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Remembering A Modern Dance Visionary and Former UCI Professor

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Donald McKayle, UCI professor emeritus of dance and regarded as one of the most influential American modern dance choreographers and performers, passed away on Friday April 6 at the age of 87, according to his wife Lea McKayle.

McKayle created modern dance classics such as “Games” in 1951 and “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” in 1959. He was known for introducing the African-American experience into his choregraphies. For example, “Songs of the Disinherited,” premiered in 1972, which focuses on the black diaspora in the New World.

“Those of us privileged enough to have known and worked with Donald marveled at his warmth and sensitivity,” said Stephen Barker, Dean for the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, in a statement released Tuesday, April 10, “Everyone who worked with him was met with his radiant smile and genuine delight in the art he created.”

In 1973, the Harlem-born dancer became the first black man to direct and choreograph a broadway musical with “Raisin,” for which he received a Tony nomination for Best Direction and Best Choreography. McKayle had also been previously nominated for Best Choreography for his work in “Golden Boy” in 1964.

McKayle joined the UCI faculty as Professor of Dance in 1989, and according to his autobiography, “Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life,” McKayle found “the conservatory atmosphere within the research university setting appealing.” In 1995, McKayle created the UCI Etude Ensemble, which was inspired by Rainbow Etudes which focuses on themes from “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder.”

The UCI Etude Ensemble is a repertory of McKayle’s work and is formed by a diverse group of students dedicated to McKayle’s choreographies.

“Etude, it’s a collective of such individual dancers, and it’s really awesome that we’re all different: different styles, different sizes, different heights, different colors,” said fourth-year student Annika Alejo. “We all came together for him, to dance for him, and he had such a wide variety of dancers and to come together for him and his choreography I think is really awesome.”

The future of the UCI Etude Ensemble in the next upcoming years is still uncertain, the UCI Department of Dance has not released whether the ensemble will carry on after this academic year.

“We’re continuing this year, we’re still holding rehearsals,” said second-year graduate student and McKayle’s Teaching Assistant Chelsea Asman. “As far as next year goes, that’s not really up to us, and we don’t really know what’s happening, but we are planning to continue forward with what we were already intending for the end of the year.”

The UCI Etude Ensemble will hold a final repertory show towards the end of spring quarter and is open to the public.

McKayle retired from UCI in 2010 but continued to be recalled to teach master classes, guiding the UCI Etude Ensemble and creating more choreographies.

“It was an instant life changing experience that I got to work with him,” said third-year student Edgar Aguirre, who was McKayle’s apprentice during one quarter his first year before joining the UCI Etude Ensemble. “He created ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ on us and I was blown away.”

“Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return,” McKayle’s last creation, premiered on May 2017.

“Just slowly realizing the gravity of him, like who he is and all of that, was a once in a lifetime experience,” said Aguirre. “He was beautiful because he loved his dancers very, very much.”

Despite his retirement, McKayle continued to work at UCI for a total of 29 years. He was one of UCI’s most distinguished professors.

Before working at UCI, some of the current faculty members of the UCI Department of Dance already knew him. Diane Diefenderfer, lecturer and professor of teaching for the UCI Department of Dance, met McKayle in the mid-1980s while living in Los Angeles when she was dancing for the Los Angeles Ballet Company and working at a pilates studio.

“He was kind, very warm and friendly and a powerful figure as he worked out on the pilates equipment,” said Diefenderfer. “Donald left a wonderful legacy with the UCI dance department. He shared his wonderful love of dance and his sincere joy in working with all dancers, students of all levels. I will miss him.”

Lisa Naugle, professor and department chair of dance, met McKayle in the late-1970s as his student at Jacob’s Pillow, one of the most prestigious and renowned dance centers in the world.

“He signed a card for me, when we were at Jacob’s Pillow, because I asked him for his signature for something, and that card said ‘There is a place for all of us in dance, and I still have that card,” said Naugle.

On April 9, Naugle called for a meeting for the students, faculty and staff of the department of dance to address McKayle’s passing.

“I wanted for us to come together as a community to talk about feelings,” said Naugle. “Having some space and time to be able to share our thoughts and feelings about Donald, and especially so that the students could feel support from the department, from the faculty and from me and from each other for a time that I knew was going to be difficult for everyone.”

McKayle became an important and influential figure in the department.

“I saw that he was working with all different body types of all different races, all different backgrounds. I remember being struck by a video of a small Asian man doing one of his dances as a solo, and I had never seen someone who looked like me in that sort of position,” said Bret Yamanaka, rehearsal director and company manager for UCI Etude Ensemble and McKayle’s former student. “I was just really taken back by that because having that representation all of the sudden, it really lit a fire in that moment for me to work with him.”

“At the end of the day, I think that there is a huge absence now in this department that you can feel the space that he would have occupied were he still here and that, as difficult as it is, it is our responsibility to dance with that space as if he were still here in memory of him, and recognizing that it allows us the opportunity to move even freer in memory of him,” Yamanaka concluded.