Malcolm McCormick, Dancer, Costume Designer, Dance Historian, Dies at 90

March 1, 2018

Malcolm John McCormick, a multidimensional artist of exceptional cultural and intellectual breadth, passed away on December 29th following complications due to a stroke. Born on October 30th, 1927 in Gouverneur, upstate New York, McCormick was a noted dancer, award-winning and influential costume designer, author, academic, researcher and authority on dance and theater. He was 90 years old.

After graduating from Canton High School in 1945, McCormick headed for New York City to pursue studies in art. He there discovered his true vocation, dance. “I had only one friend in NYC,” he wrote, “and while sketching her in classes at Carnegie Hall I realized that it was the only thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life…dance, that is.”

McCormick studied with Zachary Solov, Nanette Charisse and Antony Tudor. His most influential instructors were Margaret Craske, who coached him in Cecchetti technique, and Mia Slavenska, one of the 20th century’s most brilliant dancers, and a formidable technician. As a soloist with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet (1951-59), he partnered among others Slavenska and guest artist Mary Ellen Moylan, George Balanchine’s “first” ballerina. Like many dancers of his day, McCormick also appeared in musicals, summer stock, on TV, in spectaculars and performed across the USA as well as in Paris and other European venues.

In a dance career spanning three decades (1940s-1960s), McCormick was a contemporary and friend to a variety of luminaries and notables in the dance world. He maintained a lifelong personal and professional friendship with Slavenska, and in later years worked closely with her on codifying and recording her training method. When she passed away in 2002, he accompanied her ashes to Croatia, her homeland, and attended the weeklong celebration honoring her career in Zagreb. He was a historical consultant and interviewee for Emmy award-winning film Mia: A Dancer’s Journey co-produced by Slavenska’s daughter Maria Ramas. “Loved her for teach[ing me] so much about dance,” he wrote.

An award-winning costume designer, McCormick created designs for productions at the Metropolitan Opera. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Limón Dance Company, Murray Louis Dance Company, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Lincoln Center Repertory Company as well as many individual performers were among his commissions. He gifted his designs to novice troupes such as Pilobolus. When his costumes for Mary Stuart at the LCRC won him the Billboard Critics Award, the citation read “… for the most beautiful costumes of [that] Broadway season.” The Chujoy/Manchester Dance Encyclopedia credits him with having “… a considerable influence on modern dance, scenically and in costuming.” The National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs, held a major retrospective exhibition of his dance costume designs (May-November 2017), selected from an archive of 250 drawings donated to the institution by the artist. He was a member of the United Scenic Artists Union.

McCormick was also a noted dance historian. In 2003, Yale University Press published “No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century.” The magisterial 900 page-plus tome was co-authored with Nancy Reynolds, renowned writer, critic and director of research at the George Balanchine Foundation. It chronicled one hundred years of developments in ballet, modern and experimental dance for stage and screen in Europe and North America, while setting dance in broader cultural and historical contexts. The book, researched over twenty years, was the subject of laudatory reviews in the general media and the dance press, both in the USA, including in the New York Times Book Review, and in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. Of her co-author, Reynolds states: “I have the highest regard for Malcolm McCormick as a scholar and thinker…During our lengthy collaboration…I found Malcolm to be an outstanding researcher and synthesizer of material, and his conceptual thinking was often excitingly ‘outside the box.’ He also had a grasp of social, cultural and philosophical issues as they could be brought to bear on the world of dance.” Reynolds commissioned several articles from McCormick for the International Encyclopedia of Dance.

After obtaining an M.A. in 1968 from the Dance Department at the University of California, Los Angeles, McCormick joined the faculty, where he taught costume design and construction, and designed for performance and degree productions at the department. He was a guest lecturer at California Institute of the Arts as well as other universities for many years.

McCormick retired in 1979, and settled in his birthplace of Gouverneur, then in nearby Canton, NY.