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McKayle (Donald) Papers
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Access
  • Preferred Citation
  • Publication Rights
  • Acquisition Information
  • Alternative Forms of Material)
  • Processing History
  • Biography
  • Chronology
  • Concert Dance Choreology
  • Scope and Content

  • Contributing Institution: Special Collections and Archives, University of California, Irvine Libraries
    Title: Donald McKayle papers
    Creator: McKayle, Donald
    Identifier/Call Number: MS.P.023
    Physical Description: 19.1 Linear Feet (19 document boxes, 5 record cartons, 1 shoe box, 6 flat boxes, and 3 oversized folders) and 13.7 unprocessed linear feet
    Date (inclusive): 1930-2009
    Abstract: Photographs, programs, production notes, music scores, audio and video recordings, costume designs, reviews, and other printed and graphic materials illustrate the eclectic career of world-renowned choreographer and University of California, Irvine Professor of Dance Donald McKayle. Early materials pertain to his youth in Harlem and his performance career in New York City in concert dance, theater and television. The bulk of the collection documents McKayle's career as the choreographer of over fifty concert dance pieces between 1948 and 1998 and as a director or choreographer for theatrical productions both off and on Broadway, including Raisin and Sophisticated Ladies. The materials illustrate the development of individual choreographic pieces, the evolution of McKayle as an artist, and his career as a dance educator.
    Language of Material: English .


    The collection is open for research. Unprocessed negatives in box 25 are restricted from researcher use. Access to original film is restricted; researchers may request viewing copies.

    Preferred Citation

    Donald McKayle Papers. MS-P 23. Special Collections and Archives, The UCI Libraries, Irvine, California. Date accessed.
    For the benefit of current and future researchers, please cite any additional information about sources consulted in this collection, including permanent URLs, item or folder descriptions, and box/folder locations.

    Publication Rights

    Property rights reside with the University of California. Literary rights are retained by the creators of the records and their heirs. For permissions to reproduce or to publish, please contact the Head of Special Collections and University Archives.

    Acquisition Information

    Gifts of Donald McKayle in 1997 and 1998.

    Alternative Forms of Material)

    Select items have been reformatted and have digital preservation copies available on Merritt.

    Processing History

    The collection was processed by Laura Clark Brown and Emma Kheradyar in 1998. The finding aid was prepared by Laura Clark Brown and edited by William Landis in 1998; the finding aid was edited and updated by Audra Eagle Yun in 2012.


