Donald McKayle, a Tony-nominated choreographer who created classic works of modern dance and was the first African American man to direct and choreograph Broadway musicals, died April 6 at a hospital in Orange, Calif. He was 87.
He had complications from pneumonia, said his wife, Lea McKayle.
Mr. McKayle had little exposure to dance before seeing a performance by the Trinidadian-born Pearl Primus, who incorporated African and Caribbean elements into her performances, when he was 16.
“I was bowled over,” Mr. McKayle told The Washington Post in 1973. “I had no background in going to see dance. It was a dance concert by Pearl Primus. I knew I wanted to become a dancer.”
His enthusiasm and determination overcame his lack of knowledge of the basic steps of dance, and he immediately began to study and perform. At 18, he choreographed his first work, “Saturday’s Child,” based on the poetry of Harlem Renaissance figure Countee Cullen.
He performed with modern-dance pioneers Martha Graham and José Limón while still in his teens. At 21, he formed his own dance company, whose members included such renowned figures as Alvin Ailey, Arthur Mitchell and Eliot Feld.
While performing with his troupe and dancing in Broadway productions, Mr. McKayle also choreographed several early works that have become acknowledged as modern-dance classics. They often drew on the joys and grim reality of black life in America.
One of Mr. McKayle’s first works was “Games” (1951), which evoked playful childhood street games and chants, only to be shattered at the end by a violent police beating.
“I was 14 years old in the Bronx playing ‘Steal the White Flag,’ ” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1989, “and suddenly I heard one of the Puerto Rican kids yelling ‘La Jura! La Jura!’ which was a word for cop. The next thing I knew, a cop was hitting a kid. Then a squad car came and took the kid away.”
In 1952, Mr. McKayle created a dance representation of the life of Harriet Tubman, “Her Name Was Harriet” (later retitled “They Called Her Moses”).
In 1959, he choreographed “Rainbow Round My Shoulder,” which featured seven men on a Southern chain gang, dreaming of freedom and the women in their lives. Once again, their reveries are pierced by violence.
Another of Mr. McKayle’s seminal works, “District Storyville” (1962), drew on the music, street life and exuberance of the early New Orleans jazz world. New York Herald Tribune dance critic Walter Terry praised it as “fast, funny, hot and lowdown,” and “an irresistible work of music-theater.”
As early as 1954, Mr. McKayle was performing on Broadway in the musical “House of Flowers,” less than 10 years after taking his first steps as a dancer. He was chosen by choreographer Jerome Robbins as a dance captain for the 1957 Broadway musical “West Side Story.”
His grace and 6-foot-2 height made him, by all accounts, a mesmerizing performer.
“Donny’s choreography has big long lines and is very fast — just like him,” dancer Carmen de Lavallade told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “Onstage, he had the beauty of a big cat.”
Beginning in the 1960s, Mr. McKayle often choreographed dance numbers for the Broadway stage, television and film, and for nightclub performers, including Rita Moreno. He received his first Tony nomination for “Golden Boy,” a 1964 musical starring Sammy Davis Jr. as a boxer. Mr. McKayle staged the show’s dances and a memorable boxing scene.
He returned to boxing as a subject for dance as the choreographer of the 1970 film “The Great White Hope,” starring James Earl Jones. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for the 1974 television production “Free to Be You and Me.”
That year, Mr. McKayle made history by becoming the first black man to direct and choreograph a musical on Broadway, “Raisin,” based on the play by Lorraine Hansberry, “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“Raisin” won the Tony Award for best musical, and Mr. McKayle was nominated as both a director and choreographer. He received two more nominations in choreography, for “Doctor Jazz” (1975) and for “Sophisticated Ladies” (1981), a musical he conceived based on the music of Duke Ellington.
Donald Cohen McKayle was born July 6, 1930, in New York, and grew up in Harlem and Queens. His parents were Jamaican immigrants. His father helped manufacture airplane parts, and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. McKayle grew up in a mixed-race neighborhood, and, during the 18 years he had his New York dance company, he employed dancers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. He choreographed works built on the cultural traditions of other parts of the world, from Israel to Europe to South America.
He moved to the West Coast in 1969 to become the choreographer for “The Leslie Uggams Show” on television and formed a short-lived troupe in Los Angeles. He taught at many colleges, including the Juilliard School, Bennington College, Sarah Lawrence College and California Institute of the Arts, and he spent more than 25 years as a professor at the University of California at Irvine.
His credits included creating the choreography for the tours Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte and two productions of the Academy Awards in the 1970s.
His first marriage, to dancer Esta Beck, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 53 years, the former Lea Levin, a dancer who performs Lea Vivante, of New River, Ariz.; two daughters from his first marriage, Gabrielle McKayle of Oakland, Calif., and Liane McKayle of New York City; a stepson, Guy Eylon McKayle of New River; and two grandchildren.
Mr. McKayle continued to work as a choreographer until shortly before his death, creating at least one major new dance each year. His last major work, “Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return” (2017) is based on the plight of Syrian refugees.
In 2008, Dance magazine asked Mr. McKayle if it was possible to teach rhythm to aspiring dancers.
“I tell them it’s not the sound that they’re making with their feet, arms, or body,” he said. “It’s how the body moves through space.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that “Raisin” won an Emmy Award for best musical play. It won the Tony Award.