Maggiano’s on 16th Street, downtown Denver. It’s the night before the internationally acclaimed Tantalus opens, and the dark, wood-paneled restaurant is packed. Enormous plates float by on mammoth platters, wafting trails of Mediterranean fragrances that compete with the haze of cigarette smoke. The noise is cacophonic.
Donald McKayle—one of the most honored and beloved members of UCI’s faculty—is here, somewhere in the mob. The hostess has no reservation for “McKayle”—or any name like it. Searching for him, table by table, dodging the squadrons of platter-bearing waiters, is impossible.
Suddenly, McKayle appears and introduces himself. After more than half-a-century of dancing, he’s lean, wiry and energetic at 70. The exuberance is stunning, almost unsettling. He needs every ounce of it he can get: The peripatetic professor is the artistic mentor and resident choreographer for the José Limón Dance Company, based in New York. He maintains ongoing relationships with other dance companies that have his works in their repertoire: the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, the Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theater.
He’s bagged nearly a dozen Tony and Emmy awards and nominations, and literally scores of other honors and awards—the best that the dance world can bestow, including being named an “Irreplaceable Dance Treasure” by the Dance Heritage Coalition and the Library of Congress.
“Within the dance field, he is an eminence gris—one of the great teachers of legendary proportion, and one who really captures so many facets of humanity,” says Jill Beck, dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts.
McKayle is sitting at a lively table for two dozen people. Wedged among them is an Armenian astrologer who’s lived in Calcutta, Wales and other far-flung locales; a Tantalus chorus member from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, who sings, acts, dances and plays the trumpet (McKayle introduces her as a “quadruple threat” for her many talents); and McKayle’s wife of 35 years, Lea, also a dancer.
Since this night, Tantalus has become an international sensation. Benedict Nightingale of The Times of London called the freely adapted Greek mythological cycle an “extraordinary marathon” that left the audience “stunned, shattered and amazed.” On this side of the Atlantic, The New Yorker’s John Lahr called it “a challenging and exhausting emotional experience” and noted, “This lively production traps something that our sedate theatre and the timid existence it mirrors have lost: the awesome, terrible and thrilling monster of life’s vitality.”
And UCI’s professor has come in for his share of kudos, putting the spotlight again on the school’s exceptional dance program, under McKayle’s artistic direction. McKayle holds the Balasaraswati/Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching; he is one of only two arts faculty members to receive UCI’s Distinguished Faculty Research Award; and he has received the students’ “Outstanding Professor Award.” Last year, he was given the UCI Medal—the university’s highest honor.
It is somewhat ironic that he became a tenured university professor with only two years of college under his belt.
Donald McKayle announced he wanted to be a choreographer at age 15. He’d never had a dance class in his life, and wasn’t even an amateur dancer.
A high school friend, Anna, had been studying dance with the legendary Pearl Primus, the Trinidad-born dancer and choreographer. Anna took McKayle to see Primus perform her signature piece, “African Ceremonial.” For McKayle, it was the first time he’d seen a dance performance—of any kind, ever.
“It was magic as soon as the curtain rose,” McKayle recalls. “I’d seen African sculpture. Suddenly, it was like marvelous moving sculpture onstage. I turned to my friend and said, ‘I want to do that.’ She said, ‘Ssshhhh!'”
Undeterred, McKayle insisted, during intermission, that Anna become his teacher—immediately. That night, they banished Anna’s parents and pushed aside furniture in the living room. Anna taught him Primus’ “Dance of Strength” from Sierra Leone.
“I was hooked; that was it,” says McKayle. “I started making dances without any classes.” With Anna and others, they formed a high school arts club; McKayle was its choreographer.
The cutting-edge New Dance Group was New York City’s first integrated, multicultural dance company and school, dedicated to social action through the arts. At age 16, McKayle appeared on the doorstep for a scholarship audition.
It was an intimidating affair. The jury first questioned where he had studied. His honest answer—”nowhere”—was not designed to please. They tried to turf him out. McKayle sweet-talked them, explaining that if they didn’t like his work, he’d leave right away – but they had to give him a chance. They did.
