Obituaries » Helen Gray McGehee Umaña

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Helen Gray McGehee Umaña

May 10, 1921 - April 9, 2020

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Helen Gray McGehee Umaña passed away peacefully on April 9, 2020.  Born in Lynchburg, Virginia on May 10, 1921, Helen graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 1942 with a major in Latin and Greek.  A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Helen 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 Ms. Graham.  Before long, Helen would be a key member of the Martha Graham Dance Company where she would perform for nearly thirty years.

Known for her fierce and fearless performances, Helen 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 Ms. 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.

Ms. 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, Helen 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.  Helen staged some of her works at Juilliard, including: “I am the Gate,” “El Retablo de Maese Pedro” and “Changes.” In addition, she choreographed “The Oresteia” by Aeschylus for the Ypsilanti Greek Theatre starring Dame Judith Anderson.  She wrote the books Helen McGehee: Dancer and To Be a Dancer.  In 1971 Ms. 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 Helen 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 home 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, Helen reared and taught more devoted children than most.  Helen leaves behind numerous former students, her “spiritual children.” They include: Diane Gray, Kelly Hogan, Alice Helpern, Doug 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 Helen was on the warpath – a not an uncommon condition.  She will also be greatly missed by her loving caretakers Concetta Barksdale and Ellen Cummins, as well as her devoted dog, Spacer.  While we didn’t always like the tough love and the fiery moods, her many friends and “children” will miss her and the outrageous sentiments she so often expressed.  We hope to have a celebration of her life at a later date.

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