6/17/16 O&A NYC- A CELEBRATION OF LIFE: Loretta Abbott

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Loretta Abbott, dancer, actress, singer and choreographer passed away on Sunday June 5, 2016. A natural performer Abbott had two passions: her love for dance that spanned over 70 years, and her allegiance to the Harlem community where she lived her entire life.

In the 1930’s her father, Panama native Alfred Bruce Abbott, purchased a brownstone at 35 West Mount Morris Park and moved his wife Agatha (formerly of Kingston, Jamaica) and their two daughters Olivia and Iris from their west 143rd Street apartment to the brownstone facing Mount Morris Park.

She  began taking piano, voice and dance lessons at age five. Loretta quickly developed a love and aptitude for dance, studying with Ruth Williams and legendary tap teacher Henry La Tang. Loretta soon began performing in children’s talent shows throughout Harlem.

“I met Loretta when we were both 5 years old”, shared childhood friend Jean Hill. “We danced at the Ella Gordon’s Peter Pan Kiddies. When it closed we all went to Ruth Williams and Henry La Tang at 29 West 125th Street”. Later Abbott studied with Charles Weidman, Paul Sanasardo and at The New Dance Group and Clark Center with Thelma Hill, James Truitte, and Pepsi Bethel.

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A graduate of Hunter College Loretta briefly worked as a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 90 in Harlem, but returned to her true calling dance. She appeared in the May 1960 Lenox Hill Playhouse production of Howard Richardson and William Berney’s Dark Of The Moon directed by Vinnette Caroll. This became Loretta’s first opportunity to work emerging choreographer Alvin Ailey.

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In the early 60’s Loretta joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She held the distinction of being the last partner to dance with Ailey in his masterwork Revelations prior to his retirement from the stage in 1964. The two danced together in the Wade In The Water (from the second section Take Me To The Water) and Yellow Section (from the third movement Move, Members, Move).

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“When I quit the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater I became concerned”, remarked Abbott. “What next? If anything… Thank God I didn’t have to worry long! With all the inspiring new choreographers who needed dancers to experiment at Clark Center I was busy”.

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Abbott began working with many emerging choreographers including Walter Nicks, Talley Beatty, Geoffrey Holder, Eleo Pomare, Louis Johnson, Marvin Gordon, Jean Leon Destine, Fred Benjamin, Andy Torres, Glenn Brooks and Donald McKayle. While working with Water Nicks she met dancer Al Perryman, who became a lifelong friend and dance partner. The two worked with many of the same choreographers and dance companies; and performed in the Tony Award winning Broadway musical Purlie. Their partnership became renowned in dance circles and the two were given the moniker “The Dynamic Duo”.

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“For some reason, Al Perryman and I were always put together to partner one another thus The Dynamic Duo was born”, said Abbott.  Comfortable in many areas of dance and dance theatre Loretta appeared in a number of theatrical productions including Two Gentlemen of Verona, Raisin, Porgy and Bess, Amen Corner, Liza With A Z, and The Wiz movie. Loretta created her own solo-touring program, Women of Color, and developed an act with Perryman.

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In 1971 Loretta became an original member of the George Faison Universal Dance Experience. Her expressive dance style and willingness to work with many choreographers caused Tony Award winner and former Ailey Company member Faison to refer to Abbott as “Dial a Dancer”, and the “Bette Davis of the dance world.” Faison cast Abbott as the lead in his dance allegory Gazelle and continued to work with her throughout her life.

Abbott supported many organizations including the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center. “I personally thought of her as the patron saint of Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center (THPAC)”, states THPAC Executive Chairman Alex Smith Jr. “She was the first one I ever encountered at a THPAC event. It was 1985 on a warm late spring day. I had never heard of THPAC before. She was the MC at a special tribute honoring Al Perryman at BAM.” 

At the suggestion of former Ailey alum Hope Clarke, Loretta Abbott became part of the Nanette Bearden Contemporary Dance Theatre’s production of On The Block (After Bearden) based on the six-panel mural The Block by Romare Bearden. The story ballet choreographed by Walter Rutledge featured 15 dancers including Clarke, Dudley Williams, Andrea Long (Dance Theatre of Harlem) and Dartanian Reed (American Ballet Theatre) and an inter-generational cast ranging from 14 to 65 plus.

“Loretta was a true professional her attention to detail and nuance became both inspiring and educational,” explains Rutledge. “In one rehearsal after working on a small gesture she asked me, ‘What was her childhood like?’ At first the question perplexed me because we were not going to revisits this characters past, but then I understood- for Loretta this information became part of the character development.”

