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Donald McKayle has retired, but his work dances on at UC Irvine

June 3, 2010 |  1:15 pm

Ucidance


Wednesday night's repertory performance by the UCI Etude Ensemble was both a showcase for the 17-member troupe and something of a love letter to choreographer and group founder Donald McKayle. He  recently retired from UC Irvine, where has been professor of dance since 1989.
 
McKayle's career as first a dancer and then choreographer for film, TV, Broadway and modern dance companies spans a seven-decade stretch to the late 1940s. Among his endeavors was the founding of the Etude Ensemble in 1995. In its 15th season, the ensemble continues to function as the school's resident chamber performance group, dancing McKayle's work exclusively. 
 
The hourlong program, held in a performance studio in the William J. Gillespie Performance Studios hall, focused on four pieces from McKayle, choreographed over a nearly half-century span from 1959 to 2005. They were tied together by thematic threads woven from black experience in America. Two -- 2004's "Midnight Dancer" and 2005's "My Soul Has Grown Deep Like the Rivers" -- are rooted in poems from Langston Hughes, and in introducing the first piece, McKayle spoke movingly of having known Hughes briefly from work in the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, an endeavor that stemmed from the Harlem Renaissance movement.
 
McKayle's choreography in these pieces, deftly on display by the ensemble, showcased the power of harnessed movement. For instance, in all the pieces, arms were flung out, not just with joyous abandon but with lyrical intent, expressiveness designed to convey a challenged culture, but also an aspirational one.
 

The company's level of dancing was such that it almost feels unfair to single out any performances. However, Crystal Norbut's mega-wattage dancing and nuanced expressiveness during "Rainbow Suite's" second element, "Skillet," was a standout; another was Julian DeGuzman's emotional range and spritely costumed (envision a "Cirque du McKayle" look) athleticism in "My Soul Has Grown Deep Like the Rivers'" "Minstral Man" solo passage.
 
DeGuzman's father, Joseph, was sitting in the top row of the bleachers, smiling broadly throughout the performance. It was not just at his son's spryness ("Julian likes to dance, but he's going to be an orthopedic surgeon ... a job you can count on paying!"), but also at the company's accomplishments during the evening. The DeGuzman clan has had a happy association with the UC Irvine dance department: Daughter Robyn, while not in Etudes Ensemble, graduated from the university's dance program and is in the touring cast of "Beauty and the Beast," which will come to San Diego and Orange County in the fall.
 
One of the ongoing legacies of the UC Irvine program is the number of students it has launched into professional careers. Currently, graduates can be found in the Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance, the Diablo Dance Company and other groups. Meanwhile, alumni also dot the theater circuit, everywhere from the 2009 remounting of "West Side Story" still on Broadway to "Donny & Marie" at the Flamingo in Las Vegas.
 
After the program was complete, McKayle sported a big grin and professed satisfaction with the results. Even though he has retired from the school, his association with the ensemble is not going away -- this fall he'll create new choreography for the group that it will present in February.
 
"I'm on recall," he said with a chuckle, "in an 'emeritus' role. There's still work to be done!"
 
-- Christopher Smith

Photo: The UCI Etude Ensemble performs "Shaker Life" Wednesday night. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times

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