Today’s Episode is with actress, choreographer and dance legend, Carmen De Lavallade. Raised by a single father in post-depression Los Angeles, Carmen began her formal training at 14, a bit late for female dancers, but that didn’t stop her one bit. Within 5 years she became a lead dancer under the tutelage of renown teacher and choreographer Lester Horton, who’s technique is taught in modern dance classes around the world. It was around this time she encountered another modern dance legend, eventually taking him to his first dance class, a young 15 year old gymnast by the name of Alvin Ailey.
Increasingly in demand, Carmen skipped town with Alvin to New York to make her Broadway debut in House of Flowers, starring Pearl Bailey. It was here that she met her soon-to-be husband, the multi-hyphenate artist and future Director of Broadway’s The Wiz, the Tony-award winning Geoffrey Holder. The following year she made her debut as prima ballerina in the Metropolitan Opera’s Samson and Delilah, further integrating the storied opera house who’s color barrier was broken just 5 years earlier by her cousin, prima ballerina Janet Collins.
Making her television debut in Duke Ellington’s “A Drum is a Woman” an encounter with actress Lena Horne lead her to a bevy of film roles, however Carmen’s feet remained solidly on the stage where she danced with companies all over the world, including that of her childhood friend Alvin, and his nascent Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, now the most widely toured and well-known modern dance company in the world.
Her acting chops led her to to be named Artist-in-Residence at Yale Repertory theatre, later joining the faculty where she trained young upstarts like Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver., among others, and she was awarded a Kennedy Center Honors in 2016
In today’s episode, we discuss Carmen’s journey to becoming one of the most celebrated performers of her time, the lessons she learned from mentor Josephine Baker, how to maintain relationships as a creative, and the greatest lesson she’s learned in her ninety years here on earth. That’s right, ninety. This episode is a special one for us at the Institute of Black Imagination because it was her donation of over 2000 books from her late husband’s archive that began this entire project. It’s an honor and a privilege to present this beautiful conversation with the great, Carmen De Lavallade.
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