Donald McKayle’s 1959 masterwork, Rainbow Round My Shoulder, is acclaimed as a modern dance classic. A searing dramatic narrative, it is set on a chain gang in the American south where prisoners work, breaking rock from “can see to can’t see.” Their aspirations for freedom come in the guise of a woman, first as a vision then as a remembered sweetheart, mother, and wife. The songs that accompany their arduous labor are rich in polyphony and tell a bitter, sardonic, and tragic story. It was created for the Donald McKayle Dance Company, and has been in the repertoire of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Batsheva Dance Company and Dayton Contemporary Dance, among others. The cast in the video excerpt includes Donald McKayle and Mary Hinkson. Continue reading
Dancer, choreographer, educator and author Donald McKayle passed on April 7, 2018 at age 87. In honor of this dance icon O&A NYC posts his 1959 masterwork, Rainbow Round My Shoulder. Continue reading
By Walter Rutledge
Fall is in full swing and is quickly ushering in the holiday arts season. This week we honor dance in Brooklyn, celebrate Jazz on Staten Island, and watch Denzel Washington save a western town. Here are a few of the many events taking place in the city that never sleeps guaranteed to get you Out and About. Continue reading
By Walter Rutledge
On Wednesday June 14, 2016 Donald McKayle’s Rainbow Round My Shoulder received a New York Dance and Performance Award (The Bessies) for Outstanding Revival. The 32 Annual Bessies Awards will take place on Tuesday, October 18, 7:30pm at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House. This review was originally posted by O&A NYC Magazine on April 11th, 2016.
Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance presented Donald Mckayle’s masterwork Rainbow Round My Shoulder during their 2016 New York City season. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company performed the work as guest of the Taylor Company. This marks the second year of Taylor’s new dance initiative, which presents modern dance classics often performed by guest companies. Continue reading
By Walter Rutledge
The New York Dance and Performance Awards, The Bessies, announced the nominees for the 2015-16 season at a press conference on Wednesday July 14 at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center at 280 Broadway. Continue reading
By Walter Rutledge
Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance presented Donald Mckayle’s masterwork Rainbow Round My Shoulder during their 2016 New York City season. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company performed the work as guest of the Taylor Company. This marks the second year of Taylor’s new dance initiative, which presents modern dance classics often performed by guest companies.
Live music by Destan Owens with Michael McElroy and the Broadway Inspirational Voices provided additional authenticity and power. Gary Sieger on guitar helped take us back to the era of segregated restrooms and water fountains. The combination of work songs and blues has been compared by less knowledgeable eyes to the early works of Alvin Ailey. Although these artists excelled in the dance narrative genre and used “Blood Memories” (memories deeply rooted in our past) this is where the comparison ends both stylistically and in content.
Rainbow Round My Shoulder, which depicts the depravity of life on a southern chain gang, is an outstanding example of the storytelling power of dance theatre. The genre has fallen out of style in resent years not because of the lack of interest by the public, but mainly due to the skill required to effectively translate message into movement.
The cast consisted of seven men; Devin Baker, Michael Green, Joshua L. Ishmon, Robert Puliudo, Alvin Rangel, Quentin Apollo Vaughn Sledge and Demetrius Tabron, and one woman Alexis Britford. Each performer approached the work with the attention to detail and the required weight. Modern dance has suffered from training that emphasizes learning (but unfortunately not always mastering) a medley of styles, resulting in a watering down of the discipline. This is especially evident in repertory companies that attempt to offer something for everyone.
To Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s credit the revival retains the modern dance weight and grounded center. At times the company reminisced the testosterone charged Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater of the 70’s and 80’s. Men dancing like men, not forsaking the depth of the contractions for the height of the extensions. When Alexis Britford performed a series of arabesques emanating from contractions in coupe’, she literally channeled Sara Yarborough. Thank you Alexis… Sara is truly missed.
In another strong moment the men clasped their hands as if restrained by manacles. The musculature in their backs talked to us as they performed a series of lunges moving upstage. Some would call this ole school, no, it was simply dancing, real dancing, expressive and earthy. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company articulated McKayle’s poetic, poignant and prophetic declaration on mass incarnation and injustice. A timeless message that still resonates in 2016.
Created in 1959 just four-year after the cowardly murder of 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till, three years after the end of the Birmingham Bus Boycott, and two years after Ku Klux Klansmen stopped a performance of the Ballet Russe looking for “Negress” Raven Wilkinson, McKayle courageously followed in the footsteps of great modern dance choreographers by using his art as a weapon for social and politic change.
Ultimately the difference between nice dances and endearing masterworks is choreographic structure. Rainbow Round My Shoulder not only belongs in the masterwork category, is should be considered one of its archetypes. McKayle uses a finite movement vocabulary establishing a clear, concise and authentic conversation with the audience.
Storytelling involves building an emotional bond with the audience through a series of events. An author manipulates 26 characters in specific (finite) combinations to create words that become sentences and paragraphs. Choreography follows a similar cannon of limiting the movement choices, thus enabling the choreography and choreographer to develop a style and an individual voice.
Choreographers use specific recurring themes in the form of repetition, which the artist as craftsman morphs into theme and variation/ development. McKayle accomplishes this with an unfettered ease using focused imagery and a simplicity of design. During the works rising action McKayle introduces a crossing passage for the seven men grouped in two lines; one line consisting of four men moving a terre’ while the remaining three were en l’air- jumping above them. His ability to create a classic symmetric motif with an odd number of performers recalls the works Martha Graham, one of his former teachers.
When the men are placed upstage while the female soloist worked downstage center it reinforced the imagery of two worlds, the real and surreal/fantasy. As the men take turns subtly reacting to Britford, the spatial relationship and simple gestures fueled the theme of helplessness and impotence.
Finally, as the curtain falls Baker collapses in a downspot upstage right, Britford returns to a spot upstage left. With arms lifted she repeats her opening phrase. Here McKayle has possibly introduced a fourth female image the question becomes who is she- The Angel of Death or the Angel of Mercy?
Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance is a modern dance treasure. The best way to preserve and perpetuate the art form is to share it with the public. Works such as Rainbow Round My Shoulder should not be sequestered in video libraries. Dance is a living art that is best appreciated when performed. Through this initiative the legacy of Paul Taylor and modern dance have a secure future.
In Photo: 1) Alexis Britford and company 2) . Elbert Watson, Melvin Jones, Michihiko Oka, and Ulysses Dove- Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater 3) Devin Baker, Michael Green, Demetrius Tabron, Joshua L. Ishman, Quentin A. Sledge
Photo Credit: 1&3 Sara D. Davis/ ADF 2011, 2) Johan Elbers
By Walter Rutledge
The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) will perform Donald McKayle’s Rainbow Round My Shoulder tonight with Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance at the Koch Theater, Lincoln Center. This is the second season of the new initiative by the Taylor Company to showcase works by emerging choreographer and modern dance masters during their New York City season. O&A NYC Magazine talked with DCDC Artistic Director Debbie Blunden- Diggs about the work and the New York City performances. Continue reading
On Tuesday March 22 the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company performed Donald McKayle’s 1959 modern dance classic Rainbow Round My Shoulder during Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance New York City season. The presentation is part of the Taylor Company’s initiative to present new works by emerging choreographers and modern dance masters. This is the second season of the initiative; season one featured an impressive performance of Doris Humphrey’s Passacaglia and Fugue by the Jose Limon Dance Company.
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Following the performance a reception honoring McKayle was held at the Koch Theater, Lincoln Center. McKayle (84) was greeted by well wishers, and a surprising number of dancers who had performed the work over the past 56 years including former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performers Donna Wood, Elizabeth Roxas, Ailey 2 Artistic Director Emerita Sylvia Waters and Tony Award Winner George Faison. You have two more opportunities to see Rainbow Round My Shoulder on Thursday, March 24 and Saturday March 26. DON’T MISS IT! (Review of Rainbow Round My Shoulder and related interviews to follow shortly.) For tickets visit www.boxoffice.dance.
Rainbow Round My Shoulder photo by Sara D. Davis/ ADF 2011
By Walter Rutledge
Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance (PTAMD) begins its annual New York City Season Tuesday, March 15 at the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center. The three-week, twenty-one performance spring offering runs thru April 3 and will include two New York premieres by Taylor, Sullivaniana and Dilly Dilly- his 143rd and 144th works for the company. The performances will feature live music performed by the renowned Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by long-time Taylor Music Director, Donald York. Continue reading
By Walter Rutledge
Philadanco celebrated the 45th anniversary of the company Friday, April 17 through Sunday, April 19 at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The program entitled Having Our Say…The Voices of Women Choreographers was an homage to the talents of female artists. The concert featured the work of four dance makers Diane McIntyre, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Bebe Miller and Dawn Marie Bazemore; and a tribute to performing artist, the late Mary Hinkson Jackson. Continue reading