2017 Honoree Spotlight: Carmen de Lavallade
Carmen de Lavallade is a multifaceted dancer, choreographer, actor and teacher who has left a lasting mark on the stages she’s worked on and artists she’s worked with.
Carmen de Lavallade was born in Los Angeles in 1931 to black Creole parents from New Orleans. After graduating high school, she was awarded a scholarship to train with modern dancer and choreographer Lester Horton at a time when many classes and teachers were not open to black students.
“You couldn’t even get into a dance studio without some student walking out,” de Lavallade told the Los Angeles Times in a 2016 interview. “I was lucky to find teachers like Melissa Blake, Carmelita Maracci [whose students included Jerome Robbins and Charlie Chaplin], and of course Lester Horton. … Lester opened up that place to everybody — every kind of person in the world was there! It was so unique, and that was during the McCarthy period.”
De Lavallade spent five years as a member of the Lester Horton Dance Theater as a lead dancer. She created many leading roles in Horton’s work, including dancing the part of Salome at only age 18. De Lavallade remembers studying not only ballet, modern and ethnic dance forms at Horton’s studio, but also painting, acting, music, and staging. She said the students were not only on stage, but also responsible for the costumes, lighting and stage crew in a way that taught them independence.
De Lavallade brought Alvin Ailey to the studio for his first ballet class, which began a long career of collaboration between the two dance world giants. A year after Horton’s death in 1953, de Lavallade left for New York where she made her Broadway debut in Truman Capote’s musical House of Flowers, partnered with Ailey. During House of Flowers, de Lavallade met dancer and actor Geoffrey Holder. The two married in 1955, and Holder would choreograph works for de Lavallade, including her signature solo Come Sunday.
De Lavallade quickly became a fixture in the New York dance scene. She danced as the prima ballerina in Metropolitan Opera productions of Aida and Samson and Delilah. She worked with and had ballets created for her by Ailey, Glen Tetley, Donald McKayle, Agnes de Mille, and John Butler.
As a choreographer, de Lavallade produced works for Dance Theatre of Harlem, Philandanco, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Metropolitan Opera’s productions of Porgy and Bess and Die Meistersinger. She has also appeared in television specials (including John Butler’s ballet Flight and Duke Ellington’s A Drum Is a Woman) and films (including Carmen Jones in 1954 and Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959 with Harry Belafonte.)
In 1970, de Lavallade was invited to the Yale School of Drama to teach movement. She said that she loved the role of teacher and wanted her students to learn to be comfortable communicating with their bodies.
“She didn’t ask us to be dancers,” Joe Grifasi said of de Lavallade’s teaching. “She said she liked all the different bodies, the uniqueness. Every actor who worked with her — Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver — loved her. She helped us discover how to use our bodies in terms of storytelling.”
While best known for her dance roles on stage, de Lavallade will receive a 2017 Kennedy Center Honor in recognition of her wide-ranging career as an artist in dance, theater, film, television and teaching. “When I made my debut as Salome at the Lester Horton Dance Theater in 1950, I could never have imagined being named one of the Kennedy Center Honorees in 2017,” de Lavallade said. “Thanks to my family, my husband Geoffrey Holder and son Leo, and the extraordinary icons of the dance, theater and music world, who gave me the grit and curiosity to continue to be a part of the performing arts no matter what stood in the way.”