RICHMOND — “You gotta sliiide into it,” says Carmen de Lavallade, who, at 86, has no trouble showing three young ballerinas how to swish a hip with ease.
“Look: It’s a jazz hip. Don’t make a move out of it.” The woman who seduced Paris in the 1960s with Josephine Baker rolls her pelvis. “Just put it out there.”
De Lavallade, as usual, is the most arresting woman in the room. She is tall and slim, with a tranquil quality, from her warm, dark eyes and velvet skin to the fluid grace of her walk. Even the way she’s dressed, in shades of aqua, suggests serenity: T-shirt, lounge pants, a string of prayer beads. A ponytail peeks out from her headscarf.
It’s August, and de Lavallade is leading a rehearsal at the Richmond Ballet, where she has spent the afternoon getting the ballerinas to look less like ballerinas, to loosen up and lag the beat and ride it just a little. They’re learning “Portrait of Billie,” a 15-minute movement study of jazz legend Billie Holiday that choreographer John Butler, a former Martha Graham dancer, created for de Lavallade.
When the work premiered, in 1960, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington watched from the wings in tears as de Lavallade brought Holiday and her agonies quietly to life. She’d slipped into Holiday’s skin as she had done for countless other roles and characters.
De Lavallade’s ability to express psychological meaning through her body, to disappear inside the choreography and mold herself to wildly different artistic styles, has been her life’s work. Her career has been a tapestry of star turns in ballet, modern dance, West Indian works created by her Trinidadian husband, the late Geoffrey Holder, films, Broadway musicals and Shakespearean theater. It was just a year ago that de Lavallade wrapped up her tour of the one-woman show she launched in 2014, “As I Remember It,” in which she blended small, beautiful flashes of movement with reminiscences and film footage from her 70-year career.
De Lavallade receives the Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday, and then she’ll get back to business. She’s a regular at Dance Theatre of Harlem and elsewhere, teaching master classes and speaking with students and professionals in studios such as this one, near downtown Richmond, passing on the credo that has guided her since her teens: It’s not about you. It’s about the work.
“Awards are nice,” de Lavallade said by phone from her home on New York’s Upper West Side after she had found out she was being honored. “But it’s the giving that matters. The audience is part of it. You don’t leave them out. You’re all there experiencing it together. For me, that’s what the arts are about.”
De Lavallade was never the kind of dancer who blasted technique at her audience. Her most obvious gift has always been an unearthly ease of moving, a corporeal legato. Her subtler skill is the way she has used that ease to etch a character, binding her body to the music to serve a dramatic purpose. This is what she’s trying to convey to the young women in front of her in the studio.
She prods them to think about the expressive aim behind their moves. She tells them why the choreography calls for them to stroke their forearms at one point, and why the action must be light and quick, like an involuntary tic, recalling Holiday’s heroin habit.
De Lavallade watches them from a chair at one side of the room, but she’s on her feet a good deal to demonstrate the lunges and turns, the rolls of the neck, always urging the dancers to keep their movements clear and simple.
“This is storytelling. Real storytelling. Which you don’t do anymore.”
She drums her fingers in the air. “They gotta talk. Your hands gotta talk. Those are your words.”
She repeats the split-second sequence she has been drilling: Arm shoots forward, hand to the hip, head snaps to the side. Measured against the jaunty piano music, the tension in her moves suggest Holiday’s guardedness and contained frustration.
“You see?” It’s not a question.
“That’s all you need to say.”
De Lavallade credits her enormous versatility to two things.
First: the influential modern-dance choreographer Lester Horton — the Martha Graham of the West Coast — who taught de Lavallade as a teenager in Los Angeles and fed her appetite for storytelling. “He told me there’s going to come a time when you have to sing and dance and act, and you have to be ready.”
Second: She always said yes. “Whatever door opens, I walk in. I just get in there and do it.”
That includes the time she sang at Carnegie Hall. Jazz musicians were quick to spot de Lavallade as one of their kind, with her cool-jazz way of moving, like one long, floating musical phrase turned to flesh. She toured as a dancer with Ellington, Bill Evans and Benny Goodman. It was Goodman who got her to step up to the mic and sing “Am I Blue?” with his band at the storied concert hall.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” de Lavallade says with a laugh. We’re sitting in her airy apartment, surrounded by tropical plants and richly colored paintings by Holder, who died in 2014. He was an artist of many dimensions, like his wife.
She strokes her cheek with long fingers. There’s something captivating about the way she moves her hands as she speaks. She doesn’t merely wave them, she wafts them.
“But they didn’t fire me. Oh, my God, I was a wreck. But it went all right. You just steel yourself.”
That sort of pluck went a long way. It led de Lavallade to Broadway (“House of Flowers,” based on a Truman Capote story, in 1954); Hollywood (a string of films, including “Carmen Jones,” with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, and “Odds Against Tomorrow,” also with Belafonte); and opera, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the 1959 “Carmina Burana” in which she danced.
In the late 1960s, nudged by her choreographer friend John Butler, de Lavallade began teaching at the Yale School of Drama, which led to her acting with the Yale Repertory Theatre, where she choreographed a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Meryl Streep was Helena. De Lavallade, coated in silver body paint and sheer mesh, played the fairy queen, Titania, with Christopher Lloyd as King Oberon.
De Lavallade “was the most gorgeous human being who ever set foot on the planet,” says actor Joe Grifasi, one of her students at Yale. He played one of the rustics in that “Midsummer” production, and later acted in such films as “The Deer Hunter.” But he remained close to de Lavallade and directed and helped write her one-woman show.
