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Carmen de Lavallade
Women in Dance

Carmen de Lavallade

From her 1953 Jacob’s Pillow debut with Lester Horton Dance Theatre to her most recent performances in 2014, Carmen de Lavallade has achieved the longest Pillow performing career on record.

By Maura Keefe
Photo by Jamie Kraus


Carmen de Lavallade has made her mark time and time again as a performer, an exquisite performer. She holds the record for the longest performing career at Jacob’s Pillow, beginning in 1953, and most recently in 2014 with her evening-length show As I Remember It. De Lavallade started dancing after being inspired by her cousin, Janet Collins, an African American ballet dancer, who many argue was denied the fame she richly deserved because of her race.

Critics comment on Carmen de Lavallade’s physical beauty and unparalleled technique, united with her sense of theatre. Over and over, throughout the years, critics comment on Carmen de Lavallade’s physical beauty and unparalleled technique, united with her sense of theatre. When dance writer Walter Terry first saw her perform in 1953 with Lester Horton in New York, he wrote: “The body instrument is strong yet fluid, excellently disciplined, technically and wonderfully responsive to musical and dramatic nuance.” Walter Terry, from  New York Herald Tribune, April 5, 1953, reprinted in Terry’s I WAS THERE, 1979.

De Lavallade’s History with Jacob’s Pillow

De Lavallade’s first Pillow appearance was with Lester Horton, alongside her high school friend, fellow dancer Alvin Ailey.

Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey in Lester Horton's Dedication to Jose Clemente Orozco, 1961 (Photo: John Lindquist)

Since then, she has had dances made for her by Alvin Ailey, of course, but also by a wide-ranging roster of North American choreographers such as Agnes de Mille, Glen Tetley, and Geoffrey Holder. She has returned to the Pillow many times, premiering John Butler’s signature work Portrait of Billie in 1960.  In 1992, de Lavallade reprised Butler’s work, dancing with Ulysses Dove in a single Pillow performance that was coached by Butler himself.

Portrait of Billie
Carmen de Lavallade and John Butler in the premiere of Portrait of Billie, 1960 (Photo: John Van Lund)

When asked about choreographers’ interest in working with de Lavallade, Ailey commented in his memoir, “Over the years, she has been a favorite of choreographers because, in her own words, ‘I’m someone who’s easy to mold.’ 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.” Ailey, Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey, 1995 She has also reprised solos made by Ruth St. Denis, notably on the Jacob’s Pillow Gala in 1997.

In 2004, de Lavallade appeared at the Pillow with Paradigm, the trio company founded with Gus Solomons jr and Dudley Williams in 1998. (It was not these dancers’ first appearance together at the Pillow. In 1963, they danced Donald McKayle’s signature piece Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder.) She performed three works on that program, including two world premieres, Verdi for Three, choreographed by Richard Move, and Kay Cummings’s Texture. Dwight Rhoden’s It All (2001) showed the beauty and majesty of de Lavallade and Solomons together. Building on complex rhythms in the accompanying Bjork music, Rhoden draws on the expressivity of gesture and posture.

Carmen de Lavallade and Gus Solomons jr in Dwight Rhoden’s It All, 2004 (Photo: Marta Fodor)

The piece also abstracts the tension of a tango and the inherent challenge between partners in that form. The work explores the history of a relationship and its ongoingness.

It All

As I Remember It

The Pillow co-commissioned the creation and performance of the world premiere of As I Remember It from de Lavallade in 2014.

Carmen de Lavallade in As I Remember It, 2014 (Photo: Christopher Duggan)
Carmen de Lavallade in As I Remember It, 2014 (Photo: Jamie Kraus)

Director of Preservation Norton Owen termed the work, “an impressionistic journey through more than six decades of her own rich dance history,” going on to note, “this kind of ‘memory play’ has few precedents in the dance field.”

As I Remember It
Post-Show Talk with Carmen de Lavallade, Joe Grifasi, and Talvin Wilks, moderated by Norton Owen, 2014.
View Archival Record

In an interview in 1979, de Lavallade remarked: “You can take a lifetime to discover what you want to say in your art.” With her six plus decades as a performer, de Lavallade has shared her discoveries with generations of dance audiences.


Maura Keefe is a contemporary dance historian. She is a scholar in residence at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, where she writes about, lectures on, and interviews artists from around the world.Read Bio

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