Time and gravity have caught up with the fabled dancer and UC Irvine choreographer. And he’s fine with that.
by Laura Bleiberg / photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
Donald McKayle stands at the front of Studio 1100 one late afternoon, surveying his undergraduate students as they stretch and chat. The man once known for dancing with fluidity and rhythmic acuity gently prods them: “Will you all warm up—other than your mouths?”
He’s waiting to begin rehearsal on his latest creation, “Ancestral Flight,” to music by violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain. One of six works on the UC Irvine dance department’s annual faculty concert, it will premiere Feb. 20 through 24 at the Claire Trevor Theatre.
At 82, McKayle has survived a mild heart attack and deep-vein thrombosis, but he has become noticeably frailer in the past year. Osteoarthritis has made it difficult for him to walk. As he stands with a cane hooked to his wrist, keys in one hand and a cappuccino in the other, he calls out to no one in particular: “Do you want to bring out my throne?”
Two students run to take the keys and unlock a storage closet. They retrieve a sturdy desk chair, which the students “made royal.” He stands awhile longer, then sits with a light plop, shoulders slouched, hands folded in his lap.
His condition complicates both mundane routines and his artistic life. He no longer is able to demonstrate his movement ideas; now he must describe them instead. It requires more trial and error. Still, as his students execute steps for his approval, McKayle can’t help but become animated, twisting and bending his arms and shoulders.
But now it’s time for a run-through of the first movement, and the students, who were accepted into this repertory class by audition, get into position. The dance is fast-paced, with many directional shifts and geometric patterns, foot stamping, and staglike leaps. Everyone pants and sweats by the end. McKayle’s critique follows a brief silence, and he speaks in a level voice, firm, but not harsh: “Are you warmed up now? Because I’m not seeing it. … You’re not schoolgirls and -boys.
“Remember, all the gestures for your arms and legs come from your torso,” he says, coaching while they catch their breath. “Listen to the way [Roumain] plays the violin; the way it soars and comes together. Feel that sound come out of your body.”
After a pause, they do it again, this time with noticeably more fervor. McKayle is pleased. The choreographer praises them, then sets to work on a new part.
It seems the cruelest of fates that dancers, who make art out of defying the laws of physics, eventually are brought to earth like ordinary mortals. When that happens it’s a death of a different sort. The demise of a way of life is, in the minds of some performers, comparable to the end of life itself. Wrestling with fate is a no-win proposition, but ending a performance gracefully is something dancers know a lot about—but don’t always accomplish.
McKayle has been lucky, and you get the sense he knows that; he punctuates every few sentences with an infectious chuckle. He has found satisfaction as a performer, dance-maker, and teacher. He’s comforted that he still has a bounty of ideas. It shows him he’s alive, and it doesn’t matter much if he does the dances. He hasn’t performed for many years. All he wants is what every artist wants: a way to keep making art.
McKayle was born and raised in New York City to Jamaican immigrants. He calls his childhood in Harlem a “rich and unusual upbringing.” His parents emphasized education, hard work, joy for life, and respect for others. His mother would tell him and his older brother “to put ‘please’ in one pocket and ‘thank you’ in the other, so we would have them to use.”
His dancing career was sparked by a riveting concert that included Pearl Primus, a renowned Trinidadian choreographer and anthropologist. She mesmerized him. He won a scholarship to the New Dance Group, the school where Primus and a distinguished roster of dancers taught in the 1940s and ’50s. If he lacked finesse or technical expertise early on, it didn’t matter. His talent and unselfconscious eagerness opened doors.
He was invited to join the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, which ushered him into the company of artistic luminaries such as poet-activist Langston Hughes and singer-actor Paul Robeson. The burgeoning folk scene attracted him as well, and he was deeply influenced by the leftist politics of both milieus. Singing and poetry have been important to him since: “If I don’t sing every day, sometime during the day, I’m not happy.”
All those experiences became fodder for McKayle’s early dances. His best-known pieces confer importance and dignity to outcasts and everyday people whom society mostly ignores. His first solo, a “minidance drama” about poverty, was called “Saturday’s Child,” to a Countee Cullen poem of the same name, which he recited as he danced. “Games,” his 1951 breakthrough hit, is about urban children at play in the streets. “Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder,” from 1959, is about prisoners on a chain gang. “Songs of the Disinherited,” from 1972, is a four-part look at the black diaspora and the quest for freedom and equality.
Not every dance was political or filled with social commentary; love and physical attraction have been favorite topics, too. When composing, McKayle searches for steps that express emotions audiences can feel in their gut.
“I never belonged to a school of movement that, you know, this is the latest thing,” he says. “Everybody would be avant-garde, like everybody else. I wasn’t trying to fit in to what other people were doing around me. That hasn’t changed.”
“Donnie”—his nickname among close colleagues and friends—performed for Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and other artistic pioneers. And he had his own company, too, attracting exemplary dancers who became stars in their own right, including Alvin Ailey. In 1969 he moved to Los Angeles to choreograph for TV variety series (“The Leslie Uggams Show”) and for film (“The Great White Hope”), and he started another performance group at the Inner City Cultural Center. He also commuted to New York City to direct and choreograph musical theater (“Raisin” and “Sophisticated Ladies”). This spring, he’ll return to Kansas City Ballet, which is reviving “Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City,” his 2008 ballet about that city’s boisterous jazz history.
He joined the UC Irvine dance department faculty in 1989, becoming one of its most beloved professors. Karen Wing, a talented senior from Northern California, says, “He expects so much, but he is so encouraging of his dancers. I’ve never seen him once be degrading to a dancer. He pushes you beyond what you think you can do, but it’s always in a positive way. Everyone has so much respect for him that they’re willing to put in the work.”
Married with two daughters, one stepson, and two grandchildren, McKayle retired from the department in 2010 and has been on “recall” since. Most of his recent work has been for this student company, Etude Ensemble, but it’s unclear if the recall will continue. His contract runs through June.
With the department chair’s blessing, McKayle previously has gone straight to Chancellor Michael V. Drake, to ask for permission and the funding to keep working. McKayle said the last time he met with Drake, he was told, “You can be a professor until you’re cold.” He’ll return to Drake before the end of the academic year to remind him, “I still won’t be cold in June.”
He concedes that his diminished physical condition depresses him at times. But he doesn’t let it show.
“I know my mind is still very fertile, so when I can get done what I want to do, I feel very happy with it. When I finally finished that first movement of the dance, [I felt] ‘Yesssss! I’ve done something! Yes! It’s right, it’s right, it’s right!’”
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Orange Coast magazine.