Martha Graham Dancer Helen Gray McGehee, 98, Dies

April 12, 2020

Helen Gray McGehee Umaña passed away peacefully on April 9, 2020. Born in Lynchburg, Virginia on May 10, 1921, McGehee graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 1942 with a major in Latin and Greek. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, McGehee found her calling and her talent for modern dance while in college. After doing a June course with Martha Graham during the summer of 1941, her fate was sealed. On the day of her college graduation, she took the train to New York to study with Graham. Before long, McGehee would be a key member of the Martha Graham Dance Company where she would perform for nearly 30 years.

Known for her fierce and fearless performances, McGehee originated many principal roles, including: the girl in yellow in Diversion of Angels, leader of the chorus in Night Journey and Electra in Clytemnestra. She was the first dancer after Graham to perform the role of the woman in Errand into the Maze, and Medea in Cave of the Heart. An adept seamstress, she was a designer of theatrical costumes, most significantly numerous costumes from Graham’s original production of Clytemnestra in 1958.

In his book, Martha Graham: Portrait of the Lady as an Artist, Leroy Leatherman wrote, “Helen is intellectual. She has a strict, logical mind and a critical eye. Her bent is toward precision and exactitude and this shapes her movements as a dancer; they are finely drawn, like etchings on space. Yet there is a wealth of feeling in her, currents of violence and tenacious loyalties that come fully to light when she plays Electra in Clytemnestra.”

McGehee participated in the legendary tours of Europe, Asia and the Middle East when the Martha Graham Dance Company served as cultural ambassadors for the US State Department. A frequent guest artist, McGehee choreographed and taught in Canada, France, Britain, Greece, Norway and the US. She directed her own company.

She joined the faculty of the dance division at The Juilliard School at its inception in 1951 and remained on the faculty until 1982. McGehee staged some of her works at Juilliard, including: I am the Gate with music by Hindemith, El Retablo de Maese Pedro music by de Falla and Changes music by Britten. In addition, she choreographed The Oresteia by Aeschylus for the Ypsilanti Greek Theatre starring Dame Judith Anderson. She also choreographed and performed in the films To Be a Dancer and Helen McGehee Teaches a Dance Study. She wrote the books Helen McGehee: Dancer and To Be a Dancer. In 1971 McGehee founded the Visiting Artists Program in Dance at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College.) The program now bears her name.

Although she claimed to hate teaching, and was known as strict, uncompromising teacher to generations of dancers, she was a memorable teacher of movement. It is surprisingly rare for a great performer to be able to successfully teach that which is her particular strength as a dancer, yet McGehee was capable of doing this. One of her greatest strengths as a dancer was her ever-readiness for movement, and she could teach this like no other.

The daughter of Helen Mahood McGehee and William McGehee, Helen was born into a family of women artists. When she fell in love it would be with an artist, the Colombian painter and sculptor, Rafael Alphonso Umaña Mendez, known simply as Umaña. Early in their marriage the two lived in Paris and then resided in New York until they moved to Lynchburg in 1978. Wherever they made home, their house was full of art, antiques, literature and impeccable cuisine. Until his death in 1994, Umaña was a staunch supporter of his wife’s art, and their home had many guests, frequent dinner parties and impromptu happy hours. They taught many a young dancer how to be an artist, and how to enjoy life as a committed artist.

Although she and Umaña had no children, McGehee reared and taught more devoted children than most. McGehee leaves behind numerous former students, her “spiritual children.” They include: Diane Gray, Kelly Hogan, Alice Helpern, Douglas Hamby, Betty Harris and Pamela Risenhoover. Her friends Linda Thomas, Stewart Coleman and John Justice, though not dancers, knew how to move out of the way quickly when McGehee was on the warpath—a not an uncommon condition. She will be greatly missed. While we didn’t always like the tough love and the fiery moods, her many friends and “children” will miss her and the many outrageous sentiments she so often expressed. We hope to have a celebration of her life at a later date.