Donald McKayle

Donald McKayle was a pioneering modern dancer—one of the first to combine his African-American heritage with the language of contemporary dance—and he had deep connections to Jacob’s Pillow spanning more than 50 years. He was born in Manhattan, to Jamaican-born parents who encouraged his arts interests. At 14, he saw performances by Katherine Dunham and Martha Graham, but it would be three more years before he began training in earnest as a scholarship student at New Dance Group, taking classes with Sophie Maslow, Mary Anthony, Pearl Primus, Jean-Léon Destiné, and others. Within the next three years, he would create his first dance work—the instant classic Games—around the same time that he made his Broadway debut, dancing in the chorus of a Pearl Bailey revue, Bless You All. His meteoric rise had begun, and he established his own concert dance company soon afterwards. One of the group’s first bookings was in 1953 at Jacob’s Pillow, where the program consisted of Games and a premiere called Nocturne, and among McKayle’s dancers was a talented teenager named Arthur Mitchell. (John Lindquist’s photo captures McKayle in costume.)

McKayle’s company continued its presence at the Pillow throughout the 1950s and 60s, and an outdoor performance of the classic Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder was broadcast from the Pillow as part of a nationwide PBS program in 1969. By this time, McKayle had returned to Broadway, but now as a choreographer and director rather than in the chorus. Among his most successful shows were Golden Boy, Sophisticated Ladies, and most importantly, Raisin, which he directed and choreographed, earning him two Tony nominations. He returned to Jacob’s Pillow as a faculty member in 1994, which led to several more teaching engagements over the next decade, and a position on the Pillow Board for eight years beginning in 1999. He participated in various PillowTalks, including one launching his autobiography, Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life; engaged in creative residencies with the Limón Dance Company; and took part in Gala programs (including his role as Executive Producer of the 65th Anniversary Gala in 1997. Meanwhile, he became a long-serving faculty member at UC Irvine, and it was at a hospital near his Irvine home where he died in April 2018 at the age of 87. (For more on McKayle, see
Source of Biography
Written by Norton Owen for Jacob's Pillow Remembers
Related Productions
Blood of the Lamb (dancer)
Crossroads (participated)
Games (dancer)
Nocturne (dancer)
Opening Drum Homage (dancer)
Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder (dancer)
Spring Concerto (costume designer)
Related Works
Blood of the Lamb (choreographer)
Games (choreographer)
Heartbeats (choreographer)
Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder (choreographer)