By Walter Rutledge
There will be a memorial service for dancer, choreographer and teacher Fred Benjamin on Saturday, August 23rd; 6:30pm at Saint Peters Church, 619 Lexington Avenue at the corner of 53rd Street. Friends, colleagues, former students and company members will speak including Gina Ellis, Marilyn Banks and Mercedes Ellington. The memorial will not present Benjamin’s choreograph through live performance, instead film and photos will be presented. Prior to the start of the service there will be a wine toast to Benjamin, who died of organ failure on December 14, 2013 in Manhattan. He was 69.
Benjamin was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1944. He began dancing at age four at the Elma Lewis’ School of Fine Arts in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Lewis was among the first recipients of the MacArthur Foundation genius grants, it acknowledged her as one of the foremost dance educators in the black community. In 1962 it was Lewis who financed Benjamin’s ballet lessons after his move to New York City.
Lewis also introduced him to choreographer and former member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company Talley Beatty. Benjamin danced with Beatty’s company from 1963 until the company closed in 1966. Beatty became another important mentor, and his jazz infused style that emphasized themes prevalent to the African American experience deeply influenced Benjamin. Throughout his career Benjamin often paid tribute to modern dance pioneer Beatty.
After leaving the Talley Beatty Dance Company, Mr. Benjamin performed on television with the June Taylor Dancers, and on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! and Promises, Promises. He formed the Fred Benjamin Dance Company in 1968. Benjamin’s signature style incorporated elements of his collective experiences, but strongly relied on Beatty’s compositional approach to choreography. What separated Benjamin from many of his contemporaries was his integration of ballet technique and line.
The New York-based Fred Benjamin Dance Company existed primarily without public funding for more than twenty years. Throughout the company’s existence Benjamin remained committed to sharing his gift of dance with the underserved and underexposed. His company was a mainstay of the Harlem Cultural Council’s Dancemobile where the dancers performed on flatbed trucks in various neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs of New York City.
Like many emerging young black choreographers in the 1960s and 1970s, he found a nurturing environment at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan. Organized by Alvin Ailey and Thelma Hill in 1959 at the West Side Y.W.C.A. the organization fostered opportunities for black dancers and choreographers. Benjamin remained associated with the center as a teacher, choreographer and performer until it closed in the 1980s.
Benjamin was chairman of the jazz department and a faculty adviser at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in the 1990s. He recovered from a stroke in 2003, and courageously overcame physical challenges to continue teaching both in the United States and abroad. Benjamin was a beloved taskmaster inspiring the next generation of performers at Steps on Broadway studios where he taught until a few months before his passing.
He is survived by a sister, Ruth Benjamin, and a brother, Kenneth Benjamin Jr.