Notes from a Danceaturg - February 15, 2010

Professor Neil Baldwin shares his thoughts on the weekend with Donald McKayle

I was sitting in the bleachers of Life Hall Room 123 Dance Studio watching Donald McKayle setting his masterpiece Games on our students this past weekend when a line from a 1904 poem by W.B. Yeats, Adam’s Curse, leaped unsolicited into my head: “We must labor to be beautiful.” A minute later, McKayle slowly arose from his chair and ambled out among the perspiring students who were breathing heavily with their hands on their hips. He peered over his tinted glasses, stared at them, and said, “I am going to make you do this until you get it right, so don’t waste my time.”

I could not help chuckling to myself. Although his message was tough, his voice was low and kindly. “You get me? You understand what I’m saying to you?” he asked the gathered crowd. “Yes, sir” they responded meekly. “What? I can’t hear you!” “Yes!” they called out as one – to which McKayle said, “Well. Thank you,” and returned to his seat.

McKayle told me several times over the past three days that he “didn’t dance any more,” but that depends upon one’s definition of “dance.” McKayle danced -- with his lovely, melodious voice and his superbly gestural arms and hands, and his swaying torso – hardly able to remain on the sidelines dispensing words of wisdom for hours and hours at a time, his unquenchable metabolism on one unfaltering level.

We had in hand the Labanotated score from the 1970s; we had access to videos of this six-decades old work (McKayle was twenty when began assembling childrens’ street songs from research in the Library of Congress archives); we had Lula and Tamica Washington’s ideas and input; we had Beth McPherson’s constant scholarly and practical guidance; and Robin Hoffman from the DNB feverishly writing nonstop (with three extra sharpened pencils stuck into her swept-up hair).

When the Master himself arrived at MSU and took charge, it wasn’t long before the choreographic ground began to shift. Not half an hour into the first session, McKayle called out “Zero contractions!” whereas the Graham technique was assumed to be integral to the piece, based upon past observations. Here was a man who honed in on each and every nuance, every beat (as well as the silences between beats, the omnipresent rhythm under everything), and every extension. Walking among the students, he cajoled and coaxed and revealed his true dance captain mentality.

“What’s happening with you?” McKayle asked Josh. “Why did you do that?” he asked Tiana. “Try to remember everything I have just told you,” he said to Carlos. “I never watched you but now I’m watching you,” he warned Lisa. “What are you thinking? Let me see some attitude!” he demanded of Julian. “You can’t riff it without getting it,” he said to Nick. “Don’t tell me it’s hard – I know it!” he admonished Greg.  “Scream like you’re in terror,” he told Arielle. “I have to hear every word,” he told Sandy and Jackie, the singers.

And on many occasions McKayle would turn to the cast who were not rehearsing, and sharply remind them to pay attention to those who were: “You are part of an ensemble,” McKayle said. “You have to realize that you are a group! Everybody has an action that is concurrent. I have to see this dance in your bodies otherwise the audience will not understand.”  

I had another epiphany while watching him rehearse a very intricate Double-Dutch jump-rope sequence. There was no actual rope, of course; it needed to be a “rope of the imagination.” This placed additional responsibility upon two of the girls; their pantomime had to be exactly accurate: which hand they were holding the rope and how they switched the two interweaving ropes when the swirling reached its height.  The jumper had to keep up her pace against the increasing velocity of the invisible rope at her feet, or they would become entangled – well, not really entangled…but it had to appear that way.

Over and over and over again, McKayle asked the students to go through the motions with an extreme sense of the reality of it all. “You need to act!” he said, “A – C – T! I need to believe what I’m seeing. Look sassy!”

This imposition extended to the street songs. He broke them down into phrases and single words and interrogated the kids about their meanings, many of which were archaic and alien; but McKayle expected them to know what they were singing about, otherwise, how could they enact the narrative?

“Dance is my medium and theatre is my home,” he wrote in a 1965 essay, The Act of Theatre. Bearing witness to this statement so many decades later, it comes vibrantly to life. Through dance, McKayle tells a story, and in the case of Games, it has a beginning, middle and end, parts I, II and III: Play, Hunger, Terror. The medium of dance possesses its vocabulary suited to the personality of the inventor/choreographer. Our students have been studying this system of communication, preparing to the best of their ability to convey it to an audience.

When the choreographer intervenes, he brings with him, in his DNA, the historical record built up since youth in East Harlem and the Bronx, and memories of those brownstone-lined streets. He observes the new generation portraying his remembered language and then – despite so-called “notations” and “interpretations” of bygone years, begins anew. That’s the theatre of it all with McKayle’s work, and I see it, now that I have literally seen it: He is at most at home emotionally when he is out there, quite literally in action.

The theatricality of theatre – the element that requires an audience for it to come alive – that’s what Donald McKayle thrives upon. In this respect he himself is ageless and this work possesses a timeless quality, propelled forward into the future, not only by momentum of the accretions of the past, but also by the sheer fact that our dancers are the same age as McKayle was when he made Games.

All of the italicized words in this short letter do not do justice to the stratospheric energy that filled our dance studio for the past three days. What a thrill…and we have it all on tape!