Arthur Mitchell and Carmen de Lavallade

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In addition to being a member of Lester Horton Dance Theater, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and other major companies, Carmen de Lavallade was enlisted by Arthur Mitchell to join the American Negro Dance Company. In 1966, the company, originally sponsored by the US State Department, was to perform pieces by such choreographers as Alvin Ailey and George Balanchine. Other members included John Jones, Llanchie Stevenson, and Sara Yarborough. Though the performance was cancelled, this endeavor secured de Lavallade a place in Mitchell’s orbit.


Husband and wife Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade

After de Lavallade began her successful career in choreography, she created Sensemaya for the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1979. The original cast of the piece, which premiered at City Center in February of that year, included China (Melva) Murray White and Karen Brown. The ballet gathers inspiration from a Mayan creation myth.

DTH’s 2018 spring season opening, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, honored artistic director Virginia Johnson as well as de Lavallade. That season, the company performed de Lavallade’s staging of DTH’s signature piece Dougla, which was choreographed by her husband Geoffrey Holder.



Sources:Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Repertory List, Columbia University Libraries
Carmen de Lavallade Joins the Dance Theater of Harlem for its 50th Anniversary, WNYC
Watch Carmen de Lavallade and Whoopi Goldberg Discuss the Importance of the Arts, Dance Teacher
Return of the Dance Theater of Harlem, New York Times
The First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar 1966, edited by David Murphy, page 80
Timeline: Arthur Mitchell’s Performing Career, Columbia University Libraries

More about Carmen de Lavallade


Carmen de Lavallade, born in New Orleans in 1931 and raised in Los Angeles, was inspired by her cousin Janet Collins to take up dancing. She studied under Melissa Blake and Italian ballerina Carmelita Maracci, and her performance career began at age 17 with Lester Horton Dance Theater, where she danced with her high school friend Alvin Ailey. She also studied acting, painting, sculpting, music, and design, as Horton encouraged his dancers to interact with other art forms.

Also alongside Ailey, de Lavallade performed in House of Flowers on Broadway, the musical that introduced her to her husband, Geoffrey Holder. In 1956, she was featured in Samson and Delilah and Aida at the Metropolitan Opera.

De Lavallade also appeared in several television shows, off-Broadway productions, and films including Carmen Jones (which featured several members of Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre) and Odds Against Tomorrow, among others.

She toured with Ailey’s company in Europe and Asia, a tour which was sometimes billed as the “De Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company,” and performed in Agnes de Mille’s The Four Marys and The Frail Quarry with Ballet Theatre (now known as American Ballet Theatre). She was a principal dancer with both John Butler’s company and with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, following in the footsteps of cousin Janet Collins.

De Lavallade taught at the Yale Repertory Theater and Yale School of Drama as its resident choreographer and performer.

Her choreography credits include Porgy and Bess, Die Meistersinger, and Rusalka for the Metropolitan Opera as well as pieces for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Agnes de Mille, Alvin Ailey, Glen Tetley, Lester Horton, John Butler, and Geoffrey Holder have all created roles for de Lavallade. She also “holds the record for the longest performing career at Jacob’s Pillow,” which ran from 1953 to 2014. Her awards include the Dance Magazine Award (1964), an honorary doctorate from Juilliard (2007), the Duke Ellington Fellowship Award, and the Dance USA Award (2010).

Ailey said of her, “Whatever you want her to dance, she will find a way to do it. Choreographers also love her because she has a solid technique and a brilliant, unsurpassable talent for interpreting a ballet.”

Carmen de Lavallade | Essay - Jacob's Pillow Dance Interactive
De Lavallade with Alvin Ailey, 1961. Photo by John Lindquist.


Women in Dance: Carmen de Lavallade, Jacob’s Pillow
Carmen de Lavallade, Wikipedia
Carmen de Lavallade, The Kennedy Center
Biography: Carmen de Lavallade, Thirteen

See also:

Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder’s Dance-Filled Love Affair, Dance Magazine
At 83, Dancer Carmen De Lavallade Looks Back At A Life Spent Onstage, NPR
Carmen de Lavallade, The Dance History Project of Southern California

Video links:

Dear Quincy 1968
Portrait of Billie at Jacob’s Pillow
TEDxEast – Carmen de Lavallade The Creation: Plus 40
Meet the Masters: Carmen de Lavallade
Kennedy Center Honoree Carmen de Lavallade
Ailey Up Close with Carmen de Lavallade with introduction by Judith Jamison
Carmen de Lavallade | Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival 2014

Madeline Crawford

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