Face to Face: Carmen deLavallade

Valerie Gladstone, who has been writing about the arts for more than 20 years, is the co-author of Balanchine’s Mozartiana and A Young Ailey Dancer, with photographer Jose Ivey, which will be published in the fall of 2009.

 

Few people in the performing arts can match the accomplishments of the supremely elegant Carmen deLavallade. Over her nearly 60-year career, she has starred in ballets, modern-dance works, plays, films and Broadway musicals. She has choreographed and directed dance and opera, and taught and performed at the Yale Repertory Theatre. By setting no limits and fearlessly choosing groundbreaking projects, she has mastered roles in Shakespeare and Lorca, the operas Samson and Delilah and Aida, and dances by Alvin Ailey, John Butler, Agnes de Mille, Glen Tetley, Bill T. Jones and her husband, Geoffrey Holder, among many others. Currently, she is a member of the dance trio Paradigm, with Gus Solomons jr and Dudley Williams.

 

Born in 1931 and raised in Los Angeles, deLavallade grew up wanting to be an actress, inspired by her cousin Janet Collins, who was the first black ballerina at The Metropolitan Opera. At 16, she won a scholarship to study with modern-dance pioneer Lester Horton. While performing with his company at the 92nd Street Y in New York and at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, she was discovered by stage and film producers and offered roles in movies, including Carmen Jones, and the Broadway musical House of Flowers, where she met Holder. She followed these successes with leads in Agnes de Mille’s The Four Marys at American Ballet Theatre and John Butler’s Carmina Burana at City Center.

 

In the late ’60s, acclaimed theater director Robert Brustein asked deLavallade to teach at Yale, where she taught Henry Winkler, Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep, among others, and starred in such Yale Rep productions as The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She went on to perform with jazz masters Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall and the Bill Evans Trio in Detroit. DeLavallade still takes to the stage today, often performing her one-woman show, Journey, and her children’s show, The Enchanted Isle of Yew. This spring, she will be honored with a National Visionary Award in Washington, DC, along with Quincy Jones, Jr., and Eartha Kitt. 


Dance Teacher: Who were your earliest inspirations?

 

Carmen deLavallade: Without question, my cousin Janet. To have someone in your family make it into the Metropolitan Opera Ballet showed me that it could be done. It wasn’t just something other people did; it was something I could do. Especially then, when blacks rarely made it into mainstream companies.

 

I was also greatly inspired by Lester Horton. In his classes, you learned far more than steps and counts—you learned the essence of movement and what it could express. He was so imaginative. He always described what a step or sequence should look like. With him, we learned the ballets of José Limón, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham, and all of those wonderful choreographers taught me the importance of acting in dance, of putting real feeling into everything you did onstage. 

 

Then, of course, Alvin Ailey. He was so brilliant, so full of life. But I did warn him that after Revelations he might be typecast as a “black choreographer” who had to do certain themes. And I was right. That’s what the critics did: stereotyped him. If he didn’t do something “black,” they admonished him.


DT: What do you think of classifications like “black artist”?


CD: I think they are useless and confining. The works of Alvin, Garth Fagan, Bill T. Jones, Lester, Gus Solomons jr and other so-called “black choreographers” have little, if anything, in common. Why put us all in the same cubbyhole? I’ve played Shakespeare and Lorca heroines. At the very least, it’s demeaning. What’s wonderful is the great mixture of people, and that’s what we should celebrate.


DT: What gave you the confidence to move around in so many fields?


CD: Curiosity, I guess. I wanted to try many different things. I saw that they were all connected—dance, theater, movies, music, teaching—so I thought, “Why separate them?” When Robert Brustein asked me to come to Yale, I’d never taught acting. But I thought if he thought I could, it was worth a try. Bless his heart. And it was such a great place to learn—to teach and to act. I had a small voice. It was scary. But I just worked until it got better. Once you master something that frightens you, it makes the next challenge much easier.


DT: How did you do as an actor at Yale?


CD: At first, I was rather timid. The male actors thought I was very straightlaced. Then I was given a role playing a hard-bitten, foul-mouthed woman. It was very liberating for me. The guys would stand in the wings and crack up and fall all over the floor when I let loose. They couldn’t imagine that I had it in me. Something else took over. That’s the kind of thing you don’t forget. 


DT: What is your choreographic process?


CD: I start with an idea and then expand on it, trying different movements on myself. Gus, Dudley and I are very collaborative; we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The important thing is always what’s underneath—the meaning, the feeling—not the physicality on top. 


DT: How do you feel about the way dance is taught today?


CD: I think there’s far too much emphasis on counting, and not, as I said, on what’s underneath. You see these dancers with incredible technique and yet they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves. You have to think about the texture and the poetry or there’s no beauty. I also fear for them when the physicality becomes all. I think choreographers can be to blame there, too—asking dancers to do incredible things that in the long term will cripple them, [like] those extensions that mean nothing except that your leg is very high. It’s kind of ugly.


DT: What are you working on now?


CD: I’m developing a character that I’ll soon take on the stage. She’s kind of political. I’ve been trying out sketches with my family. At my age, I don’t care what people think. I can explore anything. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter. I love the process, and I’m having so much fun. DT



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