The hour was total humiliation for McKayle, who had never even seen a dance leotard or pre-rehearsal warm-up rites. He admitted, “If there was a hole in the floor, I would have gone through.” But his Jamaican parents had carefully trained him: “If you’re given an opportunity by someone, you have to say thank you.” He returned later to thank the jury
who had, after all, given him the opportunity he’d asked for.
To his amazement, his name was posted—top of the list. “I would never have known,” he says. “How did I get in? They saw talent—very raw talent,” he adds ruefully.
He was 16 when he went on audition; by 17 he had become a professional dancer. He skipped grades, and entered the City College of New York the same year. “I was doing homework on the subway,” he recalls. “I wasn’t following anyone’s format.” He began choreographing for the New Dance Group in 1948.
One of his students of the 1950s, Elizabeth Berney Blake, remembers him well: a very slender man in black leotards, a sleeveless gray shirt, and barefoot.
Blake, a Belgian immigrant who studied the fundamentals of modern dance with McKayle for about a year, recalls “his enthusiasm and dedication to teaching us, despite the fact that we were unbelievable amateurs.
“What struck me the most was his enthusiasm and love of dance—and the way he treated us all as if we had an equal enthusiasm and love,” says Blake. “Yes, we loved it, but we couldn’t do it the way he did it. He was inspiring, and we responded to that inspiration by giving him the best of what we had. It was obvious that he loved what he was doing. When you’re around someone like that, it’s contagious.”
It’s still contagious. UCI students echo her remarks almost half a century later. One of them, Seth Williams, added, “He’s an immensely positive person—but not lighthearted or easygoing about the art of dance.
“He’s not willing to let you make a compromise with yourself, to let you achieve less than you can. He’ll work you till you have a better understanding of where you can go with your art.
UCI’s successful courtship
The path to UCI started rather fortuitously—perhaps providentially—when McKayle escorted his sister-in-law, a professor of social sciences at the University of Tel Aviv, to an appointment with a colleague at UCI. To kill time, McKayle dropped in the dance department.
“[Prof.] Janice Plastino said, ‘Donald, what are you doing here?'” McKayle recalls. “They began courting me without me asking for it.” More visits followed. Then came the offer.
UCI wasn’t McKayle’s only suitor. At least two other universities were courting him at the same time. But he decided on UCI in 1989: “They had professional material here. They had a focus on their art. I liked the dancers when I came to see them – that’s important.” Also, McKayle’s colleague, Eugene Loring, had been the program’s founding chair, and started it as a conservatory within the university—another drawing point for McKayle.
McKayle wasn’t new to university or college work. He had previously served on the faculties of The Juilliard School, Bennington College, Sarah Lawrence College, and was dean of the School of Dance at California Institute of the Arts. But becoming a resident, tenured professor was something he hadn’t thought about.
UCI is glad he did. Says Dean Beck: “I don’t want this to be corny, but Donald brings a sense of joy to UCI. He’s the most positive person to work with in the world. He delights in discovering new people, he sees the nature of potential in students of different kinds of ability, he loves to collaborate with other professors at UCI. He’s a very constructive force – a delight.”
McKayle took to university teaching as if he had been born to it.
“My students have tremendous respect for me, but there isn’t a gap over which they have to jump to get to me, or for me to get to them. I enjoy them as human beings. That’s the way generations should get along. So the learning process is very smooth. I know they learn a lot because they show it so clearly in their performance and in their understanding.”
Perhaps his single-most important contribution has been the UCI Étude Ensemble, which he founded in 1995. The pre-professional company within the university allows dancers to continue the academic studies that will give them a broad theoretical and historic grounding in their art, without losing critical performance years. The Étude Ensemble tours professionally. Says McKayle, “The dancers are so good that I can stage works for them that I would stage for professional companies.”
About a quarter of the ensemble’s graduates go directly into professional companies: for example, in the last academic year, graduates went to the Nashville Ballet, Limón, Momix, Hubbard Street Dance, Cirque du Soleil and joined the cast for the musical Fame.
Today, top-notch dancers come to UCI because of McKayle. For example, Williams—a recipient of Aldrich, Marilyn Lynch and ArtsWeek scholarships and a performer in the Étude Ensemble—had already written a paper about McKayle while still in high school. With his double major in dance and comparative literature, Williams is choreographing The Satyricon at UCI, with McKayle as advisor.