    A world-renowned choreographer, Donald McKayle began his career in New York City, initially studying dance with the New Dance Group and dancing professionally for noted choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Sophie Maslow, and Anna Sokolow. In the 1950's he founded and directed Donald McKayle and Company, creating such landmark works as Games, Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder, and District Storyville between 1951 and 1962. Although originally created for McKayle's own company, these works are now found in the repertories of major modern dance companies such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. McKayle's career has taken him to and beyond Broadway, where he choreographed Golden Boy, directed and choreographed Raisin, and conceived and choreographed Sophisticated Ladies. He has worked in film and television as well, choreographing dance sequences in Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Minstrel Man and directing the first episodes of the television series Good Times .
    Donald McKayle was born in New York City on July 6, 1930. A first-generation American and the son of Jamaican parents, he grew up in Harlem. The McKayles, a tightly knit, loving family, were part of the New York West Indian community which offered social interaction and cultural awareness to a young boy. McKayle first danced in public at a West Indian social activity.
    He attended DeWitt Clinton High School and graduated in 1947. While in high school, McKayle showed a passion for both folk music and American and African-American history. He belonged to a high school chapter of the Frederick Douglass Society and a youth group called Club L'Ouverture which held folk dances and "sings," and on weekends he went to hootenannies and danced Latin at the Grand Plaza. His choreography later drew from these early experiences and interests.
    McKayle's early years in New York City and his interests in the performing arts and folk music were a prelude to his dance career, which began in his senior year in high school when he won a scholarship to New York's New Dance Group in 1947. Pearl Primus, a Trinidad-born dancer, choreographer and scholar of African studies, drew McKayle into a life in dance. Her powerful performances of pieces such as African Ceremonial and Hard Time Blues were watershed moments for the young McKayle. Primus, regarded by many as the "Mother of African-American Dance," was his first exposure to a dancer who "wedded African rhythms and themes to modern training."
    After winning a scholarship to the New Dance Group, McKayle surrendered his life to dance. The Group was a large, democratic artists' organization with first-generation disciples of modern dance pioneers Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm and Charles Weidman. He had the opportunity to study under established choreographers, including Sophie Maslow, Pearl Primus and Jean Erdman.
    McKayle danced in several of Maslow's masterworks, including Folksay, The Village I Knew and Champion. The choreography and mentoring of Sophie Maslow and Pearl Primus had an enormous influence on McKayle's creative life. He adopted and adapted a similar approach to his own artistic work, whereby he translated both folk and African-American themes in his choreography.
    In McKayle's second year of formal dance training, the New Dance Group embarked on a concert season which thrust him into performance. He danced in Sophie Maslow's Folksay and Champion and Jean Erdman's Four Four Time. The New York City dance world in the 1950's was fluid and McKayle moved easily within it, dancing with and for such masters as Anna Sokolow and Merce Cunningham. He won a scholarship to study at Martha Graham's School of Contemporary Dance and had the opportunity to work personally with this pioneering choreographer. Graham created a solo for him in her piece Ardent Song . He joined and traveled with the Martha Graham Company on a State Department-sponsored tour of East Asia in 1955 and 1956, a tour comprised of both performances and lecture demonstrations by Graham. It was his first experience with world travel and foreign cultures and it both impressed him and influenced his creative work.
    While developing a busy professional dance career, McKayle began to choreograph first for himself and later for groups. In 1951 he founded Donald McKayle and Company. In 1969 he left New York and moved to California. He continued to perform, teach and create on the West Coast as artistic director of the Los Angeles Inner City Repertory Dance Company in the early 1970's. McKayle has not directed his own company since 1973.
    In 1963 McKayle won the Capezio award, his first major award for choreography, and he has continued to receive recognition for his art ever since that time. Other prestigious honors include the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award in 1992. In 1997 McKayle became the first creative artist to receive the UC Irvine Distinguished Faculty Lectureship Award for Research.
    As Donald McKayle gained a solid reputation in the concert dance world as a choreographer, influential people in other theatrical realms took notice. The acclaim of his "jazz ballet" in pieces such as District Storyville drew the attention of Broadway producer Hillard Elkins, who asked McKayle to choreograph the dance sequences in his production of Golden Boy, starring Sammy Davis, Jr. Elkins was successful in enticing McKayle to choreography for Broadway, where Golden Boy premiered in 1964. The production was a success and McKayle earned a Tony nomination for his choreography, thus beginning another aspect of his career. In earlier years McKayle had danced on Broadway in Bless You All, House of Flowers, and West Side Story , and he had directed and choreographed musical theatre off Broadway.
    He later directed and choreographed a musical version of the hit play Raisin in the Sun, entitled simply Raisin. The production, starring newcomer Debbie Allen, became a success in its own right and won the Tony for best musical in 1974. McKayle has earned five Tony nominations for his work on Broadway.
    Donald McKayle conceived the Tony-nominated Broadway hit Sophisticated Ladies based on the life and writings of Duke Ellington. The show was originally titled "Duke," but was later given the "sexier" title Sophisticated Ladies before the show opened. Sophisticated Ladies premiered on Broadway in 1981 and starred Gregory Hines and Judith Jamison, who later became the director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. McKayle's original concept and staging of musical numbers had undergone a plethora of changes, but the "choreo-musical" that he conceived in 1978 received numerous Tony nominations. He won the NAACP Image Award for writing and an Outer Critics Circle Award for choreography in 1981.
    Sophisticated Ladies in 1981 was McKayle's last endeavor on Broadway. He has also directed and choreographed numerous regional theater productions before and since his stint on Broadway; other credits include Emperor Jones in 1986 and Evolution of the Blues from 1978 to 1979.
    Hollywood has also enlisted McKayle's talents. He choreographed dance for films, including Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Great White Hope and The Jazz Singer, and for television films and shows including The Minstrel Man, Free to Be You and Me, The Strolling Twenties , and The Ed Sullivan Show.
    Teaching remains a vital part of Donald McKayle's dance career. He has taught master classes for professional companies in Moscow, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv and Köln and has served on the faculty of numerous schools, including the American Dance Festival, Bennington College and the Juilliard School. He has served as artistic director of the UCI Department of Dance since 1989.
    As an artist and professor, Donald McKayle continues to direct musical theater, teach dance and create new works for dance companies around the world, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, and Limón Dance Company. He has also created works for the UCI Department of Dance.


