Irvine loses its modern master of dance, Donald McKayle
“Donald McKayle’s passing is truly the end of an era in American dance,” said UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman. “His passion for teaching and mentoring young, talented dancers remained unabated throughout his long life, and one of his greatest legacies is the hundreds of professional dancers now performing around the world.”
He was a five-time Tony Award nominee and one of the first African American men to both direct and choreograph major Broadway musicals, including “Raisin” (1973) and “Sophisticated Ladies” (1981).
McKayle’s contributions to the world of dance earned him a medal from the Kennedy Center as a “master of African American choreography.” His choreography garnered two Emmy Award nominations, an NAACP Image Award and a citation as “one of America’s irreplaceable dance treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition and the Library of Congress.
McKayle taught and mentored UCI students until his final days.
The Los Angeles Times said McKayle’s “seven decades in modern dance distinguished him as one of the art form’s leading lights and socially conscious practitioners.”
“At least two of his works are considered modern classics,” The New York Times obituary said, citing “Games” from 1951 and “Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder” from 1959.
Born in Harlem, New York, McKayle began dancing during his senior year in high school after being inspired by a Pearl Primus performance. He made his professional dancing debut in 1948. During his seven-decade career, he danced or worked with Martha Graham, Anna Sokolow and Merce Cunningham and in the classic Broadway productions “House of Flowers” and “West Side Story.”
McKayle joined the UCI faculty in 1989 and was honored in 2000 with the UCI Medal, the university’s highest honor. He was the Claire Trevor Professor of Dance and Artistic Director of UCI’s Etude Ensemble, which he founded in 1995.
His original choreography “Death and Eros” was performed at the university’s annual Dance Visions just this February.
“The world knew Donald as a groundbreaking dancer and choreographer; we at UCI knew him as a great teacher and mentor,” said Stephen Barker, dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. “Donald was a great choreographer because he was a great human being. We celebrate our opportunity to have known and worked with one of the giants of American dance for such a wonderfully long time.”