Talley Beatty was one of the pioneering African-American choreographers of the 20th century. Though he never received the public acclaim that Alvin Ailey did, Beatty distinguished himself as a captivating performer and sophisticated choreographer with dances that fused lyrical jazz, ballet and modern.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1918, Beatty soon moved to Chicago. At age 12, he began taking ballet lessons at choreographer Katherine Dunham’s suggestion, after she discovered him in the neighborhood where she taught. He joined Dunham’s company while still a teenager and rose to the rank of principal dancer. After appearing in the 1943 film Stormy Weather with Dunham and her troupe, Beatty left the company to freelance for other choreographers. He maintained his connection to Dunham for decades after, performing her works and eventually becoming a Dunham technique teacher.
Beatty continued his studies with Martha Graham in New York and performed as a freelance dancer for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Society, Helen Tamiris and Lew Christensen. He became known for the remarkable control and expressiveness he brought to his roles. In 1945, he was featured in the short film A Study in Choreography for Camera by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren.
He launched his choreographic career with Southern Landscape (1947), a piece about racial discrimination. His wide-ranging choreographic style reflected the eclectic influence of Dunham, Graham, Jack Cole, Lester Horton, Jerome Robbins and ballet. In 1949, he officially founded his own dance troupe, Tropicana, which toured throughout the United States and Europe for six years.
In 1958, he performed in Alvin Ailey’s inaugural company concert in New York City, sparking a lifelong association. Beatty created seven works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which are still in the repertory today.
In his lifetime, Beatty created more than 50 works. His last work, Ellingtonia, is the 1994 tribute to Duke Ellington for Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. Beatty passed away a year later at age 76 in NYC. DT
Unlike the popular modern choreographers of the 1940s and ’50s (Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman), Beatty steered away from narrative, gesture and characterization, instead favoring abstract representation. He prioritized emotional content and technique equally. Dancers had to be well-versed in multiple disciplines—lyrical jazz, ballet, modern—to perform his work, which was known for its extreme physical demands.
“Mourner’s Bench,” from Southern Landscape. Photo by Leonard Schreiber, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
Drawing upon themes of alienation, love and discrimination, Beatty’s works were known for being highly energetic, technically virtuosic and emotional.
Southern Landscape (1947): Beatty’s first work drew inspiration from Howard Fast’s novel Freedom Road, about the lives of Black people during Reconstruction. The solo “Mourner’s Bench,” composed primarily of sustained reaches from a seated position, became one of his most recognizable choreographic contributions.
Road of the Phoebe Snow (1959): This dance was set to the music of Duke Ellington and based on a train in the Midwest called the Phoebe Snow. Duets and group sections depict the lives of people who lived near the railroad tracks.
Toccata (1960): This popular excerpt from Beatty’s longer work Come and Get the Beauty of it Hot features a series of jazzy ensembles, duets and trios set in the streets of NYC. Dancers project their movements out toward the audience rather than toward each other.
The Legacy Lives On
Beatty helped establish a foothold for Black choreographers in American concert dance, paving the way for future generations of artists of color. Many ballet and modern dance companies perform his work today, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Batsheva Dance Company, Boston Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“Talley Beatty, 76, a Leader in Lyrical Jazz Choreography,” by Jennifer Dunning, The New York Times, May 1, 1995
“Talley Beatty,” by Rachel Straus, Dance Teacher, February 2011