Gemze de Lappe: “I danced straight on through.”

Gemze de Lappe began dancing at age nine, with Michael Fokine’s ballet company. During the summer, the company performed a different Broadway musical each week, and one of Fokine's one-act ballets during intermission. Her favorite was Scheherazade, playing “one of the boys who got stabbed in the end, lying on stage upside down. All that drama!” she recalled happily. “To do that all summer long was heaven.” And in 1939, her $25-a-week salary was good money.

De Lappe is still at it.  In 2007, at 85, she won a TONY Honor for excellence in theater, honoring her contributions as a “replicateur” – someone who remounts specific dances. A protégé of Agnes de Mille, de Lappe was handpicked by the legendary choreographer to interpret or restage her work for future generations. “Her body is the memory bank of the de Mille dances,” explains choreographer and professor Liza Gennaro, (also my one-time sister-in-law). “Particularly with de Mille, a lot of sensory work informs the dance. Gemze not only shows the step, she’s able to describe how it should be performed: for example, that the dancer should imagine that her fingers are moving through the fluffy seeds that blow around in the spring.”  

There’s nothing fluffy about the 10-hour days Gennaro and de Lappe put in every summer at the Muny in St. Louis, a 13,000-seat outdoor theater that mounts a new musical production every ten days. Unfazed by the brutal schedule and the blistering heat, De Lappe does a show every year, sometimes with de Mille’s choreography and sometimes her own, for a show like Camelot. Gennaro is also collaborating with her on American Suite, a dance to be performed as part of an upcoming de Mille retrospective at the New York Theater Ballet. They’re working on the basis of photos and fragmented program notes scrawled by de Mille when she created the dance in 1938 in London. “It's been a pretty amazing process and it would be impossible without Gemze,” commented Gennaro.

None of this would have come about if the twenty-year-old ballerina hadn’t run into a tap dance teacher on 45th Street. “Why aren’t you at the audition?” he asked. “They’re doing Oklahoma!”  De Lappe landed the role of the Child with Pigtails, joined the company, and the rest is dance history. She personified a new breed that De Mille introduced to the Broadway stage: the actor-dancer. A 1988 interview in Dance Magazine  credits the enduring partnership to de Lappe’s “petite but surprisingly strong and beautifully shaped body, her arresting and expressive face, and -- probably most important — her personal intensity that matched de Mille's own."

“I knew from the beginning that I was very in tune with her work. I could do pretty much everything that she choreographed,” said de Lappe, adding modestly, “I just happened to be a dancer who had the training and the background to do those roles.” The female dance lead in Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon was the first of many roles that de Mille choreographed for de Lappe. As their relationship deepened, she became a vehicle for de Mille’s choreography, even when the part was created with another dancer in mind. She also learned to audition, stage, and choreograph, and enjoyed coaching younger dancers. “After all, dance is handed down generation to generation; that’s why we have all of those classics,” she pointed out.

De Lappe “danced straight on through” from age nine until the birth of her first child at 38. She’d married John Carisi, a jazz composer and trumpet player, and stopped going on tour so she could stay close to New York City to raise their two sons. Typically she was hired for two-week engagements restaging de Mille’s ballets and musicals: Brigadoon, Carousel, and Oklahoma!. She also restaged The King and I, having danced the part of King Simon of Legree in the original 1951 production, as well as in the Hollywood version, and remains the authority on Jerome Robbins’ innovative choreography. De Mille choreographed the title role of A Rose for Miss Emily for Lappe in 1970, and de Lappe earned “rafter-shaking ovations” at 49 in a revival for ABT's thirtieth anniversary. De Mille chose her perform Laurey in her Dream Ballet from Oklahoma! in a 1979 PBS special, 36 years after her appearance in the original production.  

By that time, de Lappe’s first son had started college and a steady job started looking good. “My husband was a wonderful artist, but not that concerned about making money,” she admitted a little ruefully. So in 1979 she took a teaching position at Smith College, which turned into a 13-year position as visiting artist. The first audio clip below describes de Lappe’s response when the job took an unexpected turn.