Loretta became a founding member of Clark Center NYC; an organization dedicated to the history and legacy of her beloved dance space. In December of 2013, she was featured in the organization’s first public event at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture talking about her enduring career and focusing on the support and training she received at Clark Center. She continued to perform for the organization at the 92nd St. Y in April 2015.

In 2015 THPAC honored Abbott with A Conversation With Loretta Abbott moderated by THPAC Artistic Advisor Walter Rutledge. The evening featured Abbott sharing her artistic approach to dance and recounted her diverse career. When asked about her artistic approach Abbott responded, “I’m always in character even if I was playing a rock I’d want to know am I on a mountain or by the sea? Am I smooth or jagged? Am I a dark rock or light rock, a boulder or a pebble? All that will affect the kind of rock I am.”

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The evening culminated with a performance of Sentimental Reasons commissioned by Dancers For A Variable Population and choreographed by Rutledge especially for Abbott and himself. The work was a tribute to the often-comedic performances from Abbott and Perryman. The work was performed at the August 2015 performance of Earl Mosley’s Hearts Of Men– this was Loretta’s last public performance.

This spring Dances For A Variable Population commissioned a duet featuring Loretta Abbott and George Faison for The Phoenix Project. Recuperating from a debilitating stroke Abbott would walk from the family brownstone. With the aid of a walker she made her way to the Faison Firehouse Theater at 6 Hancock Place for rehearsals on Friday, May 27.

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On Friday, June 3 after missing two rehearsals Faison became concerned. He called Rutledge, and he and her friend Keith Dames went to her residence and could not gain access. The police were summoned but refused to open her door. Her body was retrieved on Sunday June 5.

“Loretta lived as a true dance gypsy. Dance wasn’t a career it was her life. A truly gentle and sensitive soul Loretta could be fiercely protective of the people and dance works she treasured”, reminisced Rutledge. “We are all better artists and human being for knowing her.”

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When you look at Loretta Abbott you see a dancer who dedicated her entire life practicing the art she loved the most -dance.  Her contribution to the development and preservation of dance theater was invaluable.  She is considered a pioneer among dancers who collaborated with master choreographers like Alvin Ailey, Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty and George Faison.  Her dance portrayals were legendary.  She was the Bette Davis of Dance.”- George Faison

Her sister Olivia Perkins, three nieces, two nephews and her adopted dance family mourn her passing and celebrate her life.

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The Phoenix Project performance on Saturday June 18, 6pm at Harlem Piers is dedicated to Loretta’s memory and a Celebration of Life will follow at Faison Firehouse Theater at 8pm. The Thelma Hill Performing Art Center will dedicate their 40th Anniversary Season June 19 through June 22 to Abbott and there will be a special performance of For Sentimental Reasons featuring Rutledge and Shirley Black Brown on June 22, 7:30pm.

Special Thanks to: Keith Dames, George Faison, Naomi Goldberg, Jean Hill, Olivia Perkins, Tad Schnugg,  and Jill Williams

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13 Comments

  1. A truly beautiful spirit.

  2. Walter, thank you for your sensitive and informative memorial of the life of a truly wonderful and gifted dancer. She always meets one with that great smile and looks deep into your eyes as she enquires after your heath etc. I met Loretta at the Ailey’s during the 60s, my early years, I would always be in the wings watching her and Alvin performing Wade In the Water from his Revelations.
    Clive T. ,

  3. The correct date for the Celebration is Saturday, June 18th.

  4. I had the privilege of meeting this wonderful woman in 2009, on a visit to New York. She was generous, kind and inspiring and I’ve treasured our brief meeting ever since… a beautiful spirit, indeed.

  5. The most beautiful spirit I have ever meet!

  6. I can’t say that I personally knew her. But in the last ten years where I have attend various cultural events around New York, I would always see her in attendance. This was year round-no matter what the season was. I would run into her at events Downtown as well as Uptown. Any event that dealt with dance and it’s history one could see her there. I last saw her this past Spring up at the Schomburg Center. It was for a screening of a new documentary on Mary Lou Williams. As always, she was there in attendance, giving her support. But I remember attending a event at the Schomburg last year. A very small group was assembled in the lobby waiting to go in. I found myself in a conversation with her and another lady. She attributed the low attendance this night due to people viewing the event live via the internet. Ms. Abbott pointed out that she always attends in person. She stated ‘it’s better for our community and young people to go to these events in person rather than always being on the computer.’ It’s gonna be strange not seeing her in attendance at any future cultural events. It’s also very sad that she is no longer with us. She gave a lot to our community! GOD BLESS HER SPIRIT!