“A lot of people who teach performing arts are fairly rigid,” Grifasi says. “Their so-called work ethic doesn’t include questioning or wondering or that creative strain. And hers does. She was taught by people who taught her to examine every detail of what she was doing and to look beyond the typical, that there was always something else going on.”
De Lavallade was hungry to explore a new expressive vocabulary, and her dancing became richer after she delved into acting. “Yale was the best thing that happened because it opened my eyes to storytelling,” she says. “They asked us, ‘What’s your opinion?’ Well, dancers don’t have opinions. You just do it. But actors are constantly questioning and making up backstories.”
Still, it was as a dancer of enormous range that de Lavallade made her greatest mark. With her height, physical facility and extraordinary beauty, she was never meant to be in the chorus. She was the invited star, dancing as a guest with American Ballet Theatre in 1965, for instance, and as she puts it, with “just about every company in Christendom,” including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and troupes led by Holder and Donald McKayle. In 1996, she formed a group called Paradigm with dancers Gus Solomons Jr. and Dudley Williams to showcase the undiminished artistry of mature performers; they’ve performed at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and other venues.
“That body is so amazing, it can do anything,” says Judith Jamison, the former Ailey director. “It’s not about technical prowess. She takes your breath away by achieving it so easily. Her hand moving onstage is enough to take your breath away, just a flick of the wrist, or moving it slowly. Her nuance is so beautiful.”
In the early 1960s, de Lavallade was featured on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and her partner was to be the dancer Glen Tetley. But it was taboo for a black woman to touch a white man on prime-time TV, so at the last minute, Tetley was replaced by black dancer Claude Thompson. De Lavallade says that’s the only time racism got in the way of her work — that is, other than in Hollywood, where “you couldn’t get any further than a maid’s role.”
“I didn’t pay much attention to it,” she says. “I just barreled through everything.”
Nothing stopped her, not even what she saw as her own limitations.
“I was strong in many things,” she says. “But the perfect feet? No. Perfect legs? No. Perfect turnout? No. I wasn’t the greatest technician. I tended toward dramatic work.”
That remains the center of her attention. Ask de Lavallade about the most important quality for a dancer and she talks about telling stories with the body. It’s what she values in choreography, too.
“There are no stories anymore, and it kills me,” she says. She gazes at the ceiling, considering the long-running emphasis in dance on speed, athleticism and plotless works. “These days it could be anything. I don’t know what it is. It’s become acrobatic.”
Growing up in the 1930s and '40s in East Los Angeles, de Lavallade idolized her cousin Janet Collins, a ballet dancer at a time when that path put up nothing but roadblocks for an African American. Collins persevered to become a leading ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera. De Lavallade’s father was another model of tenacity. A bricklayer of Creole ancestry, he raised three daughters largely on his own after his wife died.
With her fascination with Collins’s career, and her own natural fidgetiness, de Lavallade started dancing in high school with Horton. She was so smitten by Horton’s “choreo-dramas” that she dragged her high school pal Alvin Ailey to his classes.
“Who would know Alvin had it not been for Carmen?” says Jamison. “Sometimes she gets left out of the equation. She’s kind of an unsung star. People don’t understand how many doors she opened.”
De Lavallade says she was simply responding to the artistic excitement and sense of community she had absorbed from Horton, who taught her more than dancing — he taught her how to thrive in show business.
“You had the ballets to learn, and you also had to help clean the theater and make the costumes,” she says. “I may have been the lead dancer, but I was not above anybody else. I still had to clean the johns.
“You didn’t get grand over people. What you did was work hard.”
De Lavallade landed in New York in 1954, with Ailey in tow, to star in “House of Flowers” at the invitation of director-choreographer Herbert Ross, who knew her from films. Set in an island bordello, the musical featured a wealth of future African American celebrities, including Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and the 6-foot-6 Holder, who proposed to de Lavallade three days after laying eyes on her. They married within months, and their son, Leo, was born two years later.
Holder was a dancer, choreographer, actor, costume designer, painter and the “un-Cola” pitchman for 7UP, and their worlds merged into a whirlwind of artistic activity.
They’d attended the Honors events together for some 30 years, and for each one he made her a new dress and matching coat.
“The first thing out of his mouth,” she muses, “would have been, ‘What are you going to wear?’ ”
Lately, de Lavallade and Leo, 60, a film and TV designer in New York, have been sorting through Holder’s vast archive of artworks held in a storage loft. A couple of years ago she moved to a less expensive apartment that Holder never knew. Being a widow, she says with a sigh, “is a whole other ballgame.”
“I don’t know where I am right now,” she says softly, gazing at her husband’s paintings. “I’m kind of at the crossroads.”
“Sing the music under your breath,” de Lavallade tells the Richmond Ballet dancers, as shadows from the sinking sun slant across the studio floor. “Otherwise you’re gonna rush it.”
She calls the young women to sit and listen to Holiday’s breathing in her recording of “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You.” She stands over them, singing along softly. “It’s love that makes me treat you the way that I do . . . ”
A sad, introspective look crosses de Lavallade’s face. She met Holiday in the ’50s and knows more than a little about the mix of ambition and pain that smoldered inside. “I love that,” she whispers to the dancers. “She’s singing that thing, but you can hear the effort in it.”
De Lavallade laughs to herself as she walks back to her seat. “We are supposed to be resting,” she says to no one in particular.
With the instinctive urgency that’s fueled her life, she waves that notion away.
“I’m from the no-rest school.”