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Donald McKayle


In the final show of Repertory Dance Theatre’s 57th Season, FLIGHT, RDT will present Donald McKayle’s I’ve Known Rivers (2005) danced by Ursula Perry.  This is the fourth piece of Mr. McKayle’s that RDT is proud to have in its living library of masterworks.  The others include Games (1951), RDT acquired in 1975; Nocturne (1953), RDT acquired in 1969; Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (1959), RDT acquired in 2019.

RDT values the art of dance to docutrip 1ment history and culture, to inspire change, to increase learning, and to create a path toward a healthier society and people. Equity, equality, and inclusivity are core values of RDT and have been integral to planning and programming decisions since the company’s inception.

In 1967, RDT became the first integrated professional dance company in Utah, and our first major commission went to a renowned African American performer and choreographer, Geoffrey Holder. Shortly after, RDT added the work of another noted black choreographer, Donald McKayle. In the spring of 1969, RDT performed McKayle’s Nocturne, and in 1975 we added his Games to our repertory.

To develop a greater awareness of the importance of black artists in American culture, RDT created an initiative called Manifest Diversity which focuses on developing annual commissions, concerts, residencies, classes, and workshops spotlighting the work of African American artists. As part of that initiative, we acquired McKayle’s masterwork, Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder in 2019, and in April of 2023, RDT will perform I’ve Known Rivers.

Ursula Perry on I've Known Rivers

I’ve Known Rivers by Donald McKayle is a solo fueled by emotion based on the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes.

While learning this piece, I was encouraged to look at my relationship with water,  and what memorable and impactful events throughout my life involved water. Its power to clean, demolish, and renew were all on my mind as I dove into the movement and its meaning.

Repertory Dance Theatre has the privilege of performing so many historical works that span over decades. McKayle’s work is one of my favorites to visit. While he is quoted as saying his work is for all, it is something to be a black body performing work made on and by other black bodies. The rigor and history that is embedded within the creation of steps. The specific meaning of each movement is open to interpretation by whomever is performing. The ever changing wave of emotion that is intrinsic throughout, all takes both the performer and the viewer on a powerful journey.

As always with McKayle's work, the music is the real star of this piece. The powerful voice that so vigorously belts the poem by Hughes and the movement are so keenly intertwined. This allows a symbiotic storytelling that pulls emotional depth out of both the viewer and performer. 

I feel it is an honor to be a part of a company that is preserving modern dance history. It is always said you cannot know where you are going, unless you know where you have been, and this work is no exception. This piece not only explores the past, but is ever relevant in the present. Works like this are few and far between, and it is an honor to perform such an inspiring and thought provoking part of modern dance history.

I've Known RiversDonald McKayle

World Premiere: August 12, 2005, in Saratoga Springs, NY

Choreography by Donald McKayle

Music: Margaret Bonds

Poem: Langston Hughes – The Negro Speaks of Rivers

This piece is dedicated to the inspiration of the pioneering artist and scholar, Pearl Primus and to the memory of the supreme dancer, Janet Collins.


The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo, and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids about it.

I heard the singing to the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,

and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

This poem connects the soul and heritage of the African American community to four great rivers in the Middle East, Africa, and America.  In this way, the poem charts the journey of African and African Americans and link this community to the birth of civilization.  I’ve Known Rivers was one of the earliest poems written by Langston Hughes in 1920.  He was inspired to write when he was traveling to Mexico by train to visit his father.  When crossing the Mississippi, he thought about how the river was tied to the history of the African people during slavery and how as a young man Abraham Lincoln had traveled down the river and been struck by seeing the slave markets in New Orleans. 

langston hughesLangston Hughes is the poet laureate of African American experience – a popular writer of the Harlem Renaissance who gave hopeful expression to the aspirations of the oppressed, even as he decried racism and injustice.  In addition to poetry, he published fiction, drama, autobiography, and translations.  His work continues to serve as a model of wide empathy and social commitment.

Live reading of the poem by Mr. Hughes


Who was Donald McKayle?

Donald McKayleChoreographer and educator, Donald McKayle was born on July 6, 1930, in New York City.  Inspired by a Pearl Primus performance, he began dancing during his senior year in high school and won a scholarship to the New Dance Group in 1947. The New Dance Group was founded in 1932 during the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929.  It was a community of like-minded individuals dedicated to transformation.  The social, political, and economic upheaval and instability of the United States in the 1930s led many artists to feel a personal responsibility to be agents of change through art. See the history of the New Dance Group here

In 1948, Mckayle choreographed his first piece of work with the New Dance Group and premiered his solo piece, Saturday’s Child.

From 1951-1969, McKayle founded and directed his own dance company, Donald McKayle and Company, which premiered his first major work entitled Games in 1951. McKayle then went on to choreograph masterworks Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder, District Storyville, and Songs of the Disinherited.

