By Walter Rutledge
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 early 1930’s her father, Panama native Alfred Bruce Abbott, purchased a brownstone on West Mount Morris Park. Abbott 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 East on Mount Morris Park (renamed Marcus Garvey Park). Loretta Agatha Abbott was born a year later.
Loretta began taking piano, voice and dance lessons at age five. She 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.
A graduate of Hunter College Loretta briefly worked as a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 90 in Harlem, but soon 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.
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).
“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”.
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”.
“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.
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 resulted in 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 mural is in the permanent collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. 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.
On The Block Excerpt with Loretta Abbott
“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. Loretta shared her enduring career 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.”
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.
Sentimental Reason (edit)
In the spring of 2016 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; and with the aid of a walker, she made her way across 125 Street to the Faison Firehouse Theater at 6 Hancock Place for rehearsal on Friday, May 27. She died peacefully the following Sunday.
“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.”
“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.
Special Thanks to: Keith Dames, George Faison, Naomi Goldberg, Jean Hill, Olivia Perkins, Tad Schnugg, and Jill Williams