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Talley Beatty
Born: 1923
Occupation: choreographer, dancer
Talley 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


Source Citation: "Talley Beatty." ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY. 5 vols. Macmillan, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Gale Group.