Talley Beatty (22 December 1918 – 29 April 1995) was born in Cedar Grove, Louisiana, a section of Shreveport, but grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He is considered one of the greatest of African American choreographers, and also bears the titles dancer, educator, and dance company director. After studying under Katherine Dunham and Martha Graham, Beatty went on to do solo work and choreograph his own works which center on the social issues, experiences, and everyday life of African Americans. Beatty and his technique and style of dancing have been both praised and criticized by critics and dancers of his day.
Beatty began studying dance at the age of fourteen with Katherine Dunham. He learned her style of dancing which was heavily based on her African and Caribbean studies of dance in the West Indies. He was a part of Dunham’s company and performed in several shows with them. He also trained under Martha Graham in the 1940s. He left the Dunham troupe in 1946 to continue his studies in New York City. He took ballet lessons in New York, but because he was African American he was forced to attend dance classes in the early mornings or late nights in a dressing room while classes were going on in an adjacent studio.
Beatty continued his work as a solo artist and choreographer. He explored a variety of different dance roles and styles. He appeared in films such as Maya Deren's A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) and stage shows such as Helen Tamiris’s revue Inside U.S.A. (1948). He danced in Broadway musicals such as Cabin in the Sky. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1977 for choreography for the Broadway show Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (1976).
He also danced in nightclubs, for musical theater, and on the concert stage. He even did a minstrel ballet titled Blackface. Beatty also choreographed for a variety of choreographers including Ruth Page, Lew Christiansen, George Balanchine, and Syvilla Fort. He choreographed over fifty ballets and did work in America and Europe.
Many dancers and critics described Beatty’s dance style as a mix between jazz and ballet. “His self-described style is a mixture of Graham connective steps, Dunham technique, and a little ballet with Louisiana hot sauce on it”. His choreography is also described as “fast, exuberant, [and] explosive,” Beatty explored movement that extended outward from the extremities such as leg extensions and back arches. Dancers in the documentary film Talley Beatty: Conversations with Contemporary Masters of American Modern Dance state that his choreography is very physically demanding and technically challenging and that in order to dance in one of his works a strong knowledge in at least four different disciplines, including ballet and modern dance, is needed.
John Martin, a famous white dance critic during the early to mid-1900s, criticized Beatty’s dance style as too balletic. During this particular time period in which there was much racism and stereotyping, ballet was thought of as a “high art” that was reserved for white dancing bodies only. Other critics such as Margaret Lloyd praised Beatty's technique in her work The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. Lloyd wrote that she found his leaps “phenomenal, a sort of universal wish fulfillment to navigate the air”.
Themes in Choreography
Beatty’s work explored themes around the struggles and everyday life of African Americans. Many of his pieces focused on his own “personal statements about alienation, racial discrimination, and the hardships of urban life”. In the film Conversations with Contemporary Masters of American Modern Dance Beatty talks about some of his more well-known choreographic works. According to Beatty Southern Landscape, a five-part dance, is a description of the time right after the Reconstruction period in the South. The dance explores an event in history described in Howard Fast's novel Freedom Road. The plot centers around a group of black and white farmers who had happily formed a community together before being literally destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan. After the slaughter, people went into the fields at night to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones. The most well-known and famous solo section of the dance, titled Mourner’s Bench is about a man returning from recovering a body, and reflecting on the ideas of hope and strength.
- Maleaney P. White-Dixon, "Beatty, Talley", in International Encyclopedia of Danc Vol. 1, ed. Selma Jeanine Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998),396.
- Teren Damato Ellison, “Beatty, Talley,” in International Dictionary of Modern Dance, ed. Dan McDonagh (Detroit: St. James Press, 1998),47.
- Douglas Rosenberg, dir., Talley Beatty: Conversations with Contemporary Masters of American Modern Dance (American Dance Festival,1993).
- "Talley Beatty,” Biography, American Dance Festival and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts [v],(accessed 22 March, 2008).
- Teren Damato Ellison, “Beatty, Talley,” 48.
- “Talley Beatty,” Biography, American Dance Festival and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts http://www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/biographies/beatty.html],(accessed 22 March, 2008).
- Teren Damato Ellison, “Beatty, Talley,” 48.
- Maleaney P. White-Dixon, "Beatty, Talley," 395.
- Teren Damato Ellison, “Beatty, Talley,” 48
- Maleaney P. White-Dixon, "Beatty, Talley," 396.
- Maleaney P. White-Dixon, ‘’Beatty, Talley,’’ 396
- Teren Damato Ellison, “Beatty, Talley,” 47
- Maleaney P. White-Dixon, "Beatty, Talley," 396
- Staff (1993). "Conversations with contemporary masters of American modern dance: Talley Beatty". Worldcat. Retrieved September 3, 2012.
- Staff (June 30, 2005). "DANCE PROFESSOR WINS GRANT TO RECONSTRUCT HISTORIC WORK". Bryn Mawr Now. Retrieved September 3, 2012.