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Alvin Ailey Overview

born: 1931
born in: Rogers, TX
died: 1989
When Alvin Ailey stumbled into Lester Horton's dance theater at UCLA, he abandoned his original plan to major in foreign languages. Instead, he moved to fulfill his destiny and become one of the finest, most influential, and most beloved Modern choreographers... [more]

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interview with Carmen deLavallade

Interview with Carmen de Lavallade by Valerie Gladstone Few people in the performing arts can match the accomplishments of supremely elegant Carmen de Lavallade. Over her 50-year career, she has starred in ballets, modern dance works, plays, films and Broadway musicals. She has choreographed and directed dance and opera and taught and performed at the Yale Repertory Theater. By setting no limits and fearlessly choosing projects that broke new ground, she mastered roles in Shakespeare and Lorca, the operas “Samson and Delilah” and “Aida,” dances by Alvin Ailey, John Butler, Agnes de Mille, Glen Tetley, her husband Geoffrey Holder and Bill T. Jones, among many, many others. Currently, she is a member of the dance trio, Paradigm, with Gus Solomons, Jr. and Dudley Williams. Born in 1931 and raised in Los Angeles, de Lavallade grew up wanting to be an actress, inspired by her cousin Janet Collins, who was the first black ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera. At 16, she won a scholarship to study with Lester Horton, a pioneer of modern dance. Performing with his company at the 92nd Street Y in New York and at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, she was discovered by stage and film producers, who offered her roles in movies, including “Carmen Jones,” and the Broadway musical “House of Flowers,” where she met Mr. Holder. She followed these successes with leads in Agnes de Mille’s “The Four Marys” at American Ballet Theater and John Butler’s “Carmina Burana” at the City Center. In the late 60s, acclaimed theater director Robert Brustein asked de Lavallade to teach at Yale, where her students included Henry Winkler, Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Strep. She also starred in productions at Yale, including “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Later, she would perform with jazz masters Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall and with the Bill Evans Trio in Detroit. Today she often performs her one-woman show “Journey” and her children’s show “The Enchanted Isle of Yew.” She also appears on television, in the “Bill Cosby Show” and directed the “Tribute to Lena Horne” at Lincoln Center. This spring, she will receive a National Visionary Award in Washington, D.C. honored along with Quincy Jones, Jr. and Eartha Kitt. Who were your earliest inspirations? Without question my cousin Janet first. To have someone in your family make it into the Metropolitan Opera Ballet showed me that it could be done. It wasn’t just something other people did. It was something I could do. Especially then, when blacks rarely made it into mainstream companies. I was also greatly inspired by Lester Horton. In his classes, you learned far more than steps and counts – you learned the essence of movement and what it could express. He was so imaginative. He always described what a step or sequence should look like. With him, we learned the ballets of Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham, and all of those wonderful choreographers taught me the importance of acting in dance, of putting real feeling into everything you did on stage. Then, of course, Alvin Ailey. He was so brilliant, so full of life. But I did warn him that after “Revelations,” he might be typecast as a black choreographer who had to do certain themes. And I was right. That’s what the critics did – stereotyped him. If he didn’t do something “black,” they admonished him. What do you think of classifications like “black artist”? I think they are useless and confining. The works of Alvin, Garth Fagan, Bill T. Jones, Lester, Gus and other so called black choreographers have little, if anything, in common. Why put us all in the same cubbyhole? I’ve played Shakespeare and Lorca heroines. At the very least, it’s demeaning. What’s wonderful is the great mixture of people and that’s what we should celebrate. What gave you the confidence to move around in so many fields? Curiosity, I guess. I wanted to try many different things. I saw that they were all connected – dance, theater, movies, music, teaching – so I thought why separate them? When Robert Brustein asked me to come to Yale, I’d never taught acting. But I thought if he thought I could, it was worth a try. Bless his heart. And it was such a great place to learn – to teach and to act. I had a small voice. It was scary. But I just worked until it got better. Once you master something that frightens you, it makes the next challenge much easier. How did you do as an actor at Yale? At first, I was rather timid. The male actors thought I was very straight-laced. Then I was given a role playing a hard-bitten, foul-mouthed woman. It was very liberating for me. The guys would stand in the wings and crack up and fall all over the floor when I let loose. They couldn’t imagine that I had it in me. Something else took over. That’s the kind of thing you don’t forget. How do you choreograph? I start with an idea, of course, and then expand on it, trying different movements on myself. Gus and Dudley and I are very collaborative – we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The important thing is always what’s underneath – the meaning, the feeling - not the physicality on top. What do you feel about the way dance is taught today? I think there’s far too much emphasis on counting, and not, as I said, on what’s underneath. You see these dancers with incredible technique and yet they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves, really dancing. You have to think about the texture and the poetry or there’s no beauty. I also fear for them when the physicality becomes all. I think choreographers can be to blame there too – asking them to do incredible things that in the long term will cripple them. Those extensions that mean nothing but your leg is very high. It’s kind of ugly. What are you working on now? I’m developing a character that I’ll soon take on the stage. She’s kind of political. I’ve been trying out sketches with my family. At my age, I don’t care what people think. I can explore anything. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter. I love the process and I’m having so much fun.
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