‘Untitled’: A Collaborative Dance & Photography-Based Activation


written by Gaby Hale, Outreach Archivist for Rose Library. 

This month, visitors to the For Keeps Bookstore and Auburn Avenue Research Library will have the opportunity to watch performances curated by Sierra King and Rose Library’s Anicka Austin. The pair have been working together on a dance and performance-based activation that reflects their archival research and speculative storytelling on the lives and work of Lucille Clifton, Carmen de Lavallade, and Katherine Dunham. The project, titled “Untitled”, intends to illuminate the archive as a site of meditation on the lives of Black women artists. 

“Untitled” will have performances on May 17th-19th at For Keeps Bookstore, and on May 22nd-23rd at Auburn Avenue Research Library. Each dance performance will begin with live music alongside an installation of photographic and archival materials. These performances are free and open to the public. 

Information about the Katherine Dunham, Lucille Clifton, and Carmen de Lavallade collections at Rose Library:

Katherine Dunham collection, 1949-1978

Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) was an African American dancer, choreographer, author, educator, and activist. Born in Chicago, Illinois, she began dancing at a young age, opening a dance studio for African American children while still in high school.

Katherine Dunham and Roger Ohardieno, from the Robert Langmuir Collection

During college at the University of Chicago, she became interested in anthropology and received several grants to study native dance and cultures of the Caribbean. She left graduate school without completing a master’s degree to focus on her dance career, which often combined these Caribbean dance techniques with those of classical ballet. From the early 1930s until her retirement in 1967, Dunham traveled the world with her dance company, often speaking publicly against segregation in the United States and elsewhere. Her 1950 ballet Southland, which dramatized a lynching in the American south, elicited criticism from the State Department who subsequently refused to support Dunham in any of her foreign tours. In 1945, she opened the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theater in New York City where she trained students including Eartha Kitt, James Dean, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Toni Cade Bambara, and many others. In 1964, Dunham settled in East St. Louis, Illinois, and served as artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. Following her retirement, she continued to teach in East St. Louis and elsewhere and remained a vocal social activist until her death in 2006. 

Lucille Clifton papers, circa 1930-2011

Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was an African American poet and children’s book author. She was born Thelma Lucille Sayles on June 27, 1936 to Samuel L. Sayles, Sr. and Thelma Moore Sayles in Depew, New York.

Lucille Clifton, from the Lucille Clifton papers.

Lucille Sayles married Fred Clifton (1934-1984) on May 10, 1958, and had six children in the next seven years. Clifton’s first volume of poetry, Good Times, was published in 1969 and chosen by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year. Other volumes of poetry followed, including Good News About the Earth (1972), An Ordinary Woman (1974), Next: New Poems (1987), and The Terrible Stories (1996), which was nominated for a National Book Award. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for the years 1980, 1987, 1988, and 1991, and her Blessing the Boats (2000) won the National Book Award for Poetry. In addition to poetry, Clifton has written many children’s books, including eight volumes featuring the character of Everett Anderson. Everett Anderson’s Goodbye won the Coretta Scott King Award from the American Library Association in 1984.

Fan mail, from the Lucille Clifton papers

Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers, circa 1900-2018

Carmen de Lavallade is an American actress, educator, choreographer, and dancer. She was born on March 6, 1931, in Los Angeles, California, to Creole parents from New Orleans, Louisiana, Leo de Lavallade and Grace Grenot de Lavallade.

Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, from their collection.

She was raised by her aunt, Adele de Lavallade Young, who owned one of the first African American bookshops on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. After graduating from high school, de Lavallade was awarded a scholarship to study dance with Lester Horton, becoming lead dancer of Lester Horton Dance Theater (Los Angeles, CA) during her tenure. She left for New York in 1954 with Alvin Ailey, whom she had met and encouraged to begin dancing in high school. That same year, she made her Broadway debut partnered with Ailey in Truman Capote’s musical, House of Flowers. In 1955, de Lavallade danced as prima ballerina in Samson and Delilah and Aida at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. An introduction to 20th Century Fox executives by Lena Horne led to film acting roles in films such as Carmen Jones (1954) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). In 1962, de Lavallade and Ailey embarked on a tour of Southeast Asia as the de Lavallade-Ailey dance company. In 1970, at the insistence of John Butler, she began teaching at the Yale School of Drama as a choreographer and performer-in-residence. She staged musicals, plays, and operas and eventually became a professor and member of the Yale Repertory Theater. De Lavallade co-founded the performance group Paradigm in 1996 with Gus Solomon, Jr. and Dudley Williams.

Photo from the Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade collection

She has received honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from the State University of New York at Purchase and Julliard. In 2014, she performed a biographical solo As I remember it at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (Becket, Massachusetts), marking an over 60-year relationship with the prestigious festival. She married Geoffrey Holder (a Trinidadian American director, actor, author, choreographer, painter, musician, photographer and dancer) on June 26, 1955, and remained married until his death in 2014.