Dance Matters

May 18, 2010

Divine deLavallade

The legendary star celebrates her 60-year career.


The cover of the November 1959 Dance Magazine bears a black-and-white photo of Carmen deLavallade and Glen Tetley in John Butler’s Carmina Burana. She’s in profile, her body curved to form an arch over her partner. He’s standing on one deeply bent leg, his hand on her knee, about, perhaps, to lay his cheek against her thigh. What draws your eye, beyond the arresting sculptural composition, is deLavallade’s serene tenderness. Tetley looks like a man worshipping a goddess.


DeLavallade was 28 then. Only five years before, she and Alvin Ailey, with whom she’d danced in the late Lester Horton’s company and in the movie Carmen Jones, had left Los Angeles to appear on Broadway in House of Flowers. On June 18 in Washington, DC, Dance/USA is honoring her astonishing 60-year career in dance, theater, opera, film, and television, and all that she continues to achieve as a performer, choreographer, and teacher. A tall, slim beauty—often dressed amazingly by her husband Geoffrey Holder (choreographer, director, designer)—she looks, despite her unassuming manner, like royalty.


In 1996, Gus Solomons jr, deLavallade, and Dudley Williams formed Paradigm, the now-thriving little group of expert mature performers. Pondering what makes deLavallade so special, Solomons says, “First of all, she’s just made—physically made—to be graceful; everything she does has a sense of grace. Oftentimes she has been a wreck—this was hurting, this was out of place; as soon as the lights go on, she becomes Carmen. There are people who are born to dance, and they have those kinds of bodies and gifts that you can’t define and you can’t teach and you can’t learn, and I think she has that. It’s completely magical.”


Whether deLavallade is playing an introspective character or a flamboyant one, she makes the space around her come alive. Her wonderful hands, the slant and twist of her body, her sudden glances create a world. You could see that when she played Billie Holiday in Butler’s Portrait of Billie (1959), and note it decades later when, in Willie’s Ladies Sing the Blues (co-created with Geoffrey Holder in 1996), she played a lady in a near-deserted bar lambasting Shakespeare for his treatment of women. Showing the chops she acquired as a member of the Yale Repertory Theater in the 1970s, she became those put-upon heroines, viewed through a mist of liquor and cynicism.


The list of her achievements is long, as is that of the choreographers whose works she has graced (among them Alvin Ailey, Agnes de Mille, Donald McKayle, and Bill T. Jones).


In a studio scene in Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob’s fine documentary, Carmen & Geoffrey, deLavallade, horsing around a little, works under Holder’s direction. In a voiceover, she seems to respond to a query about her professional longevity: “Dancers are peculiar. They don’t see the world like most people…If you have a desire, it doesn’t matter what the world thinks, you’re gonna do it. I guess God put me in this crazy jigsaw puzzle, and I like it.” The goddess keeps on trucking. —Deborah Jowitt



Which Came First: Graham or Revolution?

Janet Eilber leads the Graham company back to its roots and forward into new territory.


Exactly what kind of revolutionary was Martha Graham? Certainly she revolutionized the art of dance. But did she make revolutionary dances? In the 1930s, a time of political ferment, it was hard not to. The labor movement, class struggles, and anti-fascist sentiment infused the dances of Graham and her peers with a keen social consciousness. Modern dancers joined the May Day marches, performed at rallies, and taught dance to factory workers.


Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, wants to show people “how social and political issues launched modern dance” and how dance contributed to the era. To that end the company has created two montages for their program at The Joyce this month. The first, called “Dance Is a Weapon,” a slogan of some of the leftist groups at the time, opens with The Revolutionary, Isadora Duncan’s solo from 1924. This is not one of your at-one-with-nature skippy escapades that we associate with Isadora. A forceful solo, taught by Duncan expert Lori Belilove, it brings the dancer down to earth, almost battling that earth with her fists. The innovation here is that it will be with his fists—a gender swap that Eilber suggested to give it another dimension.


This montage continues with three dances from the Depression era: Sophie Maslow’s Dust Bowl Ballad, Jane Dudley’s Time Is Money, and Eve Gentry’s Tenant of the Street. As their titles suggest, all are inspired by issues of labor and unemployment—which of course are newly relevant.


The second montage is a reconstruction-cum-remash of Graham’s American Document, which she made at Bennington in 1938 when Nazism was brewing across the ocean. The spoken text asked the question, “What is an American?”


American Document
was not only likely the great choreographer’s first work with speech, it was also her first with a male dancer—Erick Hawkins, on loan from Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan. With Graham’s handwritten notes, a film of her dancing with Hawkins, and several rolls of photos that legendary photographer Barbara Morgan’s grandson dropped in its lap, the company will reconstruct some sections with the younger group, Graham II. On top of that, three choreographers will make new sections, each to newly composed music in the style of the original score by Ray Green. In a show of faith in the current company, Eilber has chosen three of her dancers to choreograph: Tadej Brdnik, Samuel Pott, and Blakeley White-McGuire (“Why I Dance,” Oct. 2009).


In addition theater director Anne Bogart will create a new piece based on the “blueprint” of American Document, which was structured like a minstrel show. The Graham dancers, paired with Bogart’s actors, ask the question, 72 years later, What is an American? This time the answer comes in different languages. Maurizio Nardi replies in Italian, Brdnik in Slovenian, Jennifer DePalo in Spanish, and Miki Orihara in Japanese.


Sections of the program also incorporate the company’s outreach efforts. Graham teaching artists worked in public high schools on American Document episodes, and New York City high school students perform in the massive and powerful Panorama (1935).


When this reporter observed that Eilber thinks big, she responded, “Martha thought big; I learned that from her.” —Wendy Perron



Pictured: Carmen deLavallade, photo by Tom Caravaglia, courtesy Zia Artists