Dead at 36, dancer, choreographer from Chicago studied all over the world
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter May 23, 2014 8:24PM
Whitney Young grad William McClellan became an accomplished dancer-choreographer whose work has been mentioned in the New York Times. He died at age 36 after getting his master's in fine arts on May 2. He had encephalitis, something that seemed to hit him after a trip to South America to study dance there. He was a guest choreographer for the Joffrey and danced with a Dayton company.
Updated: June 25, 2014 6:17AM
William McClellan had to move.
He danced on the tables at his grade school.
Performing in a revue, young Bill — in secondhand tap shoes — stole the show.
As an adult, he used his credit cards to co-found a dance troupe. At grocery stores, he broke into steps in the aisles.
Mr. McClellan, a graduate of Whitney Young High School, danced and choreographed for a decade with Ohio’s Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, where he worked with choreographer Bill T. Jones. In Chicago, he was picked to teach an original piece to trainees of the Joffrey Ballet, which called him “a treasure.” He created works for the Cincinnati Ballet and Pennsylvania Regional Ballet, and he studied dance in Brazil and Argentina. Mr. McClellan was singled out by the New York Times at the 2008 American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C.
“I hope to see more of these marvelous Dayton dancers,” wrote critic Alastair Macaulay. “They rewrite major pages of the history of American choreography by dancing them.”
Despite health struggles, Mr. McClellan, 36, lived long enough to graduate May 2 from the University of Michigan, where he achieved his goal of earning a master’s degree in fine arts from the dance department. He was found dead in his home in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on May 14.
He had been diagnosed with limbic encephalitis, which causes inflammation of the brain, said his parents, Regina and William McClellan Sr. A preliminary investigation suggests he died of a brain tumor, said Dr. Jeff Jentzen, the Washtenaw County, Mich., medical examiner. His parents believe the cause was a pulmonary embolism found during the autopsy.
He suffered memory problems due to brain swelling. After he was hospitalized in January, his mother, a former Chicago school principal, moved to Michigan to help him complete his degree. “I packed some clothes up, and Monday to Thursday I took him to class, I sat in class, I took notes and would boil down 20 pages to three pages” for him, she said. “Some classes I sat in. Some classes I sat in a car.”
He wanted to teach at the college level. He told her: “I’ve got to get this degree.”
On graduation day on May 2, “He marched,” she said.
He loved dancing with Whitney Young’s Guys and Dolls dance troupe, which brought the house down, said Kirkland Burke, former assistant girls’ basketball coach at the school. Before he realized how talented they were, Burke decided to attend a performance, thinking there’d be a lot of empty seats. Instead, “They were scalping tickets, the dance show was so good,” he said. “They had more people than we had at the basketball game.”
The young Bill McClellan told his mother he wanted to study dance, but she tried to steer him toward a business degree. Then he auditioned for a scholarship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“He got four years,” she said. “They paid all the tuition and books.”
“During the summers I sent him to New York. He studied with the Alvin Ailey dance company. He got a chance to dance at Martha’s Vineyard.” There, she recalled, “He said ‘The only time I saw a black face was when I looked in the mirror.’ ”
He and a friend started a Detroit dance company, CounterGroove, which they paid for “with their credit cards,” his mother said.
He auditioned for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and stayed for a decade.
“He had a charisma and an inner light and energy that went beyond technique,” said Donnel Jones, executive administrator of the company.
Mr. McClellan received grants to travel to Argentina and Salvador, Brazil, where he studied Japanese artistic influence in Brazil, said to have the largest Japanese community outside Japan.
As a result, “William choreographed Samba Japonesa, and it was performed at the University of Michigan,” his mother said.
He carried himself like “a prince,” said Jones.
“He just exuded confidence but not arrogance,” his father said.
“I just want to do choreography,” he told his mother, “because it lasts longer.”
In 2013, the Joffrey selected him as a winner of its Choreographers of Color award. He taught the company trainees a work they performed at the Harris Theater, “Rise/Rebuild to the Occasion.”
“My movement is a fusion of everything, the jazz, the ballet, the modern, the hip hop, the African, the capoeira,” he said in a Joffrey video. “It’s like Play-Doh. Take this and put it together and take it apart and see [what] we come up with, but be beautiful doing it, be who you are, be right on.”
His family is taking comfort from telling him they appreciated him when he was alive. After he received his master’s degree, his proud brother, Steven, told him “I love you.”
“[William] said, ‘Mama that touched me so much,’ ’’ his mother said. “We think tomorrow’s going to be here — and we gotta hug each other.’’
“He traveled all over the world. My God, when I was 36, I didn’t do half the things he had done,” his father said.
“I know I’ll never see him again, but I know spiritually that I will always feel him,” his father said. “I know that God brought him to us. We were blessed with him 36 years ago and we were charged to raise him, love him, nurture him, and as he grew older, respect him as a man. When God decided it’s time, the encephalitis was getting to him. Bill smiled — he still was a positive figure. When you talked about dance with him, oh, boy, it was a wonderful conversation.”
Services were Friday in Chicago.