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O'Donnell Way - Modern dance pioneer honored with a street name in New York City

by Marian Horosko
October 21, 2008
New York, NY
East 7th Street at Avenue C in Manhattan has a new signpost: "O'Donnell Way," to commemorate May O'Donnell, (1906-2004), pioneer modern dance performer, choreographer and teacher. She lived and worked from her brownstone, #263 on East 7th Street, with her husband, composer Ray Green.

O'Donnell performed in the early Martha Graham Contemporary Dance Company, 1932-1938 but was lured back to her native California, where she established a school and became a co-choreographer with another young dancer-choreographer, José Limón. They toured the West Coast as a successful duo-concert team, 1939-1941.

As Green and Limón went off to duty in WWII, O'Donnell returned to New York where Graham entrusted her to create her own roles as The Pioneer Woman in "Appalachian Spring," (1944), the Attendant in "Hérodiade," (1944), as well as in "Dark Meadow" (1946) and "Cave of the Heart" (1946) and other Graham works.

In collaboration with her husband, O'Donnell created more than 50 works 1937-1988 for her companies using her own dance technique, still taught in colleges in throughout America and in Europe.

Some of her famous pupils included Robert Joffrey, Dudley Williams, Ben Vereen and Daniel Lewis, now Dean of Dance at the New World School of the Arts in Miami. O'Donnell taught at Manhattan's High School for the Performing Arts and is known as the first American to create dances freeing the modern dancer from themes, storylines and dramatic passion.

In 2003, selected by a jury of her peers, O'Donnell won a "Lifetime Achievement Award."

May O'Donnell, Modern Dance Pioneer, her biography by Marian Horosko, was published by University Press of Florida/Gainesville in 2005.
Martha Graham and May O'Donnell in the original 'Appalachian Spring' - 1944

Martha Graham and May O'Donnell in the original "Appalachian Spring" - 1944

Photo © & courtesy of Chris Alexander

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