The Root Interview: Carmen de Lavallade

Alvin Ailey's first muse talks about the value of older performers from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra to Mikhail Baryshnikov, and why she keeps dancing well into her 70s.


Few people in the performing arts can match the accomplishments of the supremely elegant Carmen de Lavallade. Over her 50-plus-year career, Alvin Ailey's first muse has starred in ballets, contemporary dance works, plays, films, Broadway musicals and television programs. The New Orleans-born, Los Angeles-bred dancer has directed dance and opera and taught and performed at the Yale Repertory Theater. Setting no limits and fearlessly choosing projects that broke new ground, she mastered roles in Shakespeare and Lorca; the operas Samson and Delilah and Aida; and works by Ailey, John Butler, Agnes de Mille, Glen Tetley, Bill T. Jones and husband Geoffrey Holder, among many, many others.

At 79 she's still dancing as a member of the dance trio Paradigm with fellow dance veterans Gus Solomons Jr. and Dudley Williams. In 2008 she received a National Visionary Award in Washington, D.C., honored along with Quincy Jones Jr. and Eartha Kitt.

Today her chief project is FLY, Five First Ladies of Dance, a series of solo performances by her, Dianne McIntyre, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Germaine Acogny, artists who continue to influence contemporary dance. A hit when it was presented by 651 ARTS in May 2009, it's in the midst of a four-city tour of Philadelphia; Oberlin, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; and Newark, N.J. De Lavallade talked to The Root about the series and why FLY matters.

The Root: What is the importance of FLY?

Carmen de Lavallade: I think it's crucial for young people to see the roots of dance today. The choreographers in the program all highly influenced contemporary dance. Too often, dancers from the past seem to just drop off a cliff. Growing up, I saw all the great artists: José Limón, Miss Ruth (Ruth St. Denis) and Martha Graham. It gave me a good grounding for my own work and respect for what came before me.

TR: All the women in FLY are over the age when most dancers stop performing. What's the value of seeing an older performer?

CD: Though Ella Fitzgerald could sing absolutely beautifully as a young woman, she sang even more richly when she was older. The same was true of Frank Sinatra. With both singers, I prefer those later years. They grew in knowledge and experience and could put that into their interpretations. They could add more colors to their songs, painting a different picture every time they sang.

The same is true with good dancers. They may have lost some of their technical ability, but they more deeply understand a dance's meaning. Look at Baryshnikov. He keeps exploring. I saw José, Miss Ruth and Martha when they were older, and their performances were so meaningful. That's what Dianne, Bebe, Jawole, Germaine and I are after.

TR: Do you think women approach choreography differently from men?

CD: Definitely. We're far more inclined to deal with subjects -- and difficult ones at that -- rather than create abstractions.