The number of work commitments that filled each week for Gus Solomons Jr. in early 1964, when he was 25, would have exhausted many in the dance world he prominently inhabited with his powerful, 6-foot-3 frame.
Teacher, student, dancer, and choreographer, he was based in New York City and commuted to Boston to spend each Tuesday teaching. Performances with numerous dance groups in both cities packed his calendar, even before he made history as the first Black member of the legendary Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
“I can’t say no,” he said of his busy life in March 1964, speaking with the Globe in a rare pause from work as he explained how he went from receiving a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to becoming a groundbreaking force in modern dance.
“I can do in dance what I could have done in architecture,” he said.
Mr. Solomons, who later added writer and dance critic to his titles, died of heart failure Aug. 11 in Manhattan, N.Y., said his brother, Dr. Noel Solomons. He was 84, lived in New York, and his health had been failing.
“I started dancing at age 4 in Sunday school,” Mr. Solomons said in an interview a few years ago with the Gibney performing arts center in New York.
Those first steps at Rush Memorial AME Zion Church in Cambridge led to a deepening involvement with the arts at home, in school, and in college.
Noel, who lives in Guatemala City, Guatemala, recalled in a phone interview that his older brother gave puppet and marionette shows in their family’s Cambridge home as a boy and expanded into other artistic endeavors.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I liked performing,” Mr. Solomons said in a 1996 oral history interview, parts of which are on an MIT website.
Children’s theater led to the high school drama club and dance studies at Boston Conservatory while he attended MIT.
Born in Boston on Aug. 27, 1938, Gustave Martinez Solomons Jr. grew up in Cambridge partway between MIT and Harvard University.
His father, Gustave Sr., was an MIT graduate and electrical engineer for Bethlehem Steel in Quincy. He also was the first Black member of the Cambridge School Committee. The Gustave M. Solomons Transportation Career Center in Cambridge is named for him.
His mother, Olivia Stead Solomons, was a public school teacher in Boston and Cambridge, according to her Globe obituary, though working in Cambridge didn’t happen easily.
The family achieved success in the face of bigotry, Noel said.
“My father ran for the School Committee because he felt my mother had been discriminated against by not being appointed a teacher in Cambridge,” he said.
Gus Solomons Jr. was 16 when he graduated from Cambridge High and Latin and his academic accomplishments left him a choice between Harvard and MIT.
“He was scholastically very, very good,” his brother said.
Harvard offered Mr. Solomons a partial scholarship, but MIT offered full tuition, so he chose his father’s alma mater.
Noel, meanwhile, graduated from Harvard and Harvard Medical School, taught for several years at MIT, and settled in Guatemala, where he cofounded the Center for Studies of Sensory Impairment, Aging and Metabolism, or CeSSIAM.
When Noel was on a neurology rotation one night in 1968 at Massachusetts General Hospital during medical training, someone told him his brother was in the hospital.
“He was beaten up in the North End,” Noel said. “I think he was trying to buy some pastries with some friends. His color and his orientation were not tolerated in that part of Boston at that time.”
As a tall, gay, Black man with a muscular dancer’s physique, Mr. Solomons was noticeable everywhere, and he was a striking figure wherever he performed.
Recordings posted online include a 1968 GBH video of Mr. Solomons performing in Boston, and a 2017 New York Times video of him as an older dancer, finding ways to express creativity with an aging body.
Dance should fulfill “a part of you that wants to be acknowledged, that part that has been oppressed or been frustrated by the speed of things or by the noise or by the crowds or by what have you,” he said in the GBH video. “Not to escape from them, but to simply … find a way of coping with them.”
Mr. Solomons left Boston after finishing his MIT degree.
“I came to New York City in August 1961 to rehearse ‘Kicks and Co.,’ the Broadway-bound musical that Donald McKayle and Walter Nicks had hired me to dance in,” he wrote in a 2022 essay for Dance Magazine about being a Black dancer in that era.
When the show closed, he studied with renowned dancer Martha Graham. He was aware some doors might be closed to a Black man, and that made his pioneering role with the Merce Cunningham’s company, from 1965 to 1968, all the more surprising.
“I loved taking Merce’s classes and I never aspired to be in the company because I didn’t look like anybody in that company,” he said in the “Mondays With Merce” series posted on YouTube. “And one day Merce said, ‘Can we have dinner?’”
At an Italian restaurant, Cunningham said, “‘I think I’d like you to dance with us.’ And it was it was like a movie,” Mr. Solomons said. “I mean, I just kind of floated home. And that was that. And I said goodbye to Martha Graham. I didn’t actually say goodbye to Martha Graham. I just didn’t show up anymore.”
Mr. Solomons launched Solomons Company/Dance and often incorporated experimental elements. Sometimes a radio provided sound for a performance, rather than hired musicians.
“I consciously kept my work on a small scale so that I could have the freedom to experiment, to do a piece with radios, say, in a museum instead of a piece that could be presented in a conventional theater,” he said in the oral history.
Mr. Solomon’s teaching included many years at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
His writing appeared in Dance Magazine and other publications, and he was blogging as recently as last year. In 1996, he cofounded Paradigm Dance, and his efforts, at 79, to find ways to keep dancing were featured in a New York Times article about older dancers.
Noel Solomon said he was his brother’s only immediate survivor, and he didn’t know if plans were being made for a memorial gathering.
“The idea of becoming a contemporary dancer in a society that values commerce and product is an act of will, an act of courage, and an act of temerity of an extraordinary degree,” he said.
“One wonders, I think, at least once a day, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And there are no rational good answers to that question,” he said. “And I guess the quest for finding a reason, combined with a need to express yourself in this way through movement, freely, is what keeps a lot of us going.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.