At 85, Carmen de Lavallade is still gorgeous and erect. Her secret? “Being aware of my posture, trying not to let gravity get the best of me. If you lift between the shoulder blades, your lungs just open up,” she tells the Voice. “I make up exercises for myself, little chair things, turn on the radio and dance around. Use the furniture. Anything to keep the body occupied. The key is the lift of the spine.”
Over the course of a six-decade career, the ubiquitous performer, who has been awarded a lifetime achievement Obie, has evinced just this sort of cheery, steely resolve. More or less the Misty Copeland of the Fifties, daughter of a black father and a Mexican mother, she was one of the first ballerinas of color in the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and American Ballet Theatre — her cousin Janet Collins, who preceded her on the Met stage, was the first. A self-described “Depression baby,” she learned patience traversing Los Angeles for hours on buses to get the dance training she needed and wanted.
The city also gave her a lifelong friend. She first spotted Alvin Ailey at George Washington Carver Junior High School and eventually convinced him to come along to the Melrose Avenue studio of Lester Horton, who founded L.A.’s first modern-dance theater, a pioneering multiracial company.
“We spent seven days a week in classes and performances, and we helped build costumes and sets,” she says. “We came in hours early and ironed everything, put it all together. And cleaned up the theater before we left. You can’t beat it, the bus-and-truck experience.” Horton, she says, “choreographed like a director. We were performing story ballets, like Salome and Yerma, dramatic pieces. The technique was difficult and quite wonderful — choreodramas, he called them. He let you be an individual. He didn’t expect cookie-cutter dancers.”
Horton’s performances attracted celebrities like jazz singer and actress Lena Horne, who introduced de Lavallade to the director/choreographer Herbert Ross at 20th Century Fox; Ross put de Lavallade in films like Carmen Jones and, after Horton’s death in 1953, summoned her to New York. She, Ailey, and dancer Geoffrey Holder (who quickly proposed to and married her) found themselves on Broadway, performing in House of Flowers, a musical set in Haiti based on a story by Truman Capote and directed by Peter Brook. “We felt like babes in the woods,” she told an interviewer at the Kennedy Center two years ago.
Over the next two decades de Lavallade performed onstage and on television, where her mixed heritage, natural grace, and theatrical training set her apart. She originated roles in dances by storied choreographers including Donald McKayle, John Butler, Agnes de Mille, and Glen Tetley, all while working with Ailey to launch what became the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She gave birth to her son, Léo, returning to the stage just two months later.
Both Holder and Ailey considered her their muse. According to Deborah Jowitt, the longtime Voice dance critic, “She often seems as if she has a particular persona, whether she’s using speech or just dancing, that makes you think she’s a very wise woman.”
Perhaps that’s in part because of her varied career. “Not many people pop around like I do,” de Lavallade says. She credits the Yale Repertory Theatre — which Robert Brustein asked her to join in the early Seventies, and which she calls “the best thing that ever happened” — with advancing her theater education. “It was pretty scary, acting!… Actors are imaginative, they explore things, they ask questions. Dancers are more like military; they do what they’re told, what the choreographer wants.”
Working in all kinds of theater — cabaret, actors’ projects, directors’ projects — and teaching at Yale helped her develop a more abstract, less linear way of thinking about dance. “In New Haven I’m known as an actor who moves well. That experience just opens the mind, because of the exploration actors do in their work. They’re people-watchers; they interpret real life. I keep encouraging dancers to go to acting and directing classes.”
Gus Solomons jr, a dancer and actor who has partnered de Lavallade since 1961 — and who in 1998 formed Paradigm, an ensemble of older performers, with her and the late Ailey star Dudley Williams — says this is part of what makes de Lavallade unique. “My girl Carmen, who started as a dancer-dancer, became an actor-dancer. That informed her sensibility and her perception about what dance performance could be.”
Her even temperament and extraordinary work ethic have contributed to her success as a performer (and as a choreographer and dance coach). A few years ago I actually found myself sharing a dressing room and a stage with her in Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham’s From the Horse’s Mouth, a perennial favorite that allows dance-world veterans to tell stories about their careers and improvise movement with colleagues. Stunning and focused in the spotlight, backstage de Lavallade was just one of the girls, as modest as could be. Says Solomons, “You always wanted to have her in the room, because she wouldn’t throw a shit-fit or tell you she couldn’t do what you were asking her to do.”
De Lavallade’s not hanging up her shoes anytime soon. This spring she performed in another iteration of Horse’s Mouth, this time honoring Solomons himself. In 2012 she began working on an hour-long dance memoir, As I Remember It, which traces her long career through movement, film, and storytelling. She’s done the piece across the country, locally at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, and at the Yale Rep and Kennedy Center. This fall it goes to the Annenberg in Beverly Hills, the first time audiences in her native city will have witnessed her onstage in over sixty years. “They had to leave out so much,” says Solomons. “Otherwise it would have been as long as the Mahabharata.”
The 2005 documentary Carmen and Geoffrey, by Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob, will be shown on June 6 at 7 p.m. at Film Forum; the directors and de Lavallade will appear for an onstage interview following the screening.
[This is part of the Voice‘s 2016 Obie Awards coverage. Check out the rest of our Obies features here.]