Trailblazing dancer, choreographer, and historian Mercedes Ellington (BS ’60, dance) was initially reluctant to attend Juilliard.
“I didn’t want to go because I thought, ‘dance is an age-wise thing, and I will be getting older’—so I didn’t want to come to college,” Ellington said in a recent interview with the Journal. Her grandfather—legendary composer, bandleader, and pianist Duke Ellington—and her father—trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Mercer Ellington (’40, trumpet)—however, had another idea: both strongly encouraged Mercedes to attend Juilliard, where the family had a long history.
A few years after Mercer Ellington studied at Juilliard, Duke Ellington had set up Juilliard scholarships for deserving New York City public high school graduates, and he would go on to establish a Juilliard scholarship in memory of his musical partner Billy Strayhorn in 1968. “My grandfather sent a lot of his arrangers to Juilliard,” Mercedes said. “He sent Luther Henderson (BS ’42, public school music), he sent my father, and then he sent me.” Turns out it was a good idea.
As a Dance Division student in the late 1950s, Mercedes, weary of the long commute to Juilliard from her home in St. Albans, Queens, moved into the International House, where her next-door neighbor was fellow student Pina Bausch (’60, dance). “We worked in the cafeteria and bussed tables together,” Ellington said. “She gave me her recipe for dessert, which was strawberry ice cream with sugar and lemon juice on top. We were good friends, and she started teaching me German.”
Ellington recalled of her studies of modern and ballet at Juilliard: “I took Limón for two years and then I switched to Graham because I fell in love with the movement and all the stories—her repertoire. The teachers were incredible—they were all members of the company.” Mercedes’ famous last name proved to be neither an advantage nor liability during her time at Juilliard, she says. “The people in the Graham company didn’t want to know [about my legacy]. They wanted to know about my contraction [referring to one of the fundamental movements of Graham’s technique]. And they wanted to know my ability to carry through the storylines and be dramatic, and that’s the thing I loved about it.”
Each year, Ellington continued, “we had to take an examination to graduate from one year to the next, and I remember choreographing my own dance.” Martha Graham (faculty 1951–77) and Antony Tudor (faculty 1951–71) “were on the panel and all the teachers were watching. It was very nerve-wracking, and I kept coming to one point of the dance I had choreographed, forgetting what it was. I went through it a couple times, and I kept stopping at this one place, and Martha came up and took me by the hand over into a corner, and she said, ‘Look, you choreographed this; we don’t know what this is. If you can’t remember, just make it up. Just keep dancing and do your best. You were fine up until you stopped. Just keep dancing. Don’t stop.’ What she said—that was the word.”
“Martha cared that much—she invested that much toward people’s formation,” Ellington said. “Because there are so many people around to tell you what you can’t do, and especially with the racial issue, what you’re not allowed to do—and that just didn’t occur to her at all.”
After graduating from Juilliard, in 1960, Ellington toured Australia with West Side Story, performing in the Shark ensemble and understudying the role of Rosalía, just three years after the smash hit musical opened on Broadway and a year before the film premiered. Her father and grandfather encouraged her to remain in Australia, concerned that the opportunities in the U.S. for a Black dancer would be too limited. Undaunted, however, Mercedes returned to New York City, where she maintained a rigorous audition schedule while challenging the racial prejudices of the time. “The Urban League sent me to audition for the Radio City Music Hall ballet corps to set an example,” she said of the famed civil rights advocacy organization. “They wanted to prove a point that there were no people of color” in the famed ensemble.
“In that day and age, all the minorities—we would become friends,” Ellington said. “We would go to auditions for Broadway shows because it was [in a sense] a free jazz class. When you took the audition, you’d learn the combination, and that was your jazz class. We’d go together, and we knew we weren’t going to get the job, but we’d meet, and we’d go for coffee afterward. It was like a little club. It was [also] kind of frustrating—you had some hope that maybe someday, [getting cast] would happen.”
Ellington’s mettle and persistence paid off when, in 1963, she became the first African American member of the June Taylor Dancers, performing live on national television every week on The Jackie Gleason Show. “I wanted to phone my mom, to tell her I got this job. But she knew—it was already on the news!”
In the ensuing decades, Ellington continued to work steadily as a dancer and choreographer for Broadway and television as well as for productions at City Center, New York City Opera, and the Muny in St. Louis. She has performed all over the world with a host of luminaries, including a 1971 U.S. State Department tour of the former Soviet Union with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. And now, more than six decades after graduating from Juilliard—and still living in New York City—Ellington is still going strong, having started competing in ballroom dance 10 years ago. Also an active participant in the Juilliard membership program, she frequently attends events and performances. “I like to keep in touch—and it’s also great when you see someone you recognize,” she says.
Through every step of her remarkable career, Ellington has remained a passionate steward of her family’s legacy. The 125th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s birth takes place in May, and Mercedes is busy preparing for commemorative events in New York City and Washington, D.C. “[Antony] Tudor always told me, ‘You’re going to be very important to your family’s history.’ It’s a duty of mine because of what I’ve been through, so the younger generations can understand what backs up their experience—the development of where we came from to where we are now.”
To aspiring artists, Ellington offers this advice: “Don’t listen to anybody who tells you ‘no.’ Try to be one of the people who turn that ‘no’ around and create something that never was before. You don’t know how long you’re going to be here, but you’ve got to go where you’ve got to go. Something might seem crazy, but if it occurs to you, there’s a reason for it. You’ve just got to go after it.”
Hilary Gardner, development associate in annual giving and membership, serves on the Juilliard Jazz voice advisory committee