He choreographed for Broadway beginning with Golden Boy (1964) followed by I’m Solomon (1969) and Dr. Jazz (1975).  McKayle directed and choreographed Raisin (1974), which was awarded a Tony for best musical.  He was responsible for the entire concept, staging and choreography of the award-winning Sophisticated Ladies (1981).

McKayle also choreographed for films, including Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1970), The Great White Hope (1972), and The Minstrel Man (1976).  McKayle also choreographed for singers such as Harry Belafonte and Rita Moreno.  In 2001, he choreographed the monumental 12-hour production of Tantalus.

He served as the head of the Inner City Repertory Dance Company from 1970-1974 (based in Los Angeles, CA is a thoroughly integrated group of 14 highly trained dancers from both coasts who perform an eclectic repertoire reflecting both their extremely varied backgrounds and those of the choreographers who create for them), and then as choreographer for the Limon Dance Company since 1995. In all, McKayle choreographed over ninety performances for dance companies in the U.S., Canada, Israel, Europe and South America. He has taught a Bennington College, the Juilliard School, the American Dance Festival and in Europe.  McKayle served as the Dean of the School of Dance at California Institute of the Arts, and as Professor of Dance and the Artistic Director for the University of California, Irvine.

McKayle has received numerous honors and awards, including an Outer Critics Circle Award, a NAACP Image Award, the Capezio Award, the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award, the American Dance Guild Award, a living Legend Award from the National Black Arts Festival, two Choreographer’s Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Dance/USA Honors, the Martha Hill Lifetime Achievement Award, the Annual Award from the Dance Masters of America, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dance Under the Stars Choreography Festival, the Black College Dance Exchange Honors, the Dance Magazine Award, and the American Dance Legacy Institute’s Distinguished and Innovative Leadership Award, among others.  In 2005, McKayle was honored at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and presented with a medal as a master of African American Choreography.  He has been named by the Dance Heritage Coalition as “one of America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: the first 100.”

McKayle passed away on April 6, 2018, but his legacy, choreography, teaching and writing continue to inspire dancers world-wide.


Re-Stager is Stephanie Powell.

Stephanie PowellStephanie Powell grew up in Bakersfield, California and started dancing when she accompanied her cousin to a class at age two. She trained at Civic Dance Center with Cindy Trueblood, Pacific Northwest Ballet School on scholarship, and the School of American Ballet.

Powell earned her BA in Sociology and Education from the University of California at Berkeley and her MFA in Dance, with distinction, from University of California at Irvine. At the latter school, Powell was a Chancellor’s Fellow and was the recipient of the Celebration of Teaching Award and the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Claire Trevor School for the Arts. During this time, she met Donald McKayle, who “made Powell his muse.” He created a solo piece for her entitled I’ve Known Rivers.

Her professional career started at Oakland Ballet, where she was a member for six years. Later, as a member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Powell was in the original cast of Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe’s Sasanka (1997) and Arthur Mitchell’s South African Suite (1998).

She has also appeared with San Francisco Opera, Donald Byrd/The Group, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Contemporary West Dance Theatre. In Los Angeles Pantages Theater’s production of the Lion King, she was featured in lead roles dancing, singing, and acting.

Her television credits include the Grammy Awards and the Jay Leno Show, and she has danced for Beyonce, Janet Jackson, MC Hammer, and Kenny G.

Powell has taught at the University of California, Irvine and Debbie Allen Dance Academy.

She is a tenured, full professor of Dance at Long Beach City College, the only “full-time African American faculty member in the Theatre, Dance and Film Department.” For the school, she created their “Dance Showcase” and has been instrumental in obtaining funding for the dance program.

What People are Saying

The diversity of the dancers really spoke to my students! It was great to see boys and girls dancing, and different races. The high level of engagement was so refreshing and got students excited about thecontent.
This activity was valuable because it helped students make connections between dance, rhythm, healthy lifestyles, and expression. The students were impressed by the talent of the dancers and it was motivating to them.
Opportunities for art and expression are so limited at school but so essential and valuable for all students, especially those who struggle to learn through traditional methods. My Kindergarteners have been dancing since you left!
This was so engaging. I looked around the auditorium and every student was watching. Not one person was talking or distracted
This activity is valuable to teachers and students because it gives them a creative outlet. We need movement in the classroom to engage, energize and deepen student learning.
I got great ideas on how to incorporate movement into math and science lessons.
I loved how you made movement and exercise relatable to the students. The dancers were full of energy and there was very little down time so students stayed engaged.
Our children were captivated by the performance. They listened to you and they were learning without knowing. They usually giggle when bodies are shown and talked about. But the way you presented it was so tastefully done, they now do poses and movement around the room and outside. You brokesome barriers and they took that permission and literally ran with it!