Don McDonagh, Dance Critic and Author, Dies at 87


Don McDonagh, a fervent supporter of experimental choreographers as a dance critic for The New York Times and the author of critical biographies of George Balanchine and Martha Graham, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 87.

Min Zhu, his executor and friend, said the cause was cancer.

Contributing reviews and articles prolifically to The Times from 1967 to 1978, Mr. McDonagh was one of the first critics to support the dancemaker Twyla Tharp when she began showing her early, provocative conceptual work in the mid-1960s. (She was known to drop raw eggs on the floor during a performance.)

“He was a fair, intelligent supporter,” Ms. Tharp recalled in a phone interview on Thursday, adding, “This was extremely generous to me as a young person.”

Mr. McDonagh’s biography “George Balanchine,” published in 1983, offered a detailed, analytical study of individual ballets by the New York City Ballet’s founding choreographer while providing illuminating insights to those new to his work.

He used the difference between football and ice hockey to explain Balanchine’s signature style: Traditional ballet relies on the dancers’ visible preparations for steps during a performance. This is like football, with players taking stances at the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. By contrast, ice hockey has players moving all the time. This is comparable to the flow in Balanchine’s ballets, which eliminated the old preparations.

Mr. McDonagh had grown up a sports fan, particularly of the Yankees. He would sometimes walk to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx from his home in Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan.

Donald Francis McDonagh was born in the Bronx on Feb. 6, 1932, and moved to Morningside Heights as a child. His parents, Francis and Winifred (Tierney) McDonagh had immigrated separately from Ireland before marrying. They opened the Moylan Tavern, a popular restaurant and bar, now long-vanished, near Columbia University.

The tavern’s convivial atmosphere was recalled by the comedian and actor George Carlin in his mid-1990s television sitcom, “The George Carlin Show,” in which he played a taxi driver. Most of its scenes were set inside a bar, also named the Moylan Tavern, which he had known while growing up in Morningside Heights.

Mr. McDonagh dedicated his book “How to Enjoy Ballet” (1978) to his parents.

After graduating from Fordham University, he did a stint in the Army during the Korean War and was posted to England. There he met Jennifer Jane Tobutt, a young British theatergoer who was part of a group that frequented London music halls and the ballet. They soon included Mr. McDonagh in their dancegoing. After Mr. McDonagh returned to New York, he and Ms. Tobutt were married. They were later divorced.

His second wife, Leslie Getz, a publisher of dance bibliographies, died in January.

Mr. McDonagh was managing editor of the quarterly Ballet Review from 1969 to 1995.

His other books include “The Complete Guide to Modern Dance” (1976), an introduction to the art form; and “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance” (1970), in which he offered a sophisticated view of the 1960s avant-garde. His book “Martha Graham: A Biography,” was published in 1973.

He is survived by four daughters from his first marriage, Maitland McDonagh, Ruth Stone, Rachel Chelius and Amy Monegro, and seven grandchildren.


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