    Note: A more extensive choreology of Donald McKayle's concert dance pieces follows this chronology.

    Missing Title

    1930 Born on July 6th in New York City.
    1947 Graduated from De Witt Clinton High School.
      Received work scholarship to the New Dance Group.
    1947-1949 Attended City College of New York.
    1948 Professional debut with the New Dance Group.
      Saturday's Child
    1948-1952 Performed with the Mary Anthony Dance Company.
    1948-1953 Performed with the Jean Erdman Company.
    1948-1955 Performed with Dudley, Maslow and the New Dance Group.
    1950 Performed with Contemporary Dance Company.
      Bless You All.
    1951 Guest artist at Daniel Nagrin Dance Company.
    1951-1969 Artistic Director and Resident Choreographer for Donald McKayle and Company.
    1952 Her Name Was Harriet.
      Fred Waring Show
    1952-1954 Performed with the New York City Opera Ballet.
    1952-1955 Performed with Anna Sokolow Dance Company.
    1954 American Folk Suite.
      House of Flowers.
      Married Esta Beck.
    1955-1956 Joined Martha Graham Company for the American National Theatre Academy tour of the Near and Far East, sponsored by the State Department of the United States.
      Daughter Gabrielle born.
    1957 West Side Story and Copper and Brass
    1958 Daughter Liane born.
    1959 Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder.
    1960 The Dance Has Many Faces
      Stepson Guy born.
    1962 District Storyville.
    1963 Won the Capezio Dance Award.
    1964 Daughters of the Garden.
      Golden Boy
    1965 The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief
      Married Lea Vivante.
    1966 A Time for Singing for Broadway.
      The Strollin' Twenties and The Ed Sullivan Show
    1967 The Ed Sullivan Show and The Bill Cosby Special
      Black New World
    1968 The Motown Special
    1969 The Bill Cosby Special
      Dick Van Dyke Special
      Moved to California.
      The Great White Hope.
      Hollywood Palace
    1970 Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
    1970-1973 Artistic Director and Resident Choreographer of Inner City Repertory Dance Company.
    1972 Charlie and the Angel.
    1974 Nominated for Tony Awards for Best Choreography and Best Direction.
      Good Times
    1975 Minstrel Man
      Dr. Jazz
      Nominated for Tony Award for Best Choreography.
    1976 Blood Memories.
    1977 Choreographed the 49th Annual Academy Awards for television (ABC).
    1978 The Last Minstrel Show
    1978-1980 Sophisticated Ladies
    1981 Sophisticated Ladies.
      Sophisticated Ladies.
    1984 Dancing in the Streets
      Emperor Jones
    1986 Emperor Jones.
    1989 "Present Vision/Past Voice: A Salute to Donald McKayle," a retrospective by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in Columbia, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois.
    1989 Became a Professor of Dance at the University of California, Irvine.
    1990 Stardust
    1991 "All McKayle Program," a retrospective by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, staged at City Center Theatre in New York City.
    1992 House of Tears
      Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award.
      Sombra Y Sol (Images of Frieda Kahlo)
    1994 Living Legends Award for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement from the National Black Arts Festival.
      Blood Memories.
      Lehman Award "for the advancement of dance in our society."
      American Dance Guild Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement.
    1995 Shimmy
      "Trailblazers: Dancers of Change," a retrospective by the Los Angeles Dance Theatre, staged at Ford Theatre in Los Angeles, California.
    1995 Became Artistic Mentor and Resident Choreographer of the José Limón Dance Company.
    1997 Distinguished Faculty Lectureship Award for Research from the University of California.
      Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching at the American Dance Festival.
      City and County of Denver proclaim "Masterworks: A Tribute to Donald McKayle Days."
    1998 "Infinite Journey: Donald McKayle's Life in Dance," an exhibit of materials from McKayle's archive, mounted in the Muriel Reynolds Gallery at the UCI Libraries.

    Concert Dance Choreology

    Note: The following choreology (a chronology of a choreographer's work) indicates the years of creation and premiere of concert dance pieces. It does not include McKayle's choreography in other genres such as theater and film. Unless otherwise noted, the pieces are ensemble dances.

