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.
TR: Your husband, Geoffrey Holder, first choreographed The Creation for you in 1972. It made a huge impression then, both because of the beautiful, evocative movement and the words of James Weldon Johnson, the famous civil rights leader and poet who wrote the song on which the piece is based. Since then, you've performed it several times. Why are you repeating it for FLY?
CD: It stays as meaningful as the words of the song, which was composed in 1899. It became known as the "Negro National Anthem" and is dear to millions of African Americans. I've always felt a kinship with Mr. Johnson, perhaps because his papers are kept at Yale in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where Geoffrey and I were married.
CD: Yes, and it was quite amazing. I once did it on Martin Luther King's birthday, with 1,000 young singers. The kids in the audience were mesmerized.
TR: What makes it different from other works you perform?
CD: It combines text and movement in especially poignant and stirring ways. I use less and less movement now because I feel it intrudes on the song's meaning. Geoffrey completely agrees with my new approach.
TR: How do you keep it fresh?
CD: We're all different every day, so I tap into that difference. The great teacher Lester Horton taught me that at the beginning of my career. He gave us the freedom to find what we could bring individually in a work. He also encouraged his students to try everything. So I've always watched great actors to see how they keep their performances alive. It's about going deeper and deeper into the story you want to tell.
TR: How has your theatrical background influenced you as a dancer and choreographer?
CD: Actors are generally more grounded than dancers and musicians, more meat and potatoes. They usually explore themselves as part of the process of learning roles. I always encourage dancers to take acting classes. Actors usually know to take movement classes. You just have to look at Broadway over the years to see how necessary it is to have both skills.
TR: How does the audience respond to FLY?
CD: The older members like having people to identify with and leave the theater with their backs straighter. The younger ones learn that aging doesn't mean falling apart. It opens their eyes to the future. All of them learn that every age has a story to tell.
TR: How do you feel about what's going on in dance today, such as Dancing With the Stars and other popular television dance shows?
CD: I think it's all wonderful. Dance was always the stepchild of the arts, the low man on the totem pole; that's no longer the case. It's bringing more people to an appreciation of what it's all about.
TR: What keeps you going?
CD: Geoffrey, just being around him. He never stops, never gives in. Also, my curiosity. I always want to find out what's next.
Dance Cleveland/Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, Dec. 3 and 4
New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, N.J., Dec. 11 and 12
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including The New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.