, District Storyville, and Songs of the Disinherited are still performed around the world. His contributions to the world of Dance have earned him a citation as "one of America's irreplaceable dance treasures" by the Dance Heritage Coalition and the Library of Congress, along with a medal from the Kennedy Center as a Master of African-American Choreography. His choreography earned him two Emmy Award nominations, an NAACP Image Award, and five Tony Award nominations for his work in Broadway musicals.

Dr. McKayle held an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the Juilliard School. He served on the faculty at many prestigious institutions, including Juilliard, Bennington College, Bard College, American Dance Festival and Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. He was dean of the School of Dance at the California Institute of the Arts, is Professor Emeritus of Claire Trevor School of the Arts he was the artistic director of UCI's Etude Ensemble, which he founded in 1995.

Donald McKayle continued to mentor and counsel the next generation of dancers in our community until his death, thus ensuring that his contributions to the world of dance will continue for decades to come.


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Posted Date: 
June 18, 2020