Beatty, Talley 1923(?)–1995
Talley Beatty 1923(?)–1995
Dancer and choreographer
Described by New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff as “one of America’s best and most underrated choreographers,” Talley Beatty thrilled dance audiences over a career that included performances in seven different decades. Like many other significant choreographers, he started as a dancer with his own highly distinctive style. Beatty was trained as a dancer in the 1930s by the queen of African-American modern dance, Katherine Dunham; his own style extended Dunham’s ideas in unfailingly creative ways. He remained active as a choreographer until his death in 1995.
Beatty was born in Cedar Grove, Louisiana, near Shreveport, but grew up in Chicago on the city’s South Side; the family moved north, he was quoted as saying in the New York Times, because local whites “were heaving up a barrel of tar to dip my father in.” His dance career began with childhood cakewalk lessons from the legendary composer and ragtime pianist Eubie Blake, and he performed on stage with the Chicago Civic Orchestra at age 11.
Beatty’s birth year has been given as 1919 and 1923. He is known to have appeared in a concert of central importance in black dance history, presented by Dunham at the auditorium of New York’s Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1937. He had begun studies with Dunham not long before, absorbing her unique mixture of modern styles, jazz and African dance, and classical ballet training. Dunham, it is said, convinced the young Beatty and several friends to come in for a dance lesson when she caught them vandalizing the already run-down carriage house where she was teaching at the time.
Remaining with Dunham’s company until 1943, Beatty appeared in many productions that are now considered classics. One of those, 1940’s Tropics and Le Jazz Hot, was a landmark in the development of serious jazz dance; another, Ti Cocomacaque, featured Beatty as the African-American folkloric figure Br’er Rabbit. Critics noted the solid classical elements in Beatty’s dancing, disagreeing over whether they contributed to or detracted from the path-breaking African-American orientation of Dunham’s work. In 1943, hankering after the chance to establish a career of his own, Beatty left the Dunham company.
With another ex-Dunham dancer, Janet Collins, he worked for several years in California nightclubs under an assumed Hispanic name designed to camouflage his African-American origins and increase his employability. Throughout his career, Beatty would approach popular and elite dance with equal enthusiasm and with considerable stylistic overlap. In 1945 he appeared in an experimental film, A Study in Choreography for Camera. Back in New York, Beatty impressed dance impresarios Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine and angled for a place in their Ballet Sociey company; he appeared in one production, Blackface, but further work did not materialize.
At a Glance…
Born 1919 or 1923 in Cedar Grove, LA; died April 29, 1995, in New York City. Education: Trained as a dancer with Katherine Dunham, 1930s.
Career: Made stage debut with Chicago Civic Orchestra at age 11; dancer, Katherine Dunham Company, 1940-46; appeared in film A Study in Choreography for Camera, 1945; began choreographing own dances, late 1940s; directed own dance company, Tropicana, 1949-55; created dances for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and other companies, 1960s and 1970s; furnished choreography for theatrical musicals Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope (1970) and Your Arms Too Short To Box with God (1975); active as choreographer until death.
Awards: Scripps/American Dance Festival Award, 1993.
Beatty began his own career as a choreographer in the late 1940s; one of his early works, Southern Landscape, was revived in 1992 by the Philadelphia company Philadanco and “remains,” in the words of the New York Times, “a vivid study of black life in the South.” It evokes elements of antebellum slave culture such as the sacred ring shout circle dance. Beatty was inspired by the Howard Fast novel Freedom Road (1944), set in the Reconstruction era. “Blacks and whites worked these communal farms together,” Beatty told the New York Times, “which is very different from the way I was taught about the Reconstruction. But Klan members came in and destroyed these communities.” From 1949 through 1955, when black-oriented dance companies were scarce, Beatty was the director of his own dance troupe, Tropicana.
Beatty’s choreographic art would remain rooted in the struggles of the African-American experience; some of his later works took up the themes of the civil rights movement, and his 1982 piece, The Stack-Up, evoked the violence of the growing drug culture. However, his works generally avoided elements of actual storytelling. “My wish is to be able to make the statement in terms of design and to extend the idea past a natural gesture,” he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. One sequence of events with which he experimented was to use much of a piece to depict ideas and moods abstractly, and then to drive the point home with a concrete representation. The Stack-Up ends with a drug addict’s death, and Congo Tango Palace, an excerpt from Beatty’s acclaimed Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot (1960), likewise ends with a character’s death.
That work and the previous year’s Road of the Phoebe Snow brought Beatty considerable acclaim and led to his being frequently identified with the world of jazz dance. Indeed, Beatty’s choreography showed a special affinity for the music of composer and bandleader Duke Ellington, whose works furnished the basis for several of Beatty’s dances, including Road of the Phoebe Snow, in the 1950s and 1960s. Ellington and Beatty often brainstormed creatively together, meeting at one a.m. and working through the night. Beatty provided choreography for several of the multimedia pieces Ellington composed in his later years, including A Drum Is a Woman (1957), My People (1963), and a television version of Black, Brown, and Beige. In 1994 Beatty honored the composer with Ellingtonia, a work premiered by Denver’s Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. “I think he’s the greatest composer that America has produced,” Beatty told American Visions.
There were many aspects to Beatty’s art, however, and he rejected an exclusive identification with jazz dance. “I was trapped in that jazz thing,” he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. In the late 1950s and 1960s Beatty worked closely with New York’s pioneering Alvin Ailey Dance Company, which brought African-American dance to a wider audience than it had ever previously reached. “That was what they started asking for” Beatty told the New York Times. “So I said O.K.” In many works, however, Beatty’s modern-dance training showed through, and his works were marked by a distinct focus on social concerns. He once named modernist choreographer Martha Graham as the figure who had exerted the most influence on his own work.
Beatty was often commissioned to create new works in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, not only in New York but also around the country and in such places as Sweden and Israel as well. He was as much at home on popular-theatre stages as in modern-dance auditoriums, and he provided choreography for the wildly popular Vinnette Carroll musicals Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (1970) and Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (1975). In 1993 Beatty was honored with the Samuel H. Scripps award for lifetime achievement by the American Dance Festival. Beatty died in New York on April 29, 1995, from complications of diabetes. Several tribute concerts were organized in his memory; at one, members of the Harlem School of the Arts Jazz Orchestra played the funeral music of Beatty’s native Louisiana and led audience members out of the auditorium in a memorial recessional.
Southern Landscape, 1949.
The Road of the Phoebe Snow, 1959.
Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot, 1960 (rev. 1962).
Montgomery Variations, 1967.
(for Vinnette Carroll musical) Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope, 1970.
Poème d’extase, 1972.
(for Vinnette Carroll musical) Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, 1975.
The Stack-Up, 1982.
International Dictionary of Modern Dance, St. James Press, 1998.
American Visions, June-July 1994, p. 10.
The Guardian (London, England), May 13, 1995, p. 28.
New York Times, December 21, 1989, p. C12; June 30, 1992, p. C15; March 16, 1993, p. C18; July 4, 1995, p. A25; May 1, 1995, p. Bll; September 19, 1995, p. C14.
PBS Free to Dance program, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/biographies/beatty.htm
—James M. Manheim
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