On Saturday, July 7, 2018 the Lula Washington Dance Theatre hosted a wonderful. loving and emotional tribute to the modern dance legend, Donald McKayle, who passed away earlier this year. The room was filled with dancers who worked with McKayle, his colleagues, and young dancers who either studied with him or who are presently performing his work. Film clips of interviews with McKayle during rehearsals of his famous work Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (1952) and rare photos of McKayle and others performing his works.
Donald McKayle (July 6, 1930 – April 6, 2018) was an American modern dancer, choreographer, teacher, director and beloved colleague of many dance artists throughout the world. He was well-known for creating socially conscious concert works during the 1950s and ’60s that shone a light on what it was like being black in America. It is said that he was one of the first black men to break racial barriers through his work for the concert stage. McKayle was the first black man to both direct and choreograph major Broadway musicals, including the Tony Award-winners Raisin (1973) and Sophisticated Ladies (1981).
McKayle formed and directed his own dance company, Donald McKayle and Dancers (1951–69), and was the head of the Inner-City Repertory Dance Company from 1970 to 1974. Companies that commissioned works choreographed by McKayle included the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Cleveland San Jose Ballet, the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre, and the José Limón Dance Company. He has also choreographed over 70 pieces for dance companies around the world.
For the past few decades Donald McKayle was on the faculty of the Department of Dance at University of California, Irvine.
It was clear from what everyone who worked with McKayle that he was a true Renaissance Man. He was a dancer, singer, choreographer, teacher, costume and set designer, author of several books, and he knew how to run the business side of Donald McKayle and Dancers.
Lula Washington welcomed everyone with an introduction filled with loving and humorous words relating to Donald McKayle. The Lula Washington Dance Theatre is fortunate to have seven of McKayle’s works in its repertoire.
Tamica Washington-Miller took over to introduce those who wanted to share videos, photos and stories about McKayle. Bonnie Oda Homsey presented a wonderful video of her former company, American Repertory Dance Company, performing some of McKayle’s work at the John Anson Ford Theatres in 1995 that included and a brief video clip of his 1976 work Spanish Tinge. We watched a film of Rita Moreno presenting McKayle with an award from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that called him a “trail blazer of change”.
Those who paid tribute to McKayle included Bonnie Oda Homsey, former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and Artistic Director of the American Repertory Dance Theatre; Wanda-Lee Evans, studied with McKayle and danced with the Gloria Newman Dance Theater; Hector Mercado danced with McKayle and is a former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company; Jaime Rogers, former member of McKayle’s company and renowned jazz teacher; Charmaine Jefferson, director of Los Angeles’ California African American Museum; Louise Reichlin, founder and director/choreographer of Louise Reichlin & Dancers/Los Angeles Choreographers & Dancers; Ruby Millsap former dancer with McKayle’s company; Shari Washington-Rhone, former member of Lula Washington Dance Theatre; Khilea Jessup (formerly Khilea Douglas), a former member of the Ailey company for six years and danced with Lula Washington Dance Theatre; Heather Castillo, was an assistant to Donald McKayle; currently doing a digital archive on Donald and his work at Cal State Channel Islands; Lloyd E. Hardy, was stage manager for Inner City Repertory Dance Company; Christopher Frazier, danced with Cleo Parker Robinson in Denver and is currently with Lula Washington Dance Theatre. He now has 17 McKayle works in his company’s repertory; Sadie Sandoval, Deborah Brockus, Artistic Director/Choreographer of BrockusRED; Denar Young, Christopher Fraser, danced with Cleo Parker Robinson in Denver and is currently with Lula Washington Dance Theatre; Kim Roberts and her brother Brian who are the children of McKayle’s music director; Siri Sat Nam Singh, was a member of the Inner City Repertory Dance Company under Mr. McKayle; Lula and Erwin Washington Artistic and Executive Director of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre; Andrea Hairston Locke; DaVita Jo; Laila Abdullah; Linda Yudin, Artistic Director of Viver Brasil; Luis BadaroLloyd Hardy; and Angel Johnson, present member of the Donald McKayle Dance Ensemble at UCI. There were a few others whose names I did not manage to get. Written tributes from L. Martina Young and Neil Parker Robinson were read by Tamica Washington-Miller.
One of the many humorous stories was told by Ruby Millsap. She said that during a rehearsal McKayle said to her, “That movement that you’re dancing is very beautiful, but it’s not my choreography.”
It was a wonderful three hours of stories, films, photos and reunions of former McKayle dancers who then got to meet the younger generations. The history and legacy of dancers that filled the Lula Washington Dance Theatre studio was astounding. I was honored to be there.