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Turnabout for a Muse

The dancer who inspired Alvin Ailey choreographs a tribute to him. It's the latest milestone in a storied life filled with the 20th century's greats.

March 11, 2001|ANNE MIDGETTE | Anne Midgette is a performing arts writer in New York

NEW YORK — Carmen de Lavallade looks like somebody's muse: tall and beautiful, with wide dark eyes open to the world, hair cascading over her shoulders or twisted, in conversation, around an inquisitive finger, radiating an ageless youthfulness. A commanding presence sitting in the library at the Alvin Ailey studios, she is also completely without affectation--modest, even, about her many accomplishments as a dancer, actress, teacher and choreographer.

Then she begins to reminisce about her professional encounters with Martha Graham, Josephine Baker and Alvin Ailey, and from the chronology alone, although nothing in her manner or movement indicates it, it's apparent that she actually is 69 years old.

"Dance for me," Alvin Ailey wrote, "would have been impossible without Carmen de Lavallade."

"Ailey's muse" is one sobriquet that's accompanied De Lavallade throughout her illustrious career. It was seeing her in a solo performance in their high school gym in Los Angeles, so one version of the story goes, that inspired Ailey to become a dancer. He followed her to the class and company of choreographer Lester Horton, where Ailey himself began to choreograph after Horton's death.

Later, De Lavallade and Ailey got the call to come to New York to dance in the Broadway show "House of Flowers"; toured the Far East with the De Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company; and, eventually, spun off on their own individual tangents.

She remained an inspiration to Ailey throughout his life, and he choreographed six pieces for her. Now, she's choreographed something for his company: "Sweet Bitter Love," was unveiled in New York in December, and is featured in two of six Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion starting Wednesday.

"People always ask me, 'What was it like working with Alvin?' Well, I don't know," says De Lavallade, with the tone of affectionate exasperation one might use in discussing a younger brother. "Alvin was my buddy. We all grew up together. [I'd] known him since junior high school. No big mystery there for me. All I knew, I saw him in a gym class, and I said, 'You ought to be dancing!' So I dragged him to a dance class, and that was the end of that. He always blamed me for that: 'It's all your fault.' "

De Lavallade is not one for pretense. The facts speak for themselves. Never a permanent member of the Ailey company, she danced, instead, as a guest with some of the preeminent institutions and choreographers of the period: Antony Tudor, John Butler and Agnes de Mille; at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and at the Metropolitan Opera (where she followed her cousin, Janet Collins, in breaking the color barrier, in advance of Marian Anderson).

Today, she can reminisce about Lynn Fontanne, who showed her her own special exercises for maintaining a beautiful neck; Josephine Baker ("She used to push me forward and say, 'You don't bow long enough' "); or her relationship with Martha Graham.

"I was not Graham material," she says. "I'd go to class and I was miserable; my body just couldn't do that kind of movement, but we would talk. She used to come see my things; I would go see her things. I really learned a lot from her. She was an extraordinary woman.

"I've had a gift, with those people," she adds. "I came at a good time. The '50s, '60s and '70s--boy, things were jumping."

Another choreographer-actor she met in that period was Geoffrey Holder. They met in the "House of Flowers" production and married in 1955. Recognizable to a wide audience for roles in the Bond movie "Live and Let Die" and a series of 7Up commercials, among other film and TV credits, he also won two Tonys (for direction and costume design) for "The Wiz." Holder is, in De Lavallade's words, "my best fan. He's the one who keeps me on course. He's always bawling me out for getting discouraged."

De Lavallade began her formal dance training at 14, in the heart of Los Angeles ("I am an L.A. person," she says), and continued to study both classical and modern dance with Horton and Uruguayan-born Carmelita Maracci. Horton was "totally contemporary, with his own technique," she says. "And Lester sent me to Carmelita. He said, 'She can give you what I can't.' They were rather similar, very strict--well, Lester was a little looser," she emends, laughing. "because he was constantly experimenting with the body and seeing how many different ways you can bend it. Carmelita was more the ballet--Cechetti-style, not the English or Russian style, which suited me just perfectly. Pointe work didn't agree with me, but the style was perfect for me, and I loved it. So I had the best of the best, in contemporary and the ballet."

Another major influence on De Lavallade's dance and choreography came at a much later stage of her career. In the early 1970s, she worked for almost a decade at the Yale Repertory Theater.

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