BORN: March 6, 1931 -
Carmen de Lavallade was born in Los Angeles, CA to Creole parents from New Orleans, LA. De Lavallade began studying ballet with Melissa Blake at the age of 16. After graduating from high school, she was awarded a scholarship to study dance with Lester Horton. De Lavallade became a member of the Lester Horton Dance Theater in 1949 where she danced as a lead dancer until her departure for New York City with Alvin Ailey in 1954. Like all of Horton's students, de Lavallade studied other art forms, including painting, acting, music, set design and costuming, as well as ballet and other forms of modern and ethnic dance. Later that same year she made her Broadway debut partnered with Alvin Ailey in Truman Capote's musical House of Flowers (starring Pearl Bailey). She appeared in several off-broadway acting roles between 1952 & 1955. In 1957 she continued to break color barriers and made her television debut.
Even though de Lavallade seemed to have it all by the age of 25, it was far from her reality. She struggled with the challenge of getting into dance schools early on. During the beginning, there were very few teachers that would take you if you were colored. When she would attend classes all the white students would leave. Even at the age of 30 as an international sensation, she was asked to appear on a popular show but was not allowed to perform with the white dancer she was working with. Needless to say, she has never forgotten the lessons of history and the injustice that she and other black artists have faced. She has been shattering barriers almost all her life.
In 1955, she married dancer/actor Geoffrey Holder, whom she had met while working on House of Flowers. It was with Holder that de Lavallade choreographed her signature solo Come Sunday, to a black spiritual sung by Odetta (then known as Odetta Gordon). The following year, de Lavallade danced as the prima ballerina in Samson and Delilah, and Aida at the Metropolitan Opera. De Lavallade was a principal guest performer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company on the company's tour of Asia. In 1970 at the insistence of friend John Butler, she began teaching at the Yale School of Drama as a choreographer and performer-in-residence. She staged musicals, plays and operas, and eventually became a professor and member of the Yale Repertory Theater. Between 1990 and 1993, de Lavallade returned to the Metropolitan Opera as choreographer for Porgy and Bess and Die Meistersiger.
De Lavallade resided in New York City with her husband Geoffrey Holder until his death on October 5, 2014. Their lives were the subject of the 2005 Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob documentary Carmen and Geoffrey. The couple had one son, Léo. Also in the dance family was De Lavallade's cousin, Janet Collins. Ms. Collins was the first Creole/African descendant prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera.
Carmen De Lavallade received many awards over her career. Just to name a few;
In 2004 - Black History Month Lifetime Achievement Award & Rosie Award
In 2006 - Bessie Award & Doctor of Fine Arts Degree from State University of NY
In 2007 - Capezio Dance Award
In 2008 - Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Julliard School
In 2016 - Lifetime Achievement Award at the Obie Awards presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Village Voice for her excellence in off-broadway theater.
In 2017 - The Kennedy Center Honors Award
Please watch the video of the incomparable Carmen de Lavallade: