Preview: Dancing Wheels, the Angels, CJO & The Duke

Featuring Donald McKayle’s World Premiere

This weekend Dancing Wheels Company and School teams up with Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and Singing Angels in an all Duke Ellington program, ALL THAT’S JAZZ! A highlight of this program will be the world premiere of a new dance choreographed by Donald McKayle who was honored in 2005 at the Kennedy Center for the Arts as a Master of African American Choreography; one among many honors and awards.

The prominent and prolific African-American choreographer has been a fixture in the dance scene since 1948. After winning recognition for his choreography when he was still in high school, McKayle danced in the companies of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow, and Charles Weidman, and as a guest artist for many others. He danced, choreographed, and directed for many Broadway shows, including the Tony-winning RAISIN, which he directed and choreographed.

Any of us who watched television between 1951 and 1985 has seen more of McKayle’s choreography than we know.

McKayle’s works have been and still are performed by many dance companies. Those of us who remember Cleveland Ballet may recall that company’s performance of McKayle’s GAMES (1951) or their world premieres of his HOUSE OF TEARS (1992-93) OR MYSTERIES AND RAPTURES (1993-94).

We spoke with McKayle by phone.

Cool Cleveland: How did you get started in dance?
Donald McKayle: I started choreographing in 1948. In fact, I choreographed before I started to dance. I saw a dancer, a wonderful woman named Pearl Primus, and I immediately wanted to do it. So I gathered my friends and made a dance. (Laughs)

No training required.
DM: Just went straight ahead at it. Then I followed her (Primus) to The New Dance Group and I went to audition for a scholarship and they told me ‘No, I had no training; I couldn’t audition,’ so I said, ‘If you don’t like me you can throw me out but you can’t throw me out without seeing me.’ So I auditioned and I said, ‘My God, I really don’t know very much’ but they saw something because when I came back to thank them, my name was posted. So that was the beginning for me. I took everything I could and watched everything I could and walked up and down the Broadway area looking for signs of dance that was going on. At that time you could get a ticket to sit in the balcony for $4.80 so I saw a whole lot of dance.

How would you characterize your work?
DM: My work is very much from a humanistic point of view. I’m very interested in the human race and how we relate to each other. That’s an ongoing process. I’m never without something to do because I’m always interested in how human beings are. I’ve done over a hundred works. Not all of them are recorded but those that are, you can take a peek.

Your work is not hard to find on You Tube. Of course there are many versions of RAINBOW ROUND MY SHOULDER (1952).
DM: One thing on You Tube that’s very amusing to me – people told me about it and I watched it – I’m dancing with Diana Ross. Of course, it’s from a television show, Hollywood Palace. It’s very well shot. Soupy Sales was the MC and he goes through a funny bit. It was interesting, because Diana Ross is not a dancer, but I had to make her look wonderful – that was my job – so she looks fine and I’m dancing with her, just knocking myself out. Very simple steps, but it’s a very nice piece.

This is easy to find on You Tube if you search “Donald McKayle Diana Ross Soupy Sales.” Sales’ intro goes on for a full 4 minutes but you do make Ross look good, your background in serious concert dance notwithstanding, and you crank out period perfect pop / soul dancing. Who is Duke Ellington to you? And please tell us about this piece of music you’ve choreographed to.
DM: Ellington is one of the greatest jazz artists that ever existed. I worked with him several times before he died. I love his work. This particular piece of music that we’ve been using is 4 movements from his FAR EAST SUITE; it makes quite wonderful, skillful use of different themes from Asia and the Middle East. When I was with the Martha Graham Dance Company we traveled through Asia and danced and watched dance and heard music and I just thought it was terrific when I heard Duke’s interpretation. When I was approached by Dancing Wheels and asked to do a work for them, they told me that they would be working with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. I said, ‘How wonderful!’ They brought out several pieces of music and I said, ‘I know which one I’d like to do.’ And that’s how it all got together.

You worked with Ellington? Please explain.
DM: I worked with Duke on television in THE STROLLING TWENTIES, which was a television special that was arranged by Harry Belafonte. It featured many fine African-American artists and Duke and his whole orchestra were part of it. [Then] Duke and I did another television program, DRUM IS A WOMAN on ABC. That’s a marvelous work of his — it’s not done very much – for orchestra and singers. And I was working with Duke on QUEENIE PIE – that was his opera buffa – and we’d just started it when he passed away and that never got done. So I’ve had a few journeys with Duke, all very exciting and wonderful. Then, after Duke passed away, I did SOPHISTICATED LADIES on Broadway, which used his vast repertoire.

How does FAR EAST OF THE BLUES fit in with the rest of your work?
DM: It’s a completely different challenge for me. Mary Verdi-Fletcher has been asking me for years to do something for the company and I didn’t know just what I would do with an integrated company — people in chairs and what they call stand up dancers – but this time I said ‘I’ll do it.’ I’m very happy with the piece; it’s a nice work and they do it very, very well.

This is the first dance you’ve done for an integrated wheelchair / standup company?
DM: Completely the first, yes.

Can you characterize your intentions for the piece?
DM: I wanted the piece to have the same kind of atmosphere that Duke was working for. So it had a feeling for the different movement styles that belonged to those areas that the music belongs to. The first piece is THE BLUEBIRD OF DELHI and it has – not really Indian – more like Balinese movements. To fit the wheelchair work into it was so exciting because I could get flowing movement that you can’t do without wheelchairs. That was what got me so excited. There’s a trio for just the wheelchairs, a duet for 2 standup dancers, and a group work, which uses both the standup and the wheelchair dancers. I just came into rehearsals and said, ‘Let’s go,’ and off we went.

What part of Dancing Wheels’ mission resonates with you?
DM: Mary has been a champion of arts and access always, and I think that Dancing Wheels is one of the longest-lived integrated companies around. She sent me DVD’s of material that they had done with other choreographers and I got very intrigued. You have one wonderful choreographer in Cleveland, Diane McIntyre. She’s done work for Dancing Wheels and I think the world of her work.

Also on the program, the world premiere of HALF THE FUN, choreographed by Robert Wesner, and a revival of TAKE THE ‘A’ TRAIN (1997), choreographed by Sabatino Verlezza. 16 members of Cleveland Jazz Orchestra play live onstage throughout the concert. Singing Angels will perform several Ellington pieces. Members of the Junior Company from Dancing Wheels School will also perform. The concert at 7:30PM Sat5/1 at the State Theatre will be followed by a benefit gala. Tickets for the performance are $25, $15, and $12. Gala tickets are $100, which includes a Dress Circle seat for the performance. Tickets thru Playhouse Square, 216-241-6000 or or thru Dancing Wheels, 216-432-0306 or

From Cool Cleveland contributors Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas. Elsa and Vic are both longtime Clevelanders. Elsa is a landscape designer. She studied ballet as an avocation for 2 decades. Vic has been a dancer and dance teacher for most of his working life, performing in a number of dance companies in NYC and Cleveland. They write about dance as a way to learn more and keep in touch with the dance community. E-mail them at

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