On Sept. 17 at a ceremony at the Pierre Hotel in New York City, Carmen de Lavallade will receive the Capezio Dance Award. Given annually since 1952, the award honors significant contributions to American dance by an individual, company, or institution. It is accompanied by a $10,000 honorarium from the Capezio Ballet Makers Dance Foundation, and this year it will celebrate de Lavallade's lifetime achievement.
While the quantity of de Lavallade's accomplishments is remarkable, what's even more striking is their diversity. Nowadays there is such specialization in the arts and entertainment that performers find themselves forced to choose from among several narrow career paths. Dancers are often pressured by teachers or choreographers to dedicate themselves to the single-minded mastery of one specific technique rather than being allowed to study a variety of styles. The same holds true for actors: A Los Angeles agent may be reluctant to take you on as a film actor if he or she knows you're also auditioning for theatre.
But to sustain a lifelong career in the arts, a performer must be versatile and, as de Lavallade's life illustrates, need not -- perhaps should not -- specialize. De Lavallade distinguished herself as a dancer on the concert stage, on Broadway, in opera, and on television. She later became a choreographer, an award-winning stage and film actor, and a university professor. And, oh yes, along the way she also married and raised a son. She is living proof that it is indeed possible to do it all.
L.A. Born and Bred
Born in Los Angeles in 1931, de Lavallade began studying dance in order to "follow in the footsteps" of her first cousin Janet Collins, who made history as the first full-time African-American member of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. She was also known to Broadway audiences for her acclaimed performance as Night, the featured dance role in the 1950 Cole Porter musical Out of This World, which was choreographed by Hanya Holm. "She was my role model," says de Lavallade of Collins. "We were about 10 years apart in age, but we were born in the same month and we looked like sisters. She was quite an extraordinary lady, a real trailblazer, whom people today have forgotten. But it's because of her that I'm doing what I'm doing with my life."
De Lavallade's initial dance training was with Melissa Blake, who operated a studio in Los Angeles at Hollywood and Highland. "Then I got a scholarship to study contemporary dance with Lester Horton," de Lavallade says, "and that's when it all really started. He had his own very small storefront theatre -- the Lester Horton Dance Theater -- at 7566 Melrose Ave. And that's where the school was too. It was remarkable training because the stage was our classroom. We didn't have
barres and mirrors, and we gave performances every Friday and Saturday night. But Lester, being the kind of person he was, decided I needed a broader technique, so he sent me to study with Carmelita Maracci, one of the great ballerinas of the Cecchetti style. So I got two distinct kind of techniques -- the ballet and the contemporary -- and the best of training in both."
At Horton's school, de Lavallade also took classes and workshops in music, visual arts, and dance composition. "For example," she says, "we'd have to make a sculpture out of wire or paper and then try to translate that into a movement piece." She eventually became a member of Horton's professional performing company. (For further information on Horton, de Lavallade highly recommends Lelia Goldoni's documentary Genius on the Wrong Coast.)
While working with Horton, de Lavallade also danced in four Hollywood films, including Demetrius and the Gladiators (in which she appears as Susan Hayward's handmaid) and Carmen Jones (which also featured dancer Alvin Ailey). Herbert Ross, who choreographed Carmen Jones, then summoned de Lavallade to New York to dance in the 1954 Broadway musical House of Flowers. "Herbert sent for Alvin and me when they had that big changeover -- from Balanchine to Herbert, who ended up essentially directing the whole show," she explains. It was while performing in House of Flowers that de Lavallade met Geoffrey Holder, a fellow cast member, whom she married the next year. "Everyone you can imagine was in that show," she says, "every performer of color -- Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, and even Arthur Mitchell."
In 1956, de Lavallade enjoyed one of the most gratifying experiences of her performing career when she took over Collins' dance roles in Aida and Samson and Delilah at the Metropolitan Opera. "I inherited her roles and her dressing room," de Lavallade says. "I was literally shaking in my shoes."
Next came one of her favorite performances: her dance and lip-synching rendition of the role of Madame Zzaj (that's "jazz" spelled backward) in Duke Ellington's A Drum Is a Woman, a live television production broadcast in 1957 on The U.S. Steel Hour. The episode, which featured the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Talley Beatty dancing with de Lavallade, can be viewed on videotape at New York's Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio). "In addition to dancing," de Lavallade says, "I had to lip-synch -- live! And the only reason I could do it was that, years before, I had done a piece with Lester called '3-D Follies.' It was a variety performance on film and in it I was given a song to lip-synch. And I had the best Hollywood people to teach me how to do it. There's a whole technique to lip-synching -- it involves the timing of your breathing and exactly how to form the words -- and if I hadn't had that technique behind me, I would have been up a creek without a paddle."
In addition to her concert stage, opera, Broadway, and television work, de Lavallade performed in the Agnes de Mille ballets "The Four Marys" and "The Frail Quarry" (originally titled "Tally Ho") with American Ballet Theatre. "And it just went on and on," she says. "I never really thought about building a career. I just kept working, doing whatever I was invited to do."
An Adler Actor
While continuing to advance her dance career, which included performing the works of virtually every major choreographer emerging at the time -- John Butler, Donald McKayle, Glen Tetley, Joe Layton, as well as Ailey, Ross, and Holder -- de Lavallade also studied acting with Stella Adler, who had quite a ferocious reputation. "But I liked her," de Lavallade says. "As a dancer, I was used to discipline and to being yelled at. Lester didn't yell, but Carmelita certainly did, so I was accustomed to that sort of harsh criticism. Dancers are like the Army: You tell us to do something and we do it." She admits she'd always wanted to be an actor but simply put it on the back burner while pursuing dance. "I was always innately a dramatic dancer, and most of the dances I performed in were narrative works."
In 1969, de Lavallade began teaching movement at the Yale University School of Drama. She then became a company member of and choreographer for Yale Repertory Theatre, continuing to work with the company through 1977. "It's funny, people in New Haven actually know me as an actor, not a dancer," she says. De Lavallade also performed nondancing roles at many other regional and Off-Broadway theatres and received Actors' Equity's St. Clair Bayfield Award in 1978 for her performance as Emilia in the Roundabout Theatre Company production of Othello in New York.
De Lavallade's acting work also includes roles on Ryan's Hope and The Cosby Show and in the films Lone Star (1996) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Currently she is working on a solo she will perform in the Fall for Dance Festival at New York's City Center this autumn, as well as an acting role in the upcoming film Bolden!, about the life of jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden.