Friday, November 4, 2016

Carmen de Lavallade: A Black Swan at the Movies

There was a time when the field of dance, like the recent Academy Award ceremonies, deserved a hashtag along the lines of #Oscarsowhite. Ballet meant a corps of white swans, not black ones. Theatrical dance, like the kind featured in Broadway musicals, demanded caucasian faces and bodies. Fortunately that situation has changed for the better. Witness the success of Misty Copeland, a star of today’s American Ballet Theatre. On Broadway, African-American dancers have far more opportunities than they once did, and some major hits (The Lion King and The Book of Mormon among them) demand performers with dark skins.

A pioneer in the field of classical dance was Janet Collins, the first African-American ballerina to perform with the Metropolitan Opera. Collins became a powerful inspiration to her young cousin, who was born with the mellifluous name of Carmen de Lavallade. Carmen—my very first teacher at Lester Horton’s Dance Theater—eventually left Los Angeles to appear as a featured dancer in a Truman Capote/Harold Arlen musical set in the West Indies. Called House of Flowers, it was a famous flop. But Carmen, undaunted, stayed on in the Big Apple, performing with major dance companies like that of her good friend and fellow Horton alum, Alvin Ailey. She also taught for ten years in the Yale School of Drama, instructing such budding actors as Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep in the secrets of stage movement. Now, at 85, she is revered within the dance and theatre communities. I was lucky to join in the ovation when she performed her one-woman show, As I Remember It, in her original home town. (I have never in my life seen so many proud sisters, cousins, and aunts!)

As I Remember It is a chronicle of Carmen’s eventful life, presented on a set that allows for the screening of photos and film clips. And it’s the movie aspects of Carmen’s life that I want to explore here. Early on, as a Horton dancer, she was sent to appear in kitschy screen musicals of the era, with titles like White Savage, South Sea Woman, and 3-D Follies. Lester Horton, to his credit, refused to segregate his very interracial company by race, so Hollywood’s demands for an all-white troupe or all-black troupe of dancers were summarily turned down. But, when Horton’s integrated dancers showed up to shoot in an ersatz exotic locale, the studios knew what to do. Like all the other participants in these song-and-dance extravaganzas, the very light-skinned Carmen was forced to enhance her look by daubing on a Max Factor makeup concoction called Negro #3. (In her show, she quipped wryly that this makeup worked beautifully on white skin, but actual African-Americans discovered it gave their skin tones a greenish cast.)

I loved seeing clips of Carmen as a lady-in-waiting in The Egyptian, and dancing up a storm in Carmen Jones. Later, in 1959, she had a short but potent dramatic scene opposite Harry Belafonte in the crime drama, Odds Against Tomorrow. In 1961, with her New York dance career on the rise, she was invited to perform a duet to the poignant “Cry Me a River” on the era’s biggest variety program, The Ed Sullivan Show. Only problem: her dance partner for the number, future choreographer Glen Tetley, was white. Only the last minute substitution of a black dancer allowed the show to go on as scheduled.

Carmen has continued to act in movies, playing nice little roles in John Sayles’ Lone Star and Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. But she needs to be seen in person, lighting up a stage. 

Here's a link to my earlier tribute to Carmen, chronicling the lunch we shared in 2015. What a glorious day for me! And this clip contains Carmen's best scene with Harry Belafonte.


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