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Marianne Harkless Diabate, who fused dance forms into works of ‘limitless range,’ dies at 63

Marianne Harkless Diabate
Marianne Harkless Diabate

Marianne Harkless Diabate took lessons at the Boston Ballet as a young girl and then quit, only to turn on her heel and return as a teenager to the art form that would become her world.

“I suddenly became obsessed with dance,” she once told her friend De Ama Battle, a dancer and arts educator. “I feel like it was a calling.”

So, too, was the pull toward creating something new from a multitude of disciplines, including ballet, jazz, and modern, that illuminated the importance of Black dance. “I took classes in every style that I could get my hands on,” she said, and her choreographic vision wove those threads into dances that transcended the sum of their parts.

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Ms. Harkless Diabate, who with her husband, Sory Diabate, had codirected Benkadi Drum & Dance, died in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center May 12 from complications of treatment for lymphoma. She was 63 and lived in Milton.

As a cofounder of Racines Black Dance Festival, she brought to Boston performers and teachers from around the country — those who could introduce dancers and students to styles that showed how African dance had evolved in the Americas.

“I think a lot of people may not be aware of the influence that Black dance has had on American culture and how much it has shaped American culture,” she told the Bay State Banner in 2019. “Our mission is to bring communities together to increase cultural awareness and to elevate Black dance in the area.”

As Ms. Harkless Diabate drew from each cultural dance style, “she would always make sure that she knew the history behind it and the story that went along with it so the expressions she used in her choreography could be well read,” Battle said in an interview.

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“She made the dance movements feel like they were a part of each and every dancer who danced it,” added Battle, the founder and artistic director of the Art of Black Dance and Music Inc., with which Ms. Harkless Diabate formerly performed. “She was able to make them understand the flow and the style of the dance.”

In Ms. Harkless Diabate’s expansive work “there was a genuine desire to explore that limitless range, and she wasn’t stuck in any one particular aesthetic,” said José Mateo, founder and director of José Mateo Ballet Theatre in Cambridge, and creator of the Dance for World Community.

Nearly 40 years ago he was one of her teachers.

“One of the, I think, very unusual things about Marianne,” he said, “is that she actually mastered the techniques of a number of different forms that allowed her to have a broader range of experience than a lot of professional dancers get to experience.”

She became a founding dancer with his company at a time when few Black dancers performed in ballet and there were even fewer discussions in arts communities about diversifying that dance form.

A pioneering Black woman in Boston’s dance world, Ms. Harkless Diabate “was able to demonstrate through her own career and career choices the importance of this whole idea of diversity not just of styles, but a cross-pollination that I think she believed would ultimately be something to aspire to, so that we could all enjoy and appreciate a greater diversity of dance forms,” Mateo said.

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For those such as Baindu Conté, Ms. Harkless Diabate filled a number of roles over the years, from inspiring teacher to close friend and valued colleague. They founded Racines Black Dance Festival in 2016 with Mckersin Previlus.

“She really carried so much of the heart and the vision,” Conté said. “There was this absolute grace that she carried and this absolute belief in humanity. I’ve never actually met anyone else that has that.”

Born in Boston in 1958, Marianne Harkless was the second oldest of five siblings. Her late mother, Anne Cary Harkless, played piano and taught music. Her father, James Harkless of Silver Spring, Md., is a labor arbitrator.

Ms. Harkless Diabate “was unstoppably positive and completely idealistic,” said her older sister, Suzanne Harkless of El Cerrito, Calif. “She was really one of the most positive people anybody has ever met.”

The melding of dance forms and training that defined her sister’s work and career was present in all parts of her life, Suzanne said.

“Basically, she felt like she could do anything and everything. She was not somebody who was going to be put in a box,” Suzanne said. “And she really believed people could work together. She was not going to have any of their differences.”

After Ms. Harkless Diabate embraced dance as her life when she was a teenager, she attended Bard College for a year, and then returned to Greater Boston to begin studying with various teachers.

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Along with the Boston Ballet and the José Mateo Ballet Theatre, she trained in New York at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and the International Afrikan American Ballet.

When Ms. Harkless Diabate died, she was an assistant professor of dance at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and a dance instructor at Wellesley College.

She also had danced over the years with companies including Danny Sloan Dance Company, Boston Dance Collective, the Spirit of Africa, and the Impulse Dance Company as she performed throughout the country and internationally.

“And it’s incredibly hard as a dancer to make a living,” her sister said, recalling the past jobs that Ms. Harkless Diabate had held to support her artistic work and her companies. “She would get up early in the morning to do a newspaper route, she would waitress, she would do everything to support her dream. She would never give up.”

Benkadi, the word that begins the name of Benkadi Drum & Dance, is from Bambara, the first language of Ms. Harkless Diabate’s husband, Sory, who is from Mali. They had been a couple for 18 years.

“Benkadi means coming together sweetly,” she told Battle in an interview posted on YouTube. “And it means more than that. It means there’s a strength in unity, and that people working together for a common good is what we believe in as a way of life.”

In addition to her husband and her sister, Ms. Harkless Diabate leaves another sister, Claire Thomas of Arlington, Va.; and two brothers, Charles Harkless of New York City and Guy Harkless of Toronto.

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A graveside service was held and a celebration of her life and work will be announced.

“My experience with Black dance is that it’s just about community and people,” Ms. Harkless Diabate told the Banner. “So it makes you feel good doing it. It’s accessible at many levels. It’s dance from the heart.”

She was diagnosed with lymphoma recently. Her abrupt death was not anticipated by her physicians and shocked her family and friends.

“I don’t think I ever realized that Marianne was mortal,” Conté said.

She added that Ms. Harkless Diabate’s last words to her family were “I love you,” and that “no one in Marianne’s life doubts that she loved them. She wasn’t just saying, ‘I love you.’ Her very existence was that of love for people. Her very existence was that of love.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.