“One of the real blessings of my life is to have had an opportunity to work with him,” says Williams. Among the reasons: McKayle’s most prominent works focus on “social comment.”
“He’s very invested in making statements about people—the way they live and the conditions under which they live. So much dance these days has purely formal concerns—people even make dances about dances.
“His works are definitely grounded in the experience of being African-American, but it’s by no means an exclusive vision. That’s the starting point for him—but it takes off. It goes from African-American tradition to the human condition. Our ensemble is largely Caucasian, but he doesn’t have a problem in letting us perform the masterworks of the African-American canon. They expand into a much more universal experience.”
This is perhaps the reason McKayle’s choreography has been called “humanistic.” For McKayle, “that means it deals with the human condition, and that it’s not just decorative or fashionable. It deals with things that are more lasting, that have more meaning. As long as you speak to me in the terms of the vibrations that bring humans together—you’re my kind of person.”
Such a vision, McKayle insists, does not exclude ethnicity, does not risk becoming a choreographic Esperanto, because “ethnicity is part of the human condition.”
“What is most interesting are our differences,” says McKayle. “We try to celebrate them rather than homogenize them.”
Humanity may be his inspiration, but rhythm is at the heart of McKayle’s work: “Rhythm is always a part of my being. I’m never floating on top of music; I’m always inside the music. That’s very specific to me.”
Williams agrees about this hallmark of McKayle’s teaching: “A lot of people leave his class talking about his sense of rhythm. Most teachers count 1, 2, 3, 4. McKayle goes ‘gung-de-gong, gung-de-gong-gong’—he vocalizes a rhythm, he doesn’t count it. A lot of people get lost in numbers, without getting a sense of rhythm. He makes one acutely aware of when one is moving, not to what count.”
Tantalus: Weaving strife into harmony
McKayle needed all the humanity he could find to work forTantalus, its history strewn with infighting and walkouts. After 17 years in the writing, six months in rehearsal, and $8 million in production costs, the 13-hour marathon debuted to critical acclaim last October at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, before traveling to Europe this year.
British columnists had already made much of the rehearsal tensions. Visionary playwright John Barton had walked off the set, indignant with the drastic surgery on his 14-play cycle. Two English cast members followed, along with a third of the directorial team. In that cutthroat atmosphere, the cast found McKayle a godsend.
“He’s a sweetheart,” says Christina Pawl, the “quadruple threat” chorus member at Maggiano’s. “He’s fun. I’ve worked with other choreographers who can be very harsh and insist you do it their way. He’s to-the-point about what he wants, but he gets it across in a kind and helpful way.”
Tantalus was, in other ways, a typical McKayle project—not a dance show, but a show enhanced with movement: Thetis dances contemptuously before Zeus; the chorus moves gracefully into a wedding dance for Orestes and Hermione; the Thracian king begins a delicate toe dance to relieve his physical pain. “They weren’t set pieces that stopped the action,” says McKayle. “My job was to continue the dramatic energy of the moment.” He borrowed what he’d learned from India, Africa, China, even gypsies.
McKayle’s work also faced brutal cuts and rearrangements. Moreover, rehearsals started but the English half of the Anglo-American team hadn’t arrived.
“Rehearsals were really tough. We wondered if it would ever come together. He was patient and positive and resilient,” says Pawl. “If he hadn’t been, it could have sucked the whole project down the drain.”
At Maggiano’s, the evening is waning, and the plates of gnocchi, garlic shrimp and calamari fritti have yielded to tiramisu, cannoli and tartufo Romano.
A voluptuous Quebeçois chanteuse at the table, 50ish, in a revealing black leotard with skin-tight pants and a mass of platinum-blonde hair—yet another chum of McKayle’s—stands up and sings a bawdy song in a low, husky voice to the restaurant. She then sits down to applause.
As one might expect, there is no sign of opening- night tensions and jitters, no sign of the bruises and batterings of six months of rehearsals at this multi-ethnic, multi-generational table, weaving into its own kind of harmony as the evening lingers. Tantalus is already a dream coming true.
McKayle is hardly reflective—in fact, he’s already looking ahead to his upcoming stint with the Limón Company in New York, and his work with students at UCI.
“As long as your dreams are larger than your memories, you’ll never get old,” he says.