Beatty grew up in Chicago, Illinois. While he was very young, he accompanied
his father, a decorator, on many trips through the Midwest and Northwest.
Interested in dance from a young age, he originally dreamed of becoming a
tap dancer and took a few lessons in cakewalking from pianist Eubie Blake.
From age 14, Beatty studied with African-American dancer and
choreographer Katherine Dunham and was a member of her troupe from 1937 to
1943. Beatty made his debut with Dunham's group in 1937 at the 92nd Street
Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) in New York City. He performed in
Dunham's concert "Tropics and Le Jazz Hot" in 1940. Critics found
Beatty's style somewhat more balletic than other company members. Beatty
left the company in 1943, following the completion of the film STORMY WEATHER. He then toured California nightclubs with fellow ex-Dunham
company dancer Janet Collins. The pair assumed Spanish-sounding stage
names to deflect suspicion that they were black.
Throughout the 1940s, Beatty continued to experiment with a variety of
roles and dance styles. In 1945, he followed an appearance in Maya Deren's
experimental film A STUDY IN CHOREOGRAPHY FOR CAMERA with a role on
Broadway's "Cabin in the Sky" with Dunham and Ethel Waters. He was
cast the next year as a lead dancer in a Broadway revival of
"Showboat" opposite Pearl Primus. Beatty also danced in a minstrel
ballet, "Blackface," in 1946 before deciding to concentrate on
concert dance and choreography.
Talley Beatty formed his own dance company to tour the United States
and Europe in 1952, with a program entitled "Tropicana," a suite that
featured dances in a variety of styles derived from African and Latin
American culture. As the 1950s and '60s progressed, he explored themes of
African-American life that served as a counterpoint to the Civil Rights
Movement. In 1959, he choreographed "The Route of the Phoebe Snow"
(also known as "The Road of the Phoebe Snow"), which centered on life
around the Lackawanna Railroad, accompanied by the music of Duke Ellington
and Billy Strayhorn. Beatty took the title of the piece from freight
trains with the name "Phoebe Snow" painted on their sides, which he
observed as a boy on the road with his father. The piece, one of Beatty's
greatest achievements, became part of the Alvin Ailey company repertory in
1964. Beatty also created "Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot" (1960),
"Montgomery Variations" (1967), and "Black Belt" in 1969.
Beatty had a long and fruitful collaboration with Duke Ellington that
began in the 1950s and '60s. The two would often meet at one o'clock in
the morning and work through the night. Beatty provided choreography for
several of Ellington's extended works, such as "A Drum Is a Woman"
(1957) and "My People" (1963). Beatty also choreographed for other
companies, including Stockholm's Birgit Cullberg Ballet, the Boston
Ballet, the Inner City Dance Company of Los Angeles, Ballet Hispanica of
New York City, and the Bat-Sheva Company of Israel. Since the late 1960s,
Beatty has primarily been a teacher of dance, serving as
artist-in-residence at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury,
Massachusetts. Throughout the 1970s, he composed many theatrical works for
directors, including Vinnette Carroll, among them "Your Arms Too Short
to Box with God" (1977) and "But Never Jam Today" (1978), an
African-American adaptation of Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Other major works have included "The Stack-Up" (1983) and "Blues
Shift" (1984). His choreography was featured in "Homage to Mary
Lou," performed by the Nanette Beardon Contemporary Dance Theatre in
1988 in tribute to jazz pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams. Another Beatty
work inspired by Duke Ellington, "Ellingtonia," had its premiere at
the 1994 American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina. The work was performed by
the Cleo Parker Dance Ensemble.
-- Allison X. Miller