Dance Legend Donald McKayle Captures the Struggles of Minorities in Beautiful Choreography

Nothing will stop Donald McKayle from choreographing dance. Not even the wheelchair parked at the front of a dance studio at UC Irvine. The 86-years-strong, American modern dance legend watches rehearsal intently, ready to instruct his troop of dancers.

“When I got very involved in choreography, I just stopped dancing, more or less,” McKayle says. “I just figured, ‘Well, I guess it’s time to do this other thing that I love to do.’ I think, for most dancers, if you took dance away from them, you would cut out a piece of their heart, but I’m not that way.”

Professional dancers and companies have taught and performed his works throughout the United States for more than half a century. McKayle’s oeuvre is rooted in the histories and struggles of oppressed minorities, especially the African-American diaspora, and political troubles in Argentina (inspired by his time there decades ago, which he describes as vibrant). He finds these stories tender, humane and honest—qualities he incorporates into movement for the stage. In February, McKayle debuted Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return, which portrays Syrian refugees escaping via water.

Born in New York City, McKayle grew up in East Harlem in the 1930s. The second child of Jamaican activist parents, McKayle experienced racism and segregation firsthand from the African-American, Puerto Rican and Jewish immigrants in his neighborhood. His mother arranged for him to attend public schools outside Harlem, exposing him to other parts of society that awakened and heightened his sense of injustice and inequality.

Despite having no formal dance training, McKayle earned a scholarship for the New Dance Group when he was 17. He trained in ballet, tap, modern, Afro-Caribbean, Hindu and Haitian dance styles; his work ethic led him to learn directly from Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Sophie Maslow and other dance titans. From there, he worked in Broadway, television and film. Highlights of his career include choreography for Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks; a 1974 Tony Award for direction and choreography of the Broadway version of A Raisin In the Sun; and a PBS documentary about his life, Heartbeats of a Dance Maker. Currently, McKayle works with his hand-selected Etude Ensemble at UCI.

McKayle likes to create pieces that last up to 30 minutes, every second filled with movement by multiple bodies. His répétiteur, Bret Yamanaka, assists with formations, production and teaching choreography, but McKayle is fully in charge. “You become his instrument; you become his body,” Yamanaka explains.

Back in the studio, everything and everyone moves around McKayle. Rehearsals are spent running choreography, exchanging feedback and trying it again. It’s up to the dancers to make it happen.

“Sometimes I think I can get up when I can’t,” McKayle confesses. “It’s frustrating when I think I can do something that I can’t. But I’m old enough to take everything that comes to me and say, ‘Okay.’ There’s a time for everything.”

After rehearsal is over, dancers cluster in front of him, taking their turn to say, “Thank you, Mr. McKayle!” He smiles and nods in acknowledgement of each one until the space is empty, but movement is still running through his mind. “I have no reason to stop.”

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