LORETTA ABBOTT

Loretta in Harlem - photo by Richard Williams

Dance Legend, Choreographer & Teacher

Harlem native Loretta Abbott was a dancer, actress, singer, choreographer and teacher for more than 80 years. Just say her name and there is an instant whirl of body, emotion and history: She was a mainstay of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, a Broadway star and an educator throughout her life.

Dance was Abbott’s life, along with her pride of Harlem. In fact, defying the limitations of age and failing health, just before she died in 2016, Abbott could be found rehearsing until all hours at George Faison’s Firehouse for an upcoming performance. She was irrepressible and upbeat. In fact, according to one friend, “She would dance in a G-string in a snowstorm.”

Faison, who recalls getting to know Abbott when he joined the Ailey company, said of his friend, “When you look at Loretta Abbott you see a dancer who dedicated her entire life practicing the art she loved the most—dance. Her contribution to the development and preservation of dance-theater was invaluable. . . Her dance portrayals were legendary. She was the Bette Davis of dance.”

Abbott, born in 1933, started dancing when she was just 3 years old, she liked to say, and soon began performing in children’s talent shows in Harlem. She trained with such noted teachers as Ruth Williams, and with Thelma Hill and James Truitte, two original Ailey company members, as well as the legendary Pepsi Bethel and Henry LaTang. Her career reflected a versatility that was critical for Black dancers of her generation, said Jill Williams of the Clark Center for the Performing Arts, where Abbott  was a student, performed in groundbreaking dance works, and where she later worked to collect and preserve the history of modern dance.

 

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Artistic Director Robert Battle called Abbott “one of the foundation builders” of the Ailey Company. 

She was celebrated for a technical diversity that brought her to numerous modern dance companies and choreographers, to Broadway and cabaret shows, to television and stage. She worked with an impressive roster of choreographers, including Talley Beatty, Fred Benjamin, Carmen de Lavallade, Jean Leon Destine, George Faison, Martin Gordon, Louis Johnson, Donald McKayle, John Parks, Al Perryman, Michael Peters, Eleo Pomare, Abdel Salaam, Otis Sallid, Paul Sanasardo, and Andy Torres. She was a founding member of the George Faison Universal Dance Experience.

 

Abbott’s Broadway career included the 1980s musical “Amen Corner,” for which Abbott was dancer, dance captain and choreographic assistant, the 1983 revival of “Purlie,” the original production of “Porgy and Bess,” “Reggae,” “Raisin,” “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “La Strada,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and many more. She also toured with her own solo program, “Women of Color,” and appeared in the film version of “The Wiz.” She also danced in the original production of Nanette Bearden Dance Company’s “On the Block,” choreographed by Walter Rutledge, who would say, “A truly gentle and sensitive soul, Abbott could be fiercely protective of the people and dance works she treasured.”

Enjoy a recently rediscovered film, INSEPARABLE, choreographed by Andy Torres and performed by Loretta Abbott and John Parks Filmed by Toby Tobias Macbeth © Andy Torres 2018  at  https://vimeo.com/265560281

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Alvin Ailey's Blues Suite 1964 Photo by Jack Mitchell
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Loretta and Al Perryman in promo shot for their company,
'Dynamic Duo' (performed at Clark Center  1973, 1977)
(Costumes courtesy of  'Raisin' 1973)
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Loretta dancing - Source of image unknown
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Alvin Ailey, Lucinda Ransom, and Loretta Abbott. Photo courtesy of the Ailey Archives circa 1960
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Alvin Ailey's Blues Suite 1964 Photo by Jack Mitchell
Lucinda Ransom, Loretta Abbott and Joan Peters
(Blues Suite 1964)
Images Courtesy Jill Williams, Clark Center for Dance