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Helen McGehee (1921-2020), a commemoration in pictures

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The following is a guest post from the Music Division’s Dance Curator Libby Smigel.

Happy birthday, Helen McGehee!  Today, May 10, this extraordinary dancer of the Martha Graham Dance Company would have turned 100 years old.

Black and white studio portriat.
Unidentified photographer. Young Helen McGehee, undated. Helen McGehee and Umaña Collection of Dance Materials, Music Division.

Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, the young Helen showed a penchant toward the visual arts, an aptitude that reflected the artistic talents and cultural achievements of three generations on her maternal side. While attending Randolph-Macon Women’s College (now the coeducational  Randolph College), she was captivated by dance, which became her life-long passion.

After graduation, McGehee relocated to New York City in pursuit of serious dance training and soon earned a spot in the Martha Graham Dance Company. She took part in the company’s first European tour in 1954, and Graham choreographed principal roles for her, most notably that of Electra in the masterwork Clytemnestra (1958). Photographs and press coverage at the time documented the range of McGehee’s performances—from her dramatic ferocity as Leader of the Chorus in Graham’s adaptation of the Oedipus myth in Night Journey (1947) to her gymnastic agility and headstands in Acrobats of God (1960). This critical acclaim opened doors to teaching dance at the Graham studio and at the newly founded dance division at the Juilliard School. By the 1950s, McGehee had also begun presenting her own choreography in New York venues. Although distinguished as an embodiment of the Graham legacy, McGehee’s colleagues and protégés also remember her insistence that dance artists must find their own voices for the dance field to remain robust.

McGehee in performance, four dancers in the air.
Milton Oleaga, photographer. Helen McGehee in Clytemnestra, Martha Graham Dance Company, circa 1958. Helen McGehee and Umaña Collection of Dance Materials, Music Division.
Black and white photograph of McGehee parrallel to floor,legs propped on Powell's shoulder.
Milton Oleaga, photographer. Helen McGehee, Robert Powell, and Chorus in rehearsal of McGehee’s Incursions, 1962. Helen McGehee and Umaña Collection of Dance Materials, Music Division.

As remarkable as her dancing, although not as widely acknowledged, was McGehee’s acuity in enhancing choreographic intention by creating vibrant costume designs. The bright and bold drawings of costumes for herself and fellow dancer Ethel Winter in One More Gaudy Night (1961) exemplified Martha Graham’s artistic preferences, which McGehee later discussed in lectures she gave about Graham’s costume choices. McGehee’s array of designs for Clytemnestra developed from a sketch she proposed to Graham for the title character. McGehee created designs for her own dances as well, and constructed them herself. Figuring out how to make the costumes, she observed wryly, was more challenging than designing them.

Helen McGehee. Costume designs for Martha Graham’s One More Gaudy Night, circa 1961. Helen McGehee and Umaña Collection of Dance Materials, Music Division.
Handwritten page torn from a spiral notebook.
Helen McGehee. Excerpt of lecture notes on Martha Graham’s costumes and choreography, undated. Helen McGehee and Umaña Collection of Dance Materials, Music Division.
Black and white print of digital image, McGehee seated on the floor turned three quarters away from camera.
Unidentified photographer. Helen McGehee in her home’s dance studio creating costumes, undated. Helen McGehee and Umaña Collection of Dance Materials, Music Division.

In 1978, McGehee returned to Lynchburg with her spouse, Rafael Alfonso Umaña Mendez, a distinguished painter and sculptor known professionally as Umaña, whose designs had also adorned Graham’s productions. She remained in their Rivermont Avenue home following his death in 1994. Last year, her peaceful passing in April was overshadowed by the pandemic, but McGehee and her artistic ancestors are far from forgotten. A small crowd gathered on March 26, 2021, to celebrate the installation of two historical markers in front of her home. The handsome highway signage honors both McGehee and her artist grandmother Sallie Blount Mahood (1864-1953).

Image of historic marker, Q-6, 58.
Nancy Marion, photographer. Highway marker commemorating Helen McGehee, March 26, 2021. Courtesy of the photographer and Stewart Coleman.

