Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Choreographer Donald McKayle

"I have been doing this since the 1940s, and I have been out of work one week in my whole life," says Donald McKayle, the African-American choreographer named by the Dance Heritage Coalition as one of the first 100 of America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures. "And that one week that I was out of work, I couldn't even collect unemployment, because in California you need to wait 10 days before it becomes activated." McKayle has choreographed more than 90 works for the concert stage, numerous Broadway musicals -- including Golden Boy, Sophisticated Ladies, and Raisin, which he also directed -- the Hollywood films The Great White Hope, The Jazz Singer, and Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and the television special Free To Be...You and Me.

"Work in as many areas as you can," says McKayle, when asked what advice he would give to someone looking to establish a successful career as a professional dancer today. "The more colors you have on your palette, the more you have to work with and the more you can aspire to." In addition to his work as a choreographer and director, for the past 20 years McKayle has been a professor of dance and choreography at the University of California, Irvine. In 1995 he set up a student performance company there called the UCI Etude Ensemble. "It was in response to -- well, let me explain," says McKayle. "I'm on the board of trustees of the National Foundation for Advancement of the Arts, which gives awards to young artists, 17- and 18-year-olds. And I observed that the dance recipients didn't always have very good material to show, particularly in the modern-dance field. The ballet people, of course, had variations from the great classical ballets to perform. So I decided to choreograph something that the modern dancers could study -- like ballet dancers study classical variations -- and that they could perform at the auditions. I called the piece 'Rainbow Etude,' because it was based on 'Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder.' Then [former Paul Taylor principal dancer] Carolyn Adams and her sister -- they operate an organization called the American Dance Legacy Institute, out of Brown University -- they decided to publish my 'Rainbow Etude' in a video/DVD format to be circulated to students and teachers all around the country. I originally set the work on six students from UCI. Well, that group of six performers grew to 18, and that's basically how the student company was formed."

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