Carmen de Lavallade is the type of name that rolls off the tongue. It’s the type of name you’d expect to see in big lights on a marquee and in rolling credits. It is the name of an artist in every sense. And whether it be dancing, singing, acting or directing, Carmen de Lavallade does it all, and she’s just that: a true artist.
De Lavallade currently appears in Broadway’s A Streetcar Named Desire alongside Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker and Daphne Rubin-Vega. The arts still remain the focal point of the 81-year-old legend’s life, as they have been since she trained under the apprenticeship of Leslie Horton, before later packed her bags for Broadway. Her passion for the arts also led her to another love in her life, husband Geoffrey Holder, whom she met while dancing in House of Flowers on Broadway.
During her career, De Lavallade has worked with Diahann Carroll, Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington, and called Alvin Ailey her best friend. She was not the first person in her family to pursue performing arts. Her cousin, Janet Collins, was the first African-American prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera. De Lavallade followed suit, landing the same title in 1956. Before the age of 20, with the help of Lena Horne, De Lavallade appeared in four motion pictures, including "Carmen Jones."
Today, she is still performing with a grace and dignity that many artists, both young and old, could learn a great learn deal from. She is proof that passion and pursuit no know age. At a time when many African-Americans were not welcome on the stage, she not only found her way to the center, she also did it smiling, oozing with sensuality and moving with a hunger and skill that still defines her today.
De Lavallade chatted with EBONY about her rich life as a performer, her advice to young dancers, and how she maintains her sense of well being.
EBONY: Tell us about how your role in Streetcar Named Desire came about.
Carmen De Lavallde: Count Stovall and I were at his home and this producer was there. Count and I were saying how nice it would be to be a part of this production. I said ‘well, there are only a couple of things I can do, maybe The Lady of Flowers.’ Later, I was at an award ceremony being honored with Daphne Vega, who stars in the play, and told her it would be nice to part of the production. The next thing I knew, she called me about the role. I knew that I wanted to be a part of history. The play has been done before, but never on Broadway, and never with an interracial cast.
EBONY: How did it feel to be back on Broadway?
CD: Broadway is another stage. I'm always on different stages. I mean, it's Broadway. What can you say? It's thrilling. It feels good because you get different kinds of audiences and I'm very pleased. People come from all over the world. Broadway is a wonderful place to be. When I came to Broadway in 1954 for House of Flowers, it was wonderful then too. I met so many talented people.
EBONY: There are still many performers struggling to be seen in the arts world. Misty Copeland is one such dancer making great strides. What advice do you have for young African-American dancers who are seeking to land a leading role?
CD: You have to really know your craft and be awfully good at what you're doing. Misty is a ballet dancer, which can be harder to break into. Modern and contemporary companies are a bit easier to break into, and there are a lot of good ones. I am thrilled to hear that Dance Theater of Harlem is starting to come up again for ballet dancers under the artistic direction of Virginia Johnson. We have a lot of contemporary dance companies. You have Alvin Ailey and Complexions, for example. You have to keep studying you have to really be on top of your form to get into those companies. Dance is hard. Today, it's easier to find a company than when I came up. At least you're accepted into companies if you're really good. I would tell young dancers today to really push at what you want to do. Really get out into the trenches and try to audition for companies, no matter how small they are, as well as the big companies. It is very demanding work. You must push yourself and be so good that they can’t resist.
EBONY: You and Alvin Ailey packed your bags and moved to New York City for Broadway in 1954. What passion did you all share that gave you that determination?
CD: Alvin and I were two dancers coming from Los Angeles. We actually had no idea how things would turn out. I had no idea Alvin would become as famous as Coca Cola. We were just two kids going to New York City for a gig. We had no idea what we were getting into. We left that cocoon like existence of L.A. and the small theater that was very safe. Lester Horton had just passed. Going to New York was like going to Oz. It was such a new world. We walked into a show that had Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll starting her first adventure and Truman Capote. All these incredible people that you read about. It was quite fascinating. Alvin and I had a passion for adventure. When you have a passion for adventure, if the door opens for you, you have to take it.
EBONY: You and your husband Geoffrey have worked together for many years. What has kept you all strong through it all?
CD: I think we remain strong together because we love what we're doing. He's my fan and I'm his fan, which helps a lot. He allows me to do whatever I want to do and I allow him the same. We've always been this way. Working in theater and the arts is not like television or film. I think because we both come from this medium, it's something you stick with and take more time with. There's no rush. In the arts there's no rushing. You have to take the time to do things, and we've always taken the time.
EBONY: How you maintain your good health and sense of well-being?
CD: It's a big job. I can't just do what I want to do. I cannot go and indulge in a lot of sweets and a lot of things that the body doesn't like. I try to stay away from alcohol as much as possible. There's nothing wrong with having wine every once in awhile though. I happen to like sweet potatoes and chicken and fish, so once in a while I'll have meat. I had to make a choice. If you want to dance, then you have to be careful. You can't eat everything. Especially at my age, I have to be really strict with my diet, because the body changes, energy changes, and you have to adjust. You can't just let it go and continue like when you were younger. It's just about being practical. You have to really take care of yourself when you're in the theater because it's grueling, like being an athlete and like life in general. You have to be kind to yourself. You're putting out a lot of energy, so it behooves you to be kind to your body. Treat your body like a friend. If you don't give it what it needs, it's going to give up on you.
EBONY: Why does dance speak to you?
CD: Dance is close to music and poetry. It's ephemeral. You cant quite put your finger on it, but you can feel it. Words can be like that too, there and then gone. You can't repeat it quite the same way every time, but you can make it mean different things. Dance is also universal. You can take it any place and people will understand it, because it's a language everyone speaks. Dance gives you an advantage over acting for me, because you can easily fall into character physically if you know what your body is doing. That's why it's so important for actors to have movement.
EBONY: What would you like for your legacy to be?
That I did well. You hope that you lived your life well and that you've given the best of yourself. I hope that I was a good mom for my son and a good wife to my husband. I want to feel that I left a little light in the world.