Donald McKayle. (Daily Pilot / February 29, 2012)

Sixty-three years ago, Donald McKayle had no idea that he would wind up in dance.

All that the kid from East Harlem needed was a spark to ignite a passion in him, which would enable McKayle to establish an ongoing legacy for years to come.

Since then, the award-winning dancer, choreographer and emeritus professor of dance at UC Irvine — who is now 81 — has choreographed nearly 70 works for dance companies in the United States, Canada, Israel, Europe and South America.

His choreographic masterworks — "Games," "Rainbow Round My Shoulder," "District Storyville" and "Songs of the Disinherited" — are considered classics of modern dance. They continue to be performed around the world.

To celebrate McKayle's contributions to the development of modern dance throughout his 60-year career, UCI's Claire Trevor School of the Arts will pay tribute to McKayle in a fundraising, star-studded performance at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on the evening of March 8.

The event will feature an unveiling of an award, as well as performances by celebrities hailing from Hollywood films, television and the Broadway stage. Co-chaired by actress and dancer Debbie Allen, singer and actress Della Reese, and UCI Chancellor Michael V. Drake and his wife, proceeds from tickets sales and sponsorships will help establish the Donald McKayle Fund for Modern Dance, which will allow the Claire Trevor School of the Arts to offer scholarships and program master classes with distinguished artists and teachers, as well as commission new works in modern dance.

"The powers that be here at UCI have been trying to keep it a big secret from me," McKayle said. "But, of course, by now, so much is out that only the gala performance and what the people coming will do is a secret to me."

'... A chemical reaction'

McKayle's journey here was unexpected, right from the beginning of his career, even for one of the most venerated African American choreographers in dance history.

"Well, I was taken to a concert as a teenager by one of my friends that was studying dance with Pearl Primus," McKayle said. "She was giving a recital in New York City at the Central High School of Needle Trades. I was so excited by what I saw; I wanted to do it right then and there. It was immediate, what I call a chemical reaction."

"I didn't know the process of it," McKayle continued. "I didn't know anything about it. So, I started making up dances that week and then I later on found out that people usually learn how to dance first."

Sure enough, McKayle eventually learned to dance, but choreography has remained his biggest asset.

"It (my choreography) is very personal," McKayle explained. "It always deals in some way with the human experience."

McKayle's choreography has been recognized by the nation's most prestigious industry honors in film, theater and dance. McKayle is a Kennedy Center Honoree who has been nominated once for an Emmy and five times for a Tony Award.

"I've worked in lots of different companies and, of course, I've done shows and television and what have you, but I've always liked to develop young artists," McKayle said, alluding to his past stints on the Ed Sullivan and New Bill Cosby shows.

Throughout his time as a faculty member at UCI, The Juilliard School, Bennington College, Bard College, Sarah Lawrence College, and as dean of the school of dance at the California Institute of the Arts, McKayle has trained and mentored several thousand students who have gone on to work as professional dancers, teachers and choreographers.

Among them is Randall Smith, who started his dance career with McKayle in 2005 as an undergrad at UCI. Now, Smith is a graduate assistant to McKayle.

"He always says he wants to see people tell their stories," Smith said in a phone interview. "He doesn't want to see steps. "That's something that is innate in Mr. McKayle. He's all about connecting with people and learning about their stories."

"He is the most spirited, loving person I know," Smith continued. "He cares about people's well-being and I love that about him."

Paying tribute to a master