The illustrations offered here are a small reminder of McGehee’s tremendous contribution to dance and design and to the continued innovations and practices of American dance. In 2008, Helen McGehee donated about 30 boxes of materials to the Library of Congress to establish an archival collection for the McGehee and Umaña legacy, and McGehee’s friends and colleagues are now organizing additional documents. We hope you will plan to visit the Music Division’s Performing Arts Reading Room when we reopen to the public this summer. You will have a chance to examine up close the artwork, photographs, correspondence, and teaching notes from their impressive artistic careers.

Helen McGehee, you deserve to be celebrated!

Comments (4)

  1. Dear Ms. Stevens-Garmon,

    I really enjoyed reading about this dancer – artist and her contributions to dance and dancers. Thank you so much for the biography and photos. From Lynchburg to NYC & world of Martha Graham and the arts–what a life!

    So interesting I had to look up her husband, Rafael Umaña. For all the horrible violence of the 20th century, America really did have an amazing artistic run and did benefit so much from artists escaping wars.
    Another amazing discovery from Music Division/ Performing Arts, just part of our national treasure, LC.

  2. These illustrated dancers’ bios are so important to the historic appreciation of dance over the decades and cultural changes of the nation, and the world.

    And they’re often very hard to pull together (I’ve done some, I know!) So many thanks for holding up a candle to this individual dancer’s life and work!

  3. Moving from California to New York in the hope of dancing for Paul Taylor and finding no school based on his work I arrived for at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance for a June course!
    Not having been allowed to begin my dance studies until I handed my parents a High School Diploma, something neither of them had enjoyed, I won a scholarship at Eugene Lorings “ American School of Dance.”Reading Isadora Duncan’s “ My Life “ in the studios library my search for a voice was at last directed towards “ American Modern Dance “ and I aquired a mentor in Ellen Siegel , who took me to see the Graham Company’s season at UCLA’s Royce Hall. I knew I had found a home. Several months later Paul Taylors company performed there and I literally went home that night and woke my parents out of their sleep to announce;” I’m moving to New York to dance for Paul Taylor “
    Had I known the odds!
    The point of the story is I was 18 with no technical training of any kind and a body so tight, turned in, feet with no beautiful arches, I couldn’t sit up with a straight back on the floor that looking at me I can understand that a negative assessment would have been made by most professional dancer/teachers and indeed for the most part I was completely ignored by the Graham faculty no matter how hard I worked. With the exception of Helen McGehee and June Lewis who somehow could look beyond the disadvantages of my physical body and see instead the great desire and passion I held about dancing. It never felt like a decision I made, it was how I was born, but locked inside this prison of a body that had no advantages towards allowing me to speak this “ language “
    Miss Lewis invited me to dance for her in several small productions she produced and Ms. McGehee always took extra care of me in the studio!
    Once, unable to execute some floor excercise she grabbed me by the hair and seethed in my ear;” I dream about you at night !”
    The second time I was refused a scholarship at the Graham school
    after making it absolutely clear that without the scholarship I would no longer be able to continue my studies there on my application, the day the list came out Helen couldn’t/would’nt look me in the eye in class.
    But she caught me on the stairs afterwards to tell me how very sorry she was and confided that regardless of how hard she fought for my acceptance she was overruled bu Bertram Ross who’s only comment was apparently how hopeless he found the boy “ With all that curly hair!”
    I went home to my apartment in Brooklyn and sat in the dark for three days sobbing, than woke on the fourth, openned the shades and called a friend to ask for a teacher and he sent me to the kindest, loveliest , gentle Elizabeth Hodes. Several months into my study with her she told me her husband, Stuart Hodes, was assembling a company that would perform and travel the tri-state area under the title1 program!
    In Stuart’s book “ Onstage with MARTHA GRAHAM “he relates a story of the day he persuaded me to attend a Taylor Mens Audition that had appeared in Backstage Magizine.
    As for the rest, Stuart is a much better story teller than I!
    I credit Helen McGehee as one of the most important influences in my dance life!
    She had an ability to see what wasn’t apparent yet! Excuse my over emotionalism, but truthfully she looked past all of what wasn’t there yet, and saw my soul!!!
    I love you Helen, and honor you, and will never forget having dinner with you between a Matinee and an Evening performance watching you consume an enormous Italian meal before giving a breath taking performance of “ Errend into the Maze. “

  4. What a lovely tribute and contribution to the field. Thank you Libby.

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