Carmen de Lavallade
Dance Honoree The 40th Annual Kennedy Center Honors
Washington, Kennedy Center Opera House
3 December 2017
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy Center Honors – America’s highest award bestowed upon an artist. A beloved national tradition, this is Washington’s top cultural event of the year that honors and celebrates performing artists whose remarkable careers have made an indelible mark on American culture.
Since its inception, the Kennedy Center Honors have recognized the lifetime achievements of more than 200 extraordinary individuals in a variety of fields – dance, music, film, theater, entertainment, and television – including more than 20 dancers and choreographers. George Balanchine was a member of the inaugural 1978 class of the Honors, so was Fred Astaire. Some of the greats of dance – Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, Antony Tudor, Alvin Ailey, Edward Villella, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Natalia Makarova and Patricia McBride among others – have received the award over the years.
This year’s recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors are dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan, hip hop artist LL Cool J, television writer and producer Norman Lear, and singer and record producer Lionel Richie.
The honorees received their rainbow-ribboned medals on Saturday, December 2, at a State Department dinner. The festivities continued on Sunday, December 3, culminating with the Honors Gala – a star-studded concert-tribute at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
In a break with tradition, the customary pre-gala White House reception didn’t take place this year; and President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump didn’t attend the gala. As was announced by the White House in August, the first family opted to skip the festivities “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction.”
President or no president, though, the show must go on; and on Sunday night, the celebration sailed smoothly into midnight. The Honors Gala at the Opera House turned into a heartfelt, rousing party, managing to avoid political drama and allowing everyone to concentrate on the honorees, their inspiring life stories and to enjoy the warm tributes and stirring performances by their fellow artists, family and friends.
Carmen de Lavallade
Is there a name more beautiful than this?
Dancer, choreographer, actress, teacher, director, writer, and mentor, Carmen de Lavallade is a true artist in every sense of the word – and a true legend. She has had an unprecedented wide-ranging career in the arts that spans seven decades, distinguishing herself at every turn, whether it was the dance stage, Broadway, opera, television or studio. A role model for many generations of young artists, she is living proof that, with hard work, dedication and perseverance, it’s possible to do it all.
De Lavallade was born in Los Angeles in 1931 and began studying dance as a teenager, first with Melissa Blake and then with modern-dance choreographer Lester Horton, the founder of L.A.’s first multiracial dance company, Lester Horton Dance Theatre.
Alvin Ailey was her high school friend. Noticing his gift for movement, she brought him to Horton’s studio, where he made his first steps as a dancer. In 1954, they both came to New York to dance in the Broadway production of House of Flowers. It was while performing in this musical that she met her future husband, Geoffrey Holder – a dancer, choreographer, actor and fashion designer – who would make an everlasting impact on her performing career. (In 2005, they were the subjects of the film Carmen & Geoffrey, which traced their legendary 60-year relationship and artistic partnership.)
As a dancer, de Lavallade performed with Lester Horton, Metropolitan Opera, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), and American Ballet Theatre among other companies. She inspired some of the most prominent choreographers of the time – Horton, Holder, Ailey, Glen Tetley, John Butler and Agnes de Mille – to create works expressly for her.
Her choreographic portfolio includes works for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Philadanco, AAADT, and productions of Porgy and Bess and Die Meistersinger at the Metropolitan Opera.
In 1969, she began teaching movement at the Yale School of Drama, later becoming a company member of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard.
In 2012, she performed on Broadway in A Street Car Named Desire. That same year, she began working on her autobiographic show, As I Remember It, in which she recounts her remarkable life and career through movement, spoken words and video imagery. In 2014, she performed this dance-memoir at Jacob’s Pillow, setting a record for the longest Pillow performing career, having made her debut there in 1953.
Pre-Gala Red Carpet Interview
At 86, Carmen de Lavallade is still beautiful, agile and very elegant. Her graceful bearing and expressive face are an instant cue – she is a dancer. Dressed in a gorgeous mauve gown (“Geoffrey would have approved,” she said referring to her dress), she looked magnificent on the red carpet as she talked to the press before the show.
So how did she feels about her award? De Lavallade put it simply: “It’s a great honor. I am very proud.” She expressed her deep appreciation to people who helped, guided and inspired her throughout her career. She talked with heartwarming affection about her late husband, who died in 2014, and who was always her biggest fan and supporter. “He encouraged me to be who I am. Because of him, I am here.”
What were the highlights of her remarkable career? “I have so many!” she answered with a smile. “My first performances, of course, and working with the Yale Repertory Theatre, working with my husband and with American Ballet Theatre… The list goes on and on. When I look back, I go like ‘really?’ It’s been wonderful. I was able to go in and out of different disciplines – modern dance, ballet, film, theater – and this is what makes it exciting.”
When she talked about her struggles in the 40s and 50s, the time when not all dance classes were opened to black students, she emphasized how fortunate she was to be working with Horton at the beginning of her journey as an artist. “I was very blessed. Lester opened his doors to anybody and we were in his theater seven days a week learning our craft. He was an extraordinary mentor to all of us.” She spoke with a special gratitude about her cousin, Janet Collins, who was her role model – the first black prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera House. “She wanted to be a ballet dancer and it was totally verboten. You couldn’t go to a ballet class because no one would let you in. Janet was the one who opened the doors for all of us.”
