Gladstone, Valerie, Dance Teacher
The genre-defying performance legend shares her formative influences and creative process.
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. …