Donald McKayle’s career spans more than 60 years, including performances on Broadway, film, television and countless concert stages, and collaborators representing every era – from his 97-year-old teacher Eva Desca Garnet to current undergraduates in the UC Irvine dance department – turned out Thursday, March 8, to honor the man they call “the master.”
The tribute at the Irvine Barclay Theatre was co-chaired by dancer-actress Debbie Allen, actress-singer Della Reese, and UCI Chancellor Michael Drake and his wife, Brenda. In the introductions, Drake said that UCI had been blessed by the artistic gifts McKayle has shared with students.
The 81-year-old UCI professor emeritus of dance, who retired in 2010, still teaches master classes and guides the UCI Etude Ensemble, an elite undergraduate dance troupe.
Since 1989, McKayle has inspired students in UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts to follow in his footsteps. Many have gone on to dance with the Rockettes, the Joffrey Ballet and the Nashville Ballet.
In recognition of this, dean Joe Lewis announced at the tribute that McKayle would be the second recipient of a star on the arts school’s Walk of Fame. The first went to Claire Trevor.
Allen, also praising her mentor from the podium, recalled the first time she met him: “He walked in, and there was the tallest, most handsome man in the world – in tights! Thank you, Donnie McKayle. I love you. Tonight is your night.”
Dancers from companies such as Cirque du Soleil, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Lula Washington Dance Theatre performed at the event, which also served as a fundraiser for the newly established Donald McKayle Fund for Modern Dance.
More than $100,000 was netted, which will allow the arts school to provide scholarships, secure master classes and commission new works in modern dance.
McKayle’s influence can be seen in the individuals whose talents he has cultivated over the years. Here are testimonials from some of the students and colleagues inspired by him:
Mr. McKayle has a passion for dance that is infectious. The love and support that he shows each and every one of his students is truly amazing. I came to UCI expecting to grow as a dancer, but under the instruction of Mr. McKayle, I have become an artist.
Dance performance ’13
When I realized I would be serving as rehearsal assistant for the UCI Etude Ensemble, I definitely had preconceived notions about working with its artistic director, Donald McKayle. After all, the man is a dance legend. I expected someone who demanded total commitment from his dancers and those working with him, someone who would push people to their best and then beyond what they thought their best was, a man who did not know the meaning of the word “mediocrity.” Donald McKayle met these expectations. What I did not expect to find was the most jovial, positive, generous and kind person I have ever worked with in my 20-plus-year career in the arts. From the very nature of his being, Donald McKayle sets the example for what a great leader, educator and man is – an example I strive to follow. Thank you, Donald, for your love and light.
M.F.A. dance ’11
Mr. McKayle has imprinted on my dance DNA, without a doubt. I am honored to be part of the lineage of dancers who have performed both his historic and new works. In all that I dance, I find McKayle-isms and am always glad to have the reminder of my time spent working with him. Thank you, Mr. McKayle, for influencing and inspiring me.
Dance performance ’11
Norwegian Cruise Line dancer
Donald McKayle is the godfather of us all. He inspired all of us professors to follow his path – the only one in dance history to set this standard. Thank you, Papa!
M.F.A. dance ’96
Donald McKayle is much more than an inspiration or a mentor to me. He is my dear friend whom I have been blessed enough to be able to work closely with and learn about life and the human spirit. He has touched my artistry and my soul with a stamp of magic, empathy and – most of all – love. He once said to me, “Amy Sennett, you broaden my horizons on a daily basis.” Well, Donald, that is due to my unbelievable and cherished run-in with you! All my love and thanks to an incredible man!
Amy D. Starner
M.F.A. dance ’06
Your understanding and portrayal of the human spirit is inspirational. You’ve reminded me that life should be felt, expressed and lived to its fullest. In all I admire of you and your work, it’s the way you do it: with love, respect and humility – ever deflecting praise. I admire and treasure the gift it has been to share a lovely journey together.
Michelle Henriksen Nielsen
M.F.A. dance ’08
Working with Mr. McKayle over the past year and a half has taught me an incredible amount about dance, both in terms of physical movement and how choreography is created. In addition, rehearsals with Mr. McKayle have taught me how events or ideas from life can influence or lead to the creation of a dance. Being a member of Etude has definitely made me more interested in the idea of using dance as a way to tell a story.
Dance performance ’12
I feel so blessed to have worked with Mr. McKayle, not just as an undergraduate in the Etude Ensemble but to have been able to assist him 10 years later in graduate school. His teaching and mentoring has impacted the way I teach and choreograph in the most positive ways. He is such an inspiration, and I only hope to one day be able to tell a story through dance as beautifully as he has done for decades. Thank you for all of your guidance, Donald, and I love you.
Operations manager, Laguna Dance Festival
During my time at UCI, if not for Donald McKayle, I don’t think I would have considered or even thought that a career in dance would be possible. He gave me something that I had never genuinely received before as a dancer, and that was the “belief” to explore my potential and the dancer I would later become. Without the opportunity, I don’t think dance would be a part of my every day today. When I was in my last year, he guided me as a mentor. He told me that as long as you have a focus of where you want to go, you will get somewhere. It may not be what you wanted in the beginning, but you will get somewhere and eventually reach where you want to be.
B.F.A. dance ’08
I have loved working with Mr. McKayle these last two years. It has given me so much confidence in myself and my art form, as well as interest in learning more about dance history. Working with him has also opened my eyes to how powerful dance can be. I am so grateful for all of the knowledge he has imparted to me.
Dance and chemistry ’12
I remember in his modern class, Mr. McKayle rose from his chair with an intimidating stance and came forth to stand right in front of me – towering over me with his great height and stature. He smiled and in his deep voice said, “Now do that again.” I did the exercise over and over, and he never gave up on me, even when I felt I had failed, and he never stopped asking me to “do it again,” even when I felt I had succeeded. The truth is he wasn’t intimidating at all but could see my potential. I like to think of him as my teddy bear – my support, my confidant and confidence – always there for me to hug and beside me in whatever I do as long as I do it.
Etude Ensemble ’08-’09
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance ’10
London-based freelance dance artist and writer
My best memories of conveying the human condition while dancing were created when performing his solos “Angelitos Negros” and “Down Where I Am,” and I am reminded of these golden moments whenever I reminisce about the time I spent dancing for the luminous Donald McKayle. Time spent studying and performing his choreography as well as learning from him in technique classes still profoundly affects how I dance in performance and how I practice humanism as a medical student. There is no way I will ever forget Mr. McKayle or the impact he has made on my life.
Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons ’15
As the principal “interpreteur” of Donald McKayle’s choreographic work, I have been blessed to work with him closely over the last decade. Performing his works as a dancer has made me a more complete artist, using his intricate rhythms, movement innovation and character development. He has inspired me to challenge my students with artistic rigor and choreographic content that is not commonly explored. Maintaining his legacy is of paramount importance to me and serves the next generation of dancers both historically and artistically. Donald McKayle is known for stating: “When you find the linkage between dance and story, you have found something rich.” Dance doesn’t tell stories the same way you could in other areas; it doesn’t give finite points, but it gives a deeper, richer emotional context.
Professor of dance, Long Beach City College
As a song-and-dance kid on Broadway, I took classes with Alvin Ailey, Thelma Hill and Pepsi Bethel at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts. I mention this because, although I did not know Donald then, I grew up within his milieu, and the songs for “Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder” that Donald uses are sung by George Tipton, who sang with my father for 40 years.
Dean, Claire Trevor School of the Arts