What is the secret of her longevity as a performing artist? “I am constantly adjusting. I don’t have the same body, so I adjust and redesign. You can always find interesting stories to tell, but you have to constantly invent new ways of saying what you want to say.”
We talked about her show, As I Remember It, which she brought to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater in 2015. How did this production come about? “Everyone wanted to know my history and I thought it would be a lovely way to do it.” In fact, she is rethinking and retooling the piece and planning to bring it back onstage in a different form.
How does she feel about President Trump’s decision not to participate in the festivities? “I feel wonderful. It’s not his thing anyway.” Referring to her earlier announcement to boycott the White House reception to express her disagreement with the President’s policies and his stance on the arts, de Lavallade said, “I have always been a good team player. But this is the first time I said ‘no’ and I feel good about it. Now we can concentrate on the show.”
The Honors Gala
“In democratic society, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation,” stated Caroline Kennedy in her opening remarks, quoting her father.
“The artists we celebrate tonight are loaded with that spirit. They brought joy to our lives, enriched American culture and they are celebrated around the world,” she continued. “Carmen de Lavallade, Norman Lear, Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, and Lionel Richie – we honor you tonight and always. Congratulations!”
During the gala, each honoree was greeted with a personalized onstage tribute, which included a spoken introduction, a video homage and a performance segment.
Gloria Estefan was introduced by Eva Longoria, Norman Lear by J.J. Abrams, LL Cool J by Queen Latifah, Carmen de Lavallade by Meryl Streep, and Lionel Richie by Kenny Rogers.
The Opera House audience exploded with an ovation when a legend in her own right, three-time Oscar-winning actress, Meryl Streep took the stage to salute de Lavallade.
In her remarks, Streep recounted the time when, 45 years ago, she – at that time a beginning graduate student in acting – walked into de Lavallade’s studio at the Yale School of Drama. “Great artists do not always make great teachers, but Carmen is that rare bird,” Streep said, recalling, with warmth and humor, her lessons with de Lavallade from “a very scrupulously-observed barre exercise” to “learning how to fall without killing yourself.”
“Her legacy lives on not only in the ineffable single beauty of her own dancing but in the lessons she gives us – the lessons she taught me: forbearance, forgiveness, resilience. That’s the secret of the strength in her core from which she soared over so many obstacles in her 70-year-long career as a dancer. Carmen, your students, and audiences all over the world, thank you for your on-going generous gift of your life’s work,” said Streep in conclusion.
A dance tribute to de Lavallade began with an exuberant and witty duet, Dear Quincy, which was choreographed specifically for her by her husband, Geoffrey Holder, in the 60s to the equally exuberant tune Soul Bossa Nova by Quincy Jones. It was performed with spark and loads of humor by the exquisite Stella Abrera – principal ballerina with American Ballet Theatre – and the charming Brandon Victor Dixon. Clad in a long white dress with waves of ruffles, a long pipe in hand, Abrera looked cool, poised and glamorous in such electrifying dance, her hips swiveling, her feet charting the music’s invigorating rhythms.
It was both inspiring and heart-rending to see Wade in the Water – an excerpt from Alvin Ailey’s enduring Revelations – was included in the program. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s crew – Alicia Graf Mack, Linda Celeste Sims, and Matthew Rushing – did justice to this deeply moving piece, dancing with skill and passion. Then there was a fluid and evanescent solo to Deux Bourées: N’aï Pas léu De MîO, beautifully performed by Lindsey Croop, a dancer from the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
The audience exploded with an ovation once again when Misty Copeland, principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre, walked on the stage.
“The greatest artists move other performers, guiding each generation with their vision and courage,” said Copeland in her personal tribute to de Lavallade. “Carmen, me – a black principal ballerina dancing at the Metropolitan Opera House – I stand on your shoulders,” she continued in teary voice. “Tonight, in recognition of the barriers you broke through, I am honored to be here.” Then she was joined onstage by Robert Fairchild for a charming duet, which was accompanied by singer Rebecca Luker.
At the conclusion, de Lavallade and the entire cast were joined on stage by the Howard University Gospel Choir, in a stirring finale danced and sung to an American spiritual – the wonderfully appropriate She’s Got the Whole World in Her Hands.
The entire evening had a family-get-together-like atmosphere. Gloria Estefan was feted with a solo performance by her daughter Emily, as well as the performances of her greatest hits by Miami Sound Machine and the cast of On Your Feet! – a Broadway musical based on Estefan’s life, which is coming to the Kennedy Center in January.
LL Cool J – the first hip-hop artist to become the honoree and, at 49, the youngest artist ever to receive the award – was greeted with ardent musical performances from Busta Rhymes, DMC and DJ Z-Trip.
During the tribute for Norman Lear, the stage was transformed into sets from some of his most popular sitcoms – Good Times, All in the Family and Maude – with emotional speeches by Dave Chappelle, Rob Reiner, Rachel Bloom and Rita Moreno among others.
Finally, Nicole Richie warmly addressed her dad, Lionel Richie, during his recognition segment, while Stevie Wonder melted the audience’s hearts with his soulful performance of Richie’s hits Hello and Easy. To cap the gala, singer Leona Lewis delivered a spellbinding rendition of Richie’s hit song, All Night Long, which got the audience up from their seats singing and dancing in the aisles.
The 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors gala will be broadcast on CBS as a two-hour special on December 26 at 9:00 pm.