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Distinguished dancers and companies celebrate Donald McKayle

March 9, 2012 | 12:57 pm

Matthew Rushing and Renee Robinson, stars of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, joined local students and a cast of other celebrated dancers in a concert Thursday night to pay tribute to the art and life of Donald McKayle.

Rushing and Robinson kicked off the UC Irvine-organized event at the Irvine Barclay Theatre with an excerpt from McKayle’s “Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder,” a seminal modern dance work about the wasted lives and crushed dreams of men on a chain gang.  McKayle, an active 81-year-old, was a distinguished professor in the UCI dance department for two decades. He still directs the university’s dance company, Etude Ensemble, which performed the premiere of his latest piece, “The Americas: North and South,” for the show.

PHOTOS: Donald McKayle, a dance career

In welcoming remarks, director Debbie Allen called McKayle “one of the great choreographers and delightful human beings.” McKayle was her teacher at the American Dance Festival, where he was, she said, “the tallest and most handsome man I’d ever met in a pair of tights. He wore us out … but he made us laugh.”

He later launched her career in “Raisin,” the Tony-winning musical that he choreographed and directed. Predating today's crossover choreographers, McKayle worked in musical theater, television and film, adding to his renown as a creator of significant modern dance pieces, such "Games."

Lula Washington Dance Theater and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble contributed excerpts from two other lasting pieces -- “Songs of the Disinherited” and “Blood Memories.” Philadanco’s Tommy-Waheed Evans and Lindsey Holmes performed an emotional duet by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, while dancer Sheri “Sparkle” Williams, of Dayton Contemporary, received “bravos” for her portrayal in a Dwight Rhoden solo. Students from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy and the Wooden Floor (formerly Saint Joseph Ballet) were featured in the 15-part program. 

The concert raised $100,000 for the UCI dance department’s new Donald McKayle Fund for Modern Dance, to underwrite scholarships, choreography commissions and master classes.

McKayle reveled in the night’s “This Is Your Life” surprises. He introduced Eva Desca Garnet, 97, one of his teachers from the socially conscious New Dance Group, with which he took lessons back in 1948. Post-concert, he was surrounded by generations of his students, posing for photographs with them. 

“What a wonderful occasion,” he said. “As I look around the room there are so many people [from different times] of my life. It’s amazing and wonderful.”


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

Dance review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Segerstrom

Spring arts preview: Dance

-- Laura Bleiberg

Photo: Donald McKayle and his former teacher Eva Desca Garnet at the unveiling of his Claire Trevor School of the Arts star, which will be installed in the school's Walk of Fame next to the one bestowed on Claire Trevor last year. Credit: Michelle Kim