    Missing Title

    1948 Saturday's Child,
    1950 Songs of the Forest,
      Creole Afternoon,
    1951 Games
    1952 Nocturne
      Her Name Was Harriet
    1953 They Called Her Moses
      Four Excursions
    1954 The Street
      Prelude To Action
      American Folk Suite
    1957 Muse In The Mews
    1958 Out Of The Chrysalis
    1959 Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder
    1960 One, Two, Three Follow Me
    1961 Legendary Landscape
    1962 District Storyville
    1963 Blood of The Lamb
    1964 Cross-town
      Daughters of the Garden
    1965 Incantation
    1966 Burst of Fists
    1967 Black New World
    1972 Migrations
      Songs of the Disinherited
    1973 Sojourn
    1974 Barrio
    1976 Album Leaves
      Blood Memories
    1977 Argot
      Mountain of Spices
    1982 Ricochet
    1983 Solaris
    1984 Collage
      Vévé (Vever)
    1985 Looking for Jerusalem
    1986 Beneath the Baobab
    1987 Twilight, solo for Gregg Lizenbery
    1990 Ring-a-levio
      Distant Drum
    1991 Sombra Y Sol (Images of Frida Kahlo)
      Infinite Journey
    1992 House of Tears
    1993 Mysteries and Raptures
    1994 Vigils
      Gumbo Ya-Ya
      Blood Memories
    1995 When I Grow Up ...When I Was A Child
    1996 Rainbow Etude
    1997 Heartbeats
      Delicious Obsession
      Seven Deadly Sins
      In the Deep Dreaming of My Hands
    1998 Supplication

    Scope and Content

    Photographs, programs, production notes, music scores, audio and video recordings, costume designs, reviews, and other printed and graphic materials illustrate the eclectic career of world-renowned choreographer and University of California, Irvine Professor of Dance Donald McKayle. Early materials pertain to his youth in Harlem and his performance career in New York City in concert dance theater and television. The bulk of the collection documents McKayle's career as the choreographer of over fifty concert dance pieces between 1948 and 1998 and as a director or choreographer for theatrical productions both off and on Broadway, including Raisin and Sophisticated Ladies . The materials illustrate the development of individual choreographic pieces, the evolution of McKayle as an artist and his career as a dance educator.
    Photographs and printed items, including programs, reviews, and clippings, constitute the vast majority of the McKayle Papers. In general, these materials pertain to Donald McKayle's concert dance choreography and his work in theater. Night club acts, television specials and films on which he worked are also represented in the collection. Other significant materials include drafts of his currently unpublished autobiography, provisionally entitled I Will Dance with You; his curriculum vitae; a complete choreology; videotapes of performances and interviews; and musical items such as recordings, scores, and lyrics. A few production notes and notebooks and research materials are in the collection, but these notes do not provide comprehensive documentation of McKayle's production career.
    The collection is organized in eleven series based on format and genre of the materials. The collection begins with biographical items that illustrate McKayle's early life and career in dance, as well as published items and an autobiography that elaborate on his entire career. Programs, scripts, photographs, videos, scores and lyrics document his careers in choreography and dance performance. Graphic materials, including costume designs and posters, illustrate only a few theatrical productions and dance pieces. Critical reviews, clippings and various publicity materials provide nearly comprehensive documentation of McKayle's life in dance. The remainder of the collection is comprised of a smattering of correspondence from colleagues and students and items pertaining to his life as a UCI professor of dance and a professional artist active on national advisory boards and various committees.
    Within each series, materials are arranged by the genres of performing arts McKayle worked in, including concert dance, film, nightclub acts, television, theatre and recordings. Under those headings, the items are generally arranged in alphabetical order by the title of the piece. Dates, when known, are provided after the title of the piece. Most choreographic works have been and continue to be performed numerous times, thus the creation date of a piece does not necessarily correspond to the date of a particular item about the piece. For example, there are numerous reviews of McKayle' definitive work Games, spanning from 1960 to 1995. Frequently, a single performance encompassed several of McKayle works. These multiple bills and retrospectives follow the single dance performances and are arranged either by the title of the first piece or by the dance company giving the retrospective.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    African American dancers.
    Costume design drawings.
    Dance cards
    Photographic prints
    Sound recordings.
    Video recordings
    Dance -- Archives
    Negatives (photographic)
    Dance in motion pictures, television, etc. -- United States
    Choreography -- United States -- History -- Sources
    Modern dance -- United States -- History -- Sources
    Dance teachers.
    Online Archive of California
    University of California, Irvine -- Faculty -- Archives
    McKayle, Donald -- Archives