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Carmen de Lavallade
Occupation: dancer, choreographer
Carmen de Lavallade was born of creole parents in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles by her aunt. She studied dance as a young child, and at 16 received a scholarship to study with Lester Horton. She joined the Lester Horton Dance Theater in 1949 and was a lead dancer from 1950 to 1954. Horton believed in broad-based training, so de Lavallade was taught ballet, modern and ethnic dance forms, as well as painting, music, sculpting, acting (with Stella Adler), set design, costuming, and lighting. An extraordinarily gifted dancer, she kept ballet as her first love, studying privately with Italian ballerina Carmelita Maracci.

Possessing physical beauty, elegance, and technical polish, de Lavallade entranced audiences with the sensual quality of her dancing. The first of many roles Horton created for her was Salome in "The Face of Violence." It was when they were both with Horton that de Lavallade began her long association with Alvin Ailey.

Concurrently, another aspect of her career was taking shape. Lena Horne had seen her in Los Angeles and had introduced the 17-year-old to the filmmakers at 20th Century Fox, and between 1952 and 1955 de Lavallade appeared in four movies, including CARMEN JONES (1955). During the filming, she met Herbert Ross, who asked her to appear as a dancer in the Broadway musical "House of Flowers" (1954), which he choreographed. During that engagement in 1955, de Lavallade met and married the dancer and actor Geoffrey Holder.

De Lavallade succeeded her cousin, Janet Collins, as "prima ballerina" of the Metropolitan Opera in 1956. Shortly after that, de Lavallade became a principal in John Butler's company and made her television debut in 1956 in Butler's ballet, FLIGHT. She also performed with the New York City Opera, dancing in her husband's works. As a freelancer, she worked with several choreographers and had many roles created for her. Her son was born in February 1957.

With Geoffrey Holder, de Lavallade danced in West Indian-influenced style and performed modern dance (he set her signature solo, "Come Sunday," to black spirituals, sung by Odetta.) In 1957 she appeared in the television production of Duke Ellington's A DRUM IS A WOMAN. Her later film credits include ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959), with Harry Belafonte. She has also acted in off-Broadway productions.

Ever since de Lavallade worked with Alvin Ailey in Horton's company, Ailey had been one of her major influences. By the early 1960s, de Lavallade was an important guest artist in his company, and on the company's first European tour (in 1962), the billing was "de Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company." She danced with Donald McKayle (1964), and appeared in Agnes deMille's 1965 American Ballet Theater productions of "The Four Marys" and "The Frail Quarry." In 1966 she won the coveted DANCE MAGAZINE award for her contribution to the art of dance. De Lavallade also pursued an acting career and appeared in several off-Broadway productions, including "Othello" and "Death of a Salesman."

In 1970 de Lavallade joined the prestigious Yale School of Drama as a choreographer and performer-in-residence. She staged musicals, plays, and operas, and later became a full professor at Yale and a member of the Yale Repertory Theater. De Lavallade left Yale around 1980, but continues to teach, lecture, and perform. In October 1993 she appeared with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co. at the Joyce Theater in New York City, still commanding admiration with her unique stage presence. In the fall of 1993 she also choreographed the dances for a new production of Antonìn Dvoràk's opera Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera.

-- Derry Swan

Source Citation: "Carmen de Lavallade." ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY. 5 vols. Macmillan, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Gale Group.