WHEN 85-YEAR-OLD dance legend Carmen de Lavallade returned home to Los Angeles last month to perform after almost 15 years, she came to connect. To remember. Perhaps to be relevant again, visiting students at her elementary school in Vernon City and Thomas Jefferson High School in South L.A. She came to show us all she’s still got it.
“Beyoncé, eat your heart out,” de Lavallade exclaims during her autobiographical show, As I Remember It, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Since 2014, she’s been performing her one-woman show all over the country.
“Hands. Fingers. Hips.” This is how she introduces herself to the audience. Sense memory. Her body may have aged, but these parts still move with fluidity and grace. Her crown bursts into flames. De Lavallade struts forward nobly, embodying, at various times, Adam, Eve, and God himself. This is in an extract from her famous dance, The Creation, which was choreographed by her late husband, performer Geoffrey Holder. The crown on her head is made by her own Creole hands. Fingers extend like golden prongs — those of a queen, a goddess — flaring to signal royalty. De Lavallade is one of the great solo dance artists of our time. She would never say that. Trained in humility, committed to the discipline of evaporation, she makes us see what is not there.
I have wanted to meet de Lavallade for a long time. I’ve been watching her dance since I was 10. We talk at my dining room table the Sunday after her performance at the Wallis. Dancer talk, mostly, about what it was like to be the person who stirred Lester Horton to codify his technique. Horton was arguably one of the most unsung and wronged dance-makers ever; he lived and worked in Los Angeles from the late ’20s to the early ’50s, and died of a heart attack, abetted by alcoholism, at 47 in 1953. Horton’s aesthetic reflects our deserts, our rock formations, our light, our particular 20th-century modernity. He is Los Angeles, cantilevered, planked, hinged, and unhinged. He had big ideas and delivered a for-real, original modern dance technique right up there with Martha Graham’s, but not nearly as well known or respected.
Horton is most closely associated with Bella Lewitzky. Or rather, Lewitzky with Horton. De Lavallade became Horton’s muse when Lewitzky — irritated by the choreographer’s penchant for eclecticism and openness to Hollywood and jazz, as well as his tolerance for inexperienced dancers — left the company in 1950. Two years earlier, at age 17, de Lavallade came to Horton’s studio at 7566 Melrose Avenue, where she was spied by Lena Horne, who decided to sponsor her in Horton’s Salome. Salome was originally Lewitzky’s role, but Horton adapted it to de Lavallade. “You are not Bella, and Bella is not you,” he quipped to de Lavallade. With Horne’s support, in part, Horton began a black dance legacy in the United States.
His was the first interracial dance company in the United States. De Lavallade would then bring in her Thomas Jefferson High School classmate Alvin Ailey. James Truitte, Don Martin, Larry Maldonado, Joyce Trisler, Yvonne de Lavallade, and, soon, Leila Goldoni were members. Ailey would go on to start the trailblazing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater group — still the most widely traveled interracial dance company in the world.
I pressed her about her relationship with Ailey. The two performed together famously in Roots of the Blues (music by Brother John Sellers) and an early rendition of Revelations, Ailey’s signature work, which found its final form by 1964. But it was their tour of Southeast Asia in 1961, where the troupe was billed as the Carmen de Lavallade-Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, that de Lavallade recalls during her Wallis performance: the group treated her “rudely,” resenting the fact that her name appeared in its title. A rift developed between the two headliners, though both were “bad at confrontation,” she says. In the end, they “let it go.” As her performance indicates, however, the hurt lingers: Did she feel overrun by Ailey? Could his dance company have been theirs? Did she have regrets? She dodged this line of questioning, still avoiding confrontation.
But not completely.
I recall the audible gasp from the Wallis audience — the most racially diverse crowd I have seen in Los Angeles since Misty Copeland’s Firebird with American Ballet Theatre this past spring at the Music Center — when de Lavallade spoke of the prejudice her older cousin Janet Collins, the first black principal dancer in the Metropolitan Opera, experienced in Los Angeles when taking ballet class: “If you did get into a dance class, white girls would walk out.”
There was another audible gasp, this time from 40 Vernon City Elementary School kids, when de Lavallade told them about watching her Japanese classmates removed from this very school during the Japanese internment. Gone. After giving away the dolls they weren’t allowed to take with them to the camps.
Racism and xenophobia were embedded in her life in Los Angeles, but what I’ve known of de Lavallade in the dance world has been “beyond race.” In her homecoming, she takes ownership of her story: a Creole woman, an artist of color, an L.A. native. These were the stories she wanted to tell, from her show, to her school visits, to our chat. This is who she is as dancer — movement, body, spirit — and these are the cornerstones of her art and legacy.
SASHA ANAWALT: When Bella Lewitzky left Lester Horton, he decided to codify his technique — write it down — and pinpoint it. It’s a technique still taught today — handed down, as dancers do, from body to body. You helped secure that, and it laid the foundation for what we know today as black dance.
