Review: Honoring Donald McKayle at Lincoln Center with PTAMD

By: Nov. 21, 2019
Review: Honoring Donald McKayle at Lincoln Center with PTAMD
Dayton Contemporary Dance Company
performs Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder
Paul B. Goode; photographer

Donald McKayle was well represented at Lincoln Center on November 12th, 2019 with performances that touched on three periods of his long life as a choreographer and educator. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Juilliard Dance, and Ronald K. Brown/ Evidence performed admirably at this memorial service in honour of Paul Taylor's wish to celebrate his fellow departed icon, colleague, and friend. The two danced together as members of Martha Graham's company in the 50's, an influence that peppered their voices even as they broke new ground as two of the 20th century's greatest innovators. The importance of Graham's modern classicism in McKayle's work in particular cannot be understated, though it was all but missing from this otherwise excellent evening. I'm referring to the contraction, a movement that McKayle spoke of lovingly to me when I was a teenager.

DCDC gave a thrilling account of working one's life away on a prison chain gang as they smashed rocks in the field of an imaginary quarry that serves as Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder's setting. When the company performed this masterpiece at Lincoln Center in 2016, again at Taylor's invitation, it was under McKayle's supervision. That performance was a moving portrait of modern day slavery (the 13th amendment abolished slavery but allows for penal labor). The memorial concert account was equally heroic and entirely faithful to McKayle's intent (kudos to Leslie Watanabe for the excellent staging), but even as the dancers proved tireless in their execution, they failed to transmit how essential the contraction is to this work.

Have you ever cleared a yard of broken trees, or removed debris from a gutted house? The demands of this work compels one to use every inch of his body, necessitating that one twist and contract to complete the tasks. Surely, working on a chain gang requires the same commitment, and yet, whether striking a hammer or pounding with their fists, Dayton's dancers were strangely dogmatic in refusing to use their contractions to complete their movement. The impact was that of a boxer delivering a punch with no follow through.

Even this blunted affect could not deprive the choreography of its brilliance, which was fully realized by Countess V. Winfrey as the semblance of a Sweetheart, Mother, and Wife. In embodying Rainbow's sole woman she offered the audience and her colleagues a respite from their herculean efforts, transporting all to a temporary dreamscape of simple fantasies. By the ballet's end, those dreams were shot down in a break-away moment that elicits gasps every time I see it. If you want to know how to choreograph, watch Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder. It teaches you everything you need to know about storytelling.

The evening continued with students from Juilliard's Dance Division in Crossing the Rubicon; Passing the Point of No Return, a choreographic reminder from McKayle that refugees are humans doing what they can to escape terrifying oppression, just as many of this country's original immigrants were. It begins with a caravan of dancers sailing across the stage in half Horton figure eights. What is a figure eight you ask? Stand up and draw the number eight horizontally with your fingers. Do the same with your hips; now lift your right hip and circle it back to front and finish transferring your weight forward. This half eight motion was the same progression taken by Juilliard's dancers.

McKayle once remarked to my class that he could tell everything he needed to know about a dancer by watching her or him walk across the room. And so it was with this meditative movement, which told us that Naya Lovell is going to be a star one day, just as she was the star of this piece. The ballet breaks into a cacophony of hurtling bodies fleeing from chaos, then regrouping into a communal circle of hops and simple gestures, pounding fists, and hands that seemed to invoke "grant me protection and peace". As the central couple, Lovell and Sargent could have been Adam and Eve, carrying the hopes of their people onward to a new land under the ever watchful eye of a pitiless god that continued to fade and rematerialize in new places across the clear backdrop of the stage.

Rubicon--choreographed for the dance ensemble at The University of California, Irvine--is the last ballet that McKayle created. Knowing of his commitment to giving his students something that they needed, I can surmise that McKayle used this dance to impress upon his charges the importance of simplicity. Sometimes the smallest gesture has the most profound impact, though only when delivered with absolute clarity. Think of Caroline rising to relevé at the touch of Her Lover's hand in Antony Tudor's Jardin aux lilas. That effect was no less than the proffering of a flexed hand forward, as if to unlock a hidden door, in Rubicon. Juilliard's dancers, committed as they were to big jumps, missed that point entirely. Their gestures and invocations registered as unfocused afterthoughts. It would be interesting to see them attempt this work again, after they have mastered specificity.

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence's dancers were fantastic in Songs of the Disinherited. They completely dominated the stage in this episodic tour of the Black Diaspora in America, whether in high-flying trios, popping duos, or smoldering solos. Of course I'm referring to Annique Roberts who brought the house down in Angelitos Negros. Though she does not have high flying legs, she has what I recently heard Donald Byrd refer to as "The Expression". The early choreographers frequently created movement that pushed beyond what their dancers could achieve. Today's dancers can accomplish nearly any feat though they frequently sacrifice the essence of their dancing in doing so. Evidence's dancers pushed beyond even when their legs did not always stretch to a perfectly completed line, but when it came time to get down, as in Shaker Life, their majesty was such that at least this audience member forgot that the music--The Voices of East Harlem's recording of Right on, Be Free--was the same piece that Alvin Ailey used for Cry. McKayle would have approved.

Bravo to Paul Taylor American Modern Dance's artistic director Michael Novac for honoring the old man's final wishes. Though this is a new era, remembrances of McKayle and Taylor continue to provide a guiding light for where we've come from and where we are going.

Post Script:

I attended University High School which was about half a mile away from University of California, Irvine where McKayle served as a distinguished professor for many years. The dance teacher at my school was obsessed with McKayle and forced us to study a number of his works. On occasion she managed to convince him to speak with us. As follow-up, I would annoy him at his own place of work by using my mother, who worked at UCI, as an excuse to wander into his studios. The pearls that I gleaned from my encounters with McKayle continue to inform my understanding of dance to this day. When one speaks about McKayle, it is essential to remember that he cared more about teaching people about the world and themselves than he did about creating brilliant masterpieces. Even then, the Tony Award-nominated, multi-award-winning genius had more unacknowledged masterworks in his oeuvre than many celebrated dance-makers have acknowledged. Still, to me, his work as an educator--'God gave you arms to show what your back is doing!'--is his legacy. He once told my class that it was not his job to turn us into professional dancers; he was here to help us appreciate the wonderful effect that dance could have on our lives so that we could go out into the world as fuller people who would in turn complete the circuit by turning others on to the power of dance. In writing about Donny and this evening, I feel that I have come full circle. If you have not seen one of his ballets, I urge you to contact your local dance company to request that they stage one of his works. I believe that you will all come away from the experience rejuvenated.