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Kevin Wynn, Choreographer of Complex Movement, Dies at 67

Kevin Wynn, a choreographer of complex maelstroms that moved at lightning speed and an uncommonly dedicated teacher who influenced generations of dancers, died on Oct. 12 at his home in Manhattan. He was 67.

His mother and only immediate survivor, Edith Wynn, said the cause was a heart attack.

Before he was a choreographer and a teacher, Mr. Wynn was a dancer. He was a soloist in the early 1980s with the José Limón Dance Company and Dianne McIntyre’s Sounds in Motion.

“He was one of the most brilliant, magnificent dance figures I have ever seen,” Ms. McIntyre said in an interview. “He had a lushness, reaching all sides of the space, and, at the same time, the ability to give all the little articulated details. He could give you the delicacy of a feather and the roar of fire. You could hear his body speaking to you.”

These qualities were equally evident in Mr. Wynn’s choreography. Reviewing one of the first performances of his company, the Kevin Wynn Collection, in 1983, Jack Anderson wrote in The New York Times that “the energy of Mr. Wynn’s dancers could have raised the roof.”

Reviewing a 1996 performance, Jennifer Dunning, also writing in The Times, said that Mr. Wynn was “as much an architect as a choreographer,” with a “highly developed, impressive sense of craft and full-stage patterning.”

“There is,” Ms. Dunning added, “a breathtaking formal beauty to the way the dancers seamlessly cluster and disperse and to Mr. Wynn’s juxtaposition of shapes.”

But Mr. Wynn’s greatest impact was as an educator and mentor, especially at the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, in Westchester County, where he taught for more than 30 years.

“He made you feel like you were chosen,” said Colleen Thomas, the choreographer and chair of the Barnard College dance department, who studied with Mr. Wynn at Purchase in 1989 and later performed with his company.

Mr. Wynn (wearing a baseball cap) in 2008 with students at the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, where he taught for more than 30 years. Credit…Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Many of Mr. Wynn’s students called him “Papa Bear,” and he had nicknames for most of them. His classes, for which he developed a distinct pedagogical sequence influenced by Mr. Limón and Katherine Dunham, were intensely challenging, and he didn’t let anyone get away with saying they were tired. If someone fell, he laughed.

“He could tease kids in a wonderfully healthy way to get them to not take themselves so seriously but to take the work seriously,” said Carol Walker, a former dean of dance at Purchase.

Mr. Wynn’s connections to his students were not confined to the classroom. “Most faculty made appointments in their offices,” Ms. Walker said, “but Kevin was out in public. He would sit in the alcoves we call the cubbies, and anyone was welcome to sit and chat.”

Those conversations could continue for decades, as his former students became dancers in major companies and productions and some became important choreographers and teachers themselves.

Jason Rodriguez, before he was a major figure in vogueing and appeared on “Pose,” the FX drama series about New York City’s ball culture, studied with Mr. Wynn in the 2010s and was briefly his assistant. “My entire career was built because of him,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “He was the first person to give me a yes. He showed me that the relationship between teacher and student could be humane and caring.”

Kyle Abraham, a MacArthur grant-winning choreographer, remembered first seeing Mr. Wynn’s work as a prospective Purchase student in 1996. “The complex layered movement dialogue was more than a movement language,” he recalled on Instagram after Mr. Wynn’s death. “It was a rain forest, a bustling metropolis, it was fantasy and nightmare. It was ultimately the freedom to dream, and to create a world as I’d want to see it.”

“After seeing that work, I felt, ‘This is where I want to be,’” Mr. Abraham said by phone. “Like a lot of students, I would sneak out early from the class I was supposed to be in so I could watch Kevin’s combinations. The environment he set up was familial, and you wanted to be a part of it because it seemed like the cool kids.”

Mr. Abraham’s regular conversations with Mr. Wynn, in person and over the phone, began that summer and continued until just before Mr. Wynn’s death.

“If you’ve seen my work, you’ve seen Kevin’s impact and imprint on my voice,” Mr. Abraham wrote on Instagram. “To me, Kevin was to dance what Prince was to music.”

Mr. Wynn, second from right, in 1981 as a member of the José Limón Company. He is flanked by Stephen Pier, left, and Arie Wiener. Carlos Orta was at the drum. Credit…Martha Swope/The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Kevin Antony Wynn was born on May 6, 1956, in Washington. His mother, a dental hygienist, and his father, Horace Wynn, divorced not long after his birth.

Mr. Wynn graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in his hometown and then enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts as a theater major. It was there that he encountered a dance teacher who changed his life, as he would later change the lives of so many.

Seeing “this 6-foot-6, 200-pound Black man who moved like a feather,” Mr. Wynn told The Tampa Bay Times in 1997, caused him to “switch gears.” Feeling that he was getting a late start in his training as a dancer and needed to catch up quickly, he transferred to the dance conservatory at Purchase.

After graduating in 1979, Mr. Wynn joined the Limón company, where he became a soloist and stayed for four years.

“I loved it, but it helped me realize dancing was not going to be the be-all and end-all,” he told The Tampa Bay Times. “I had to do something else, which was choreograph.”

After teaching in Italy for two years, Mr. Wynn began his tenure at Purchase in 1986. He also taught at Dance Space and the Peridance Center and Steps on Broadway, and he was on the faculty of the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program. His company performed in New York at the Joyce Theater, the Harkness Dance Festival and Danspace Project, among other theaters, but it disbanded around 2005. After that, he choreographed mainly for the dance departments at Purchase and other colleges.

“He just wasn’t interested in playing the game and doing the P.R.,” Ms. Thomas, of Barnard College, said. “He wanted to teach, and he wanted to make his work.”

Ms. Thomas sometimes asked Mr. Wynn about his busy, many-layered dances. “He would say, ‘This is how my world is,’” she said. “I think this is how his brain was. He found order and beauty in a fast-paced mess.”

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