CARMEN DE LAVALLADE: I don’t know about that, but it is true. I was fortunate enough to be with Bella. I was the first one there, when Rudi Gernreich and all these wonderful people were with Lester, I saw them work, all right. So I got in on something. But when Bella left, Lester was left with these young people including Alvin [Ailey], who followed me, and the technique changed, because all the ethnic kinds of things came with the hips and the rear end, and that would never have happened with Bella, because she could not go there. Well, nothing wrong with hips. Lester thought of it as most ethnic people do: your hips are your hips. It’s a natural part of your body. It just is. There’s nothing vulgar about it at all. It’s in your mind, if you’re going to make it that way.
But the technique did change from Bella to me. It expanded. Lester kept changing it. “Balinese top and African bottom.” Lester said that. And this is what Bella objected to, and yet that’s what differentiated Lester from others.
Bella was a technician, a powerhouse. I, on the other hand, was always into story. I like being a character. It was something I just naturally did, even as a child. I was one of those “tell me what to do” dancers. Lester would say, “Figure it out,” and leave the room.
But he would find something in every person. He always said there is nothing like “healthy jealousy.” His technique was vast, and we were fearless. We were in competition with each other, but we were like sisters and brothers, and we worked together. Everybody felt they were special. And he treated you that way.
Tell me about growing up in Los Angeles and your family?
My father and his siblings were born in Louisiana, in the Marksville, Alexandria area. That’s the de Lavallades. His name was Léo and he became a master bricklayer. His mother, my grandmother, always sang the French national anthem on her birthday and, if I’m not mistaken, left Louisiana for Los Angeles because her children could not go to the library. They wouldn’t allow them in the library. You’re black. You can’t get into a place. So Grandmamma packed everybody up and moved. That’s de Lavallade.
My mother’s family was of the New Orleans group, the Charles Grenots. There was a big exit out of Louisiana, because that’s when prejudice really was bad.
Daddy met Mommy in Los Angeles. They had three daughters [Yvonne, the eldest child, who lives in Oregon, and Elaine, the younger sister, who still lives in Los Angeles] and all three of us went to Vernon City Elementary, because that’s where we lived. There was a big enclave of Creole people, of mixed people, there. We lived on Staunton Avenue across from Alameda.
One day in school, we were asked to fill out a form that asked our race. Fill in the blanks. I didn’t know what it meant. My sisters and I ran home to Daddy and asked, what is race? What color are we? He told us we are all colors of the rainbow. He didn’t believe in it. That’s my Dad.
My older cousin and my hero, Janet [Collins], lived nearby, the oddball of that de Lavallade group. Born to be a dancer, Janet wanted nothing more than to dance on pointe, to be a ballerina. But she had a rough time. I never will forget how she tried out for Léonide Massine’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, when she was about 16. Massine said she could be in the company but she’d have to make herself light-skinned. He didn’t mean it in a mean way. He said, “You wouldn’t want to do that, would you?” She said, “No,” and cried. But she got her dream and became a prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera.
She was my role model [de Lavallade eventually became a principal dancer at the Metropolitan Ballet]. So was my Daddy. He worked hard and raised us [de Lavallade was seven when her mother suffered a breakdown; she died several years later in a sanitarium]. He raised us with Auntie Adele, who was someone else. She was the communista. She had the most famous book store in Los Angeles, The Hugh Gordon bookstore on Central Avenue. It was all black history books. When we were growing up in the ’40s, that was totally off the wall.
Where did Alvin Ailey fit into your life?
Alvin is the hard one. I’m one of the Alvin ladies. Everybody always says, “Oh, you danced with Alvin.” No, he danced with me.
The one thing Alvin knew was Lester Horton, and he started choreographing after Horton died. Alvin had seen me do this stupid dance on pointe in the Jefferson High School cafeteria. And a wildly abandoned Scheherazade duet, with my hair all down. It was hysterical. They still talk about that. Then Alvin followed me to Lester’s school after that. We were like brother and sister.
The next day, de Lavallade spoke to about 400 students in the Thomas Jefferson High School auditorium, the place she had once performed Scheherazade in a short, red silk kimono and so dazzled her classmate, Ailey, that he dropped gymnastics and took up dance.
Entering the lobby, de Lavallade zoomed over to look at her headshot in the center of the Jefferson High alumni wall of fame, situated next to photos of Ralph Bunche, winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize; singer and actress Dorothy Dandridge; Ernest (Sunshine Sammy) Morrison, one of the original Little Rascals; Emmett Ashford, the first African-American umpire in Major League Baseball; jazz musician Dexter Gordon; track star Malvin Whitfield; and Ailey. The school is now 80 percent Latino. There is no dance program.
During the assembly, 16-year-old Reyna Soriano performed a solo for de Lavallade, who wept. When de Lavallade addressed the students, who had been admonished by their principal to remove the hoodies hiding their ear buds, her words were muffled by her tears: “I was you.”