Retirement as professor emeritus in 1992 hardly brought the free time that de Lappe envisioned, although it was her last salaried position. “I haven’t been offered a steady job that I really wanted, and I’ve done all right with freelancing,” she explained. She’s in demand from dance companies, community theaters, and college dance departments, and had to postpone our interview twice because jobs had come up. She does the casting and watches over the choreography, ensuring that the sense and spirit of the work remain intact and bringing “a strong sense of the styles and the morays of that period. I think the current directors and choreographers really don’t do enough in-depth study. They don’t understand it, so they think it’s boring, and they try to improve on it,” she told me. Not on her watch, they don’t.

Over the past year de Lappe has worked intensively with the Tulsa Ballet Company, which is reinterpreting de Mille’s OklahomaI choreography as a ballet to commemorate its 75th anniversary. She’s also working with an archivist to clarify the libretto, music and stage instructions for de Mille’s early works, which were never recorded in their original versions. “So much goes on between the lines, interaction without words,” she explained. “They’re just the invention of the director or the choreographer, and we’re tying to make that clearer so that people know what that show really was.”

De Mille has benefited financially as well as artistically from de Lappe’s commitment. Just after after leaving Smith College, de Lappe mounted a definitive production of Carousel in Houston. After seeing it, Rodgers and Hammerstein president Ted Chapin told Dorothy Rodgers and the Hammersteins, “Now that I’ve seen Carousel with the de Mille choreography intact, I really understand its importance to the show. We need to start honoring it,” de Lappe recounted. “It was partly because of that production that Rodgers and Hammerstein began giving Agnes royalties and credit as the originator every time any of her works are done.” Until then, Chapin told me, “I’d thought of de Mille as the clichéd steps that we know.  Part of my revelation when I went to Houston was that the steps are secondary to what’s going on in the characters: the movement comes from storytelling. That’s where Gemze is more than someone who replicates something. She finds the way into the dances: how can the actor in the dancer embody the role?”

When I asked whether she works because she wants to or because she has to, de Lappe replied, “A little of both.” She works “to keep the body together,” and also because “if I didn’t work I think I would go a little mad.”  How much of a catalyst is her commitment to de Mille’s legacy? “I think it's Gemze,” Chapin responded. “She’s slowing down a little bit, but look at the fact that she did the Muny this year, which is kind of insane because it’s one week summer stock on a stage the size of Rhode Island.” Chapin also credits a very different work ethic for de Lappe’s generation.

The money matters to de Lappe as well. Half of her income is from Social Security and two small union pensions; the other half comes from her engagements. Those earnings make the difference between “going to the theater and doing the things I like to do, and just paying my rent and living OK.”

She’s had her share of health problems. A fall in her 50’s (not on stage, ironically, but on ice as she headed home with an armload of groceries) damaged her knee, and heart disease has necessitated two angioplasties —“a miraculous operation” according to de Lappe. As much as possible, she continues to teach by demonstration: “You can explain ballet, or a certain technique, but you need to show them the dramatic impulse, how to make something come alive that is really from inside out. That’s what makes the movement honest.” With a laugh, she blamed the heart medication for the fact that “when I try to demonstrate standing on one leg, I begin to slowly tilt. Now that I am in my 80’s, I just grab hold of the nearest strong dancer, girl or boy.”  If that dancer happens to be a handsome Russian (audio clip #2, below),, so much the better.

What does retirement mean to de Lappe?  She’s waiting to find out. She advises people contemplating retirement to go back to school and pick up a subject that’s always been of interest.  “Then you can work at that. I think you need to work to be really happy,” she explained. De Lappe acknowledge that her retired tennis-playing and socializing friends brag about her, then added with characteristic modesty, “They live pretty well. I don’t think they would change places with me for a second.”  

I’m not so sure about that.

Listen to audio: 

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