Manhattan’s East 7th Street at Avenue C has a new name: “O’Donnell Way.” This naming honors May O’Donnell (1906–2004), pioneer modern dancer, choreographer, and teacher. The honor was conferred by legislation signed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on June 14, 2007. A new signpost was installed in a ceremony in October 2008. O’Donnell lived on 7th Street between Avenues C and D with her husband, composer Ray Green.
May O’Donnell danced with the Martha Graham Contemporary Dance Company from 1932 to 1938. In 1939, she returned to California and, with her husband and another former Graham dancer, Gertrude Shurr, founded the San Francisco Dance Theater. There she established a school and became a co-choreographer with José Limón, touring as a successful duo-concert team, 1939–1941.
She returned to New York and danced there while Green and Limón served in the military during World War II. Martha Graham welcomed her back and entrusted her to create the role of The Pioneer Woman in Appalachian Spring, (1944) and the Attendant in Hérodiade, (1944), as well as in other Graham works.
In collaboration with her husband, O’Donnell created more than fifty works using her own dance technique, one still taught in colleges in America and Europe. Some of her famous pupils included Robert Joffrey, Robert Arpino, Dudley Williams, Ben Vereen, and Daniel Lewis. In 2003, O’Donnell was presented with the Martha Hill Lifetime Achievement Award.
O’Donnell’s biography May O’Donnell: Modern Dance Pioneer, by Marian Horosko, was published by the University Press of Florida in 2005. Horosko is also the author of Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training (rev. ed., 2002) and the second edition of The Dancer’s Survival Manual: Everything You Need to Know from the First Class to Career Change, written with Judith F. Kupersmith, M.D.
Click here to preview a selection from May O’Donnell: Modern Dance Pioneer.
*This article originally appeared in the print version of The Florida Current.