She tried to engage the kids, but the attentions of many of them were clearly elsewhere. Some were asleep. All the same, she was determined to break through.
Why don’t you sit up? If you sit this way you can use the brain. You sit and be proud. You all wear crowns on your heads. Every last one of you. Some of you will go some places. It doesn’t make any difference what you do, as long as you do it well. And you have the skills. Do you understand?
“Yes, ma’am,” one boy loudly responds. His seatmates endorse him; others giggle. De Lavallade smiles warmly at him; their eyes connect and she is not deterred.
Somebody in your family got through. The floods. The wars. Somebody got through. You are the storytellers of history. The ones who will come up and be on that wall out there in the lobby. And even if you aren’t, it doesn’t matter, as long as you serve.
I lived in a different world. I’ve been through many worlds. I’ve seen television come in. I’ve seen the bomb go off. We learned to get under our table and chairs for air raid drills. I’ve seen horrors. Hitler. Mussolini.
How many of you want to be in the dance world?
Three or four raised their hands.
Do you know that you act every day? That you are on stage every day? That’s what life is. You have to be ready to go with the punches. I was in those chairs where you are now, and people told me I couldn’t get to Hollywood. But I did. I was on The Ed Sullivan Show on television [in 1961] and was told I could not dance with my partner because he was Caucasian. That’s what it was in those days. You live in a better time. You must not be afraid.
I’m just telling you, because, my dears, there are others who won’t tell you that. They just won’t, especially in this climate that is going on now. And those cellphones you carry in your hands, the ear buds you wear, the social media you practice. Stop all of it. The cellphone is Pandora’s Box. The people who make them just want your money. It’s about the money and persuading you not to pay attention to life. You must pay attention. Am I clear? Do you understand?
At the end of the talk, many seats in the auditorium banged shut. “I know what that means,” de Lavallade told me. “I can read that bang. I know attitude when I see it. But I think if you tell them the truth, they recognize it. I think I reached more than one.” A couple of students hung back and talked to her privately.
When de Lavallade exited the Art Deco auditorium, a two-year-old Latino child struggled out of his father’s arms and ran over to de Lavallade to hug her knees. De Lavallade later said this moment was the “highlight” of her two-week homecoming, because it “came out of nowhere.”
Early the next morning, de Lavallade arrived at Vernon City Elementary, where the children had prepared a dance, performing to “Soul Bossa Nova,” a 1962 instrumental by Quincy Jones & His Orchestra, a song that de Lavallade tells them she and her late husband, Geoffrey Holder, had performed in Paris on the same program with Josephine Baker around 1968. (A version of it, titled Dear Quincy 1968, with de Lavallade — showcasing all her magnificent hip flow — partnered by Wesley Fata, can be found on YouTube.)
Before that, 16 girls and one boy performed a pseudo-traditional Mexican dance. (Like her old high school, Vernon Elementary is now majority Latino.) After their performance, inside a small hacienda-style auditorium, de Lavallade recalled dancing in her first concert — a Mexican hat dance for a Christmas show — in the small auditorium with a cloistered yard outside, surrounded by pink roses, bougainvillea, and birds of paradise.
When she opened for questions, 20 hands shot into the air, eagerly waving to get noticed. These kids had done their homework. Their questions were innocent, but informed and revealing.
Why do you keep dancing?
I’m trying to see how long I can do this. I don’t get tired of dancing. When I can’t do certain things, I adjust. It isn’t easy, but I’ve been lucky. I had some very good teachers, like Carmelita Maracci and Jack Cole and Lester Horton. They were tough people, and always kind to me, because I worked hard and didn’t play around.
What I love now is mentoring young people about performance. Where do you get your ideas? You must read, do your homework. And get rid of those cellphones. Lift your eyes and look at each other. You aren’t going to grow if you don’t watch people. Tell their stories. Tell your story.
What was your life like before you started dancing?
I was always dancing. My head was where it is now. I remember that little pepper tree outside of this auditorium, and dancing. I danced in the neighbor’s front yard.
We had to make our own games. No TV. We didn’t have toys. We had Quaker Oatmeal boxes. In fact, there was a maypole erected in the yard right here. Do you still have it? We’d swing out on ropes and make braids by dancing around each other and weaving the ropes. It was very physical and lots of fun.
My body loves dancing. Dancing frees you up. It feels good. Moving makes your brain work better.
Did anyone try to stop you?
When I was growing up, to be honest with you, if you were colored you did not get lead roles in movies. You’d only get bit roles. I had only one speaking role as Susan Hayward’s handmaiden in a film called Demetrius and the Gladiators. We grew up with limitations. You have it better today than I did. But you have to speak up, always speak up.
Are you famous?
I don’t think of myself as famous. People are people. You have to be careful of people telling you that you can’t. You have to have courage to stick your neck out. There is no such thing as failure. None!