  7. Thank you for this. I too shared her love of dance.

  8. Thank you, Mr. Rutledge.
    This angel, Loretta Abbott, who made it her business to secretly find out the birth dates of everyone with whom she danced/worked and followed through by sending, at the appropriate time, a card signed with ‘love’, has been in my heart since 1967, when first we met. Then, to go on and live, laugh, and love the whole damn thing of life, we both celebrated the fact we, despite the difficulties of the times, were doing exactly what were supposed to be doing on the planet… with pleasure! I discovered she never was NOT Dancing. Happily, her life-lesson spilled on me along the way. Experiencing Loretta Abbott in venues the likes of dancing with Ailey (Sokolow’s “Rooms”); “Revelations,” of course; McKayle’s “They Called Her Moses; Griffin’s “Left of Spring”; and teaching for Paul Sanasardo remain with me, and will. No doubt she still is dancing… I loved my friend.
    Clay

  9. In addition to all her other dance accomplishments, Loretta will be missed by the swing dance community. She was the last person to serve as Louise “Mama Lu” Parks assistant, and performed with the company in those last seasons, taught many social swing dance classes in the Harlem community, and was a regular at Harlem social swing dance events.
    Thank you, Loretta, for keeping the Harlem swing dance flame going. You were a colorful, beloved presence, and will be missed.

  10. A wonderful human being and a great artist in all respects, I am grateful I had the chance to get to know her.

  11. Thank you for your article. I would like to add a few important details concerning Lorretta Abbott’s jazz dance activities. She danced the Lindy Hop, Harlem’s folk dance or better said the dance of Harlem which was created by George ‘Shorty’ Snowden and his partner, Mattie Purnell at Harlem’s Rockland Palace between June and July 1928. She also danced other Harlem-based jazz dances. You can see her dancing with Albert ‘Al’ Minns and Sugar Sullivan in this clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvegobsHOVE . The late Al Minns and Sugar Sullivan (still around), both from Harlem, trained her in the Lindy Hop and in those jazz dance routines seen in the clip. She was part of Marleen Pennison’s modern dancers at that time. They can also be seen in the clip. She was also part of the late Louise ‘Mama Lou’ Parks Duncanson’s (who was part of the Harlem jazz dance scene) Jazz Dancers (more information about Mama Lou Parks Duncanson can be found at https://authenticjazzdance.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/mama-lou-parks-by-terry-monaghan/ ). This jazz dance side of Loretta’s dance activities should not be forgotten. She was a modern dancer, but she also was an authentic jazz dancer. In fact, Loretta participated frequently in Harlem jazz dance events, so she never forgot where she came from.

    All the Best, Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, Harlem jazz dance researcher in the University of Helsinki.

  12. Rita L. Carrington

    Well done I did not know her as well as others. but did attend The Ella Gordon, Peter Pan Kiddies dance Studio at the same time that Loretta and her two older sisters were studens She was a special person

  13. Thank you for your article. I would like to add a few important details concerning Loretta Abbott’s jazz dance activities. She danced the Lindy Hop, Harlem’s folk dance or better said the dance of Harlem which was created by George ‘Shorty’ Snowden and his partner, Mattie Purnell at Harlem’s Rockland Palace between June and July 1928. She also danced other Harlem-based jazz dances. You can see her dancing with Albert ‘Al’ Minns and Sugar Sullivan in this clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvegobsHOVE . The late Al Minns and Sugar Sullivan (still around), both from Harlem, trained her in the Lindy Hop and in those jazz dance routines seen in the clip. She was part of Marleen Pennison’s modern dancers at that time. They can also be seen in the clip. She was also part of the late Louise ‘Mama Lou’ Parks Duncanson’s (who was part of the Harlem jazz dance scene) Jazz Dancers (more information about Mama Lou Parks Duncanson can be found at https://authenticjazzdance.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/mama-lou-parks-by-terry-monaghan/ ). This jazz dance side of Loretta’s dance activities should not be forgotten. She was a modern dancer, but she also was an authentic jazz dancer. In fact, Loretta participated frequently in Harlem jazz dance events, so she never forgot where she came from.

    All the Best, Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, Harlem jazz dance researcher in the University of Helsinki.

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