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.
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.
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.
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).
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!