Gemze de Lappe, 95, Dies; Keeper of the Agnes de Mille Flame

Gemze de Lappe, 95, Dies; Keeper of the Agnes de Mille Flame


“In the rope dance, there was a lift where I turned upside down and threw myself against Jimmy’s hip, and he took my hand and ran me around in a circle, with my head almost scraping the ground,” Miss de Lappe said in an interview in 2015 for New York City Center’s blog, adding that “it was really hard to teach it” to dancers in subsequent productions.

Many years later, in 1970, de Mille created for Miss de Lappe the title role in “A Rose for Miss Emily,” a 30-minute ballet, based on a William Faulkner short story, that was first staged at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. She performed it again at City Center in 1971 at a celebration of American Ballet Theater.

“I knew from the beginning that I was very in tune with her work,” Miss de Lappe, who was also a choreographer, told an interviewer in 2008 for This Chair Rocks, a blog about ageism. “I just happened to be a dancer who had the training and background to do those roles.”

Miss de Lappe understood that de Mille’s dancers had to be actors, and that her choreography — which was celebrated for incorporating elements of folk dancing and classical ballet — was as much about forging character as it was about learning the steps. When she recreated de Mille’s choreography, Miss de Lappe used her mentor’s vocabulary, vivid with motivational similes, to inform even the subtlest of movements.

When instructing a cancan girl in the “Dream Ballet” how she should shake her skirt as she distracts the villain, Miss de Lappe would say, as her mentor did, “Think of a rattlesnake,” Mr. Ferrell said.

Photo

Miss de Lappe in 2015.

Credit
Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Miss de Lappe and de Mille became friends, but their professional relationship never changed.

“She was very deferential to Agnes, and Agnes relied and cared for her,” said Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. “But nobody was equal to Agnes.”

In 1993, the organization videotaped the two women together discussing the dances of “Carousel,” another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that de Mille choreographed and that Miss de Lappe restaged.

De Mille was effusive and dramatic in the videotape as Miss de Lappe followed her lead, fluidly demonstrating dance steps and cogently discussing how to teach de Mille’s choreography.

In passing on de Mille’s technique, she said, it was critical that they “find the character in themselves, so they are a person and they remain a person throughout the show.”

She added, “You want to think of them as real people and not be able to tell them from the singers and the actors.”

In showing how to restage de Mille’s dances, Miss de Lappe was exacting and demonstrative.

“Gemze would gesture with her arms, her eyes and her face and totally convey everything she needed to do,” said Nikki Feirt Atkins, the producing artistic director of the American Dance Machine for the 21st Century, which reconstructs classic dances.

Two years ago, Miss de Lappe was polishing the “Dream Ballet” with the American Dance Machine in a Times Square rehearsal studio when, The New York Times reported, she clapped her hands in frustration. The dancers stopped. Miss de Lappe walked over to Amy Ruggiero, who was dancing the part of Laurey, and demonstrated the proper way to swoon over a man.

“It’s ‘Oh, my God, he’s so beautiful,’ ” Miss de Lappe said, clutching her heart and then spreading her arms.

“This time, don’t be fancy,” she added.

After correcting Ms. Ruggiero once more, Miss de Lappe walked away, pleased for the moment.

Gemze (pronounced JEM-zee) Mary de Lappe was born on Feb. 27, 1922, in Portsmouth, Va. Her father, Birch, worked in the art department at NBC. Her mother, the former Mary McDonough, was a vaudeville performer.

Photo

Miss de Lappe in an undated photograph.

Credit
Betti Franceschi

Explaining her unusual first name to The New York World-Telegram and Sun in 1951, Miss de Lappe said, “I have a fey Irish mother and she just gave it to me — concocted it.”

As a young girl, she studied dance at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. After she moved with her family to New York City, she learned the Isadora Duncan technique from Duncan’s foster daughter, Irma, and trained with the Russian dancer Michel Fokine. She graduated from the High School of Music and Art (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts).

When “Oklahoma!” became a hit, its producers assembled a cast to tour the United States. Miss de Lappe was cast in a role sometimes referred to as “child in pigtails.” Before the tour began, the cast studied the show for two weeks at the St. James Theater, where it ran for five years.

Miss de Lappe worked with Jerome Robbins, another master choreographer, in the original Broadway production of “The King and I” (1951), playing the masked villain King Simon of Legree in the ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.”

Several months after opening in “The King and I” — which she would also restage — Miss de Lappe moved on to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s gold-rush musical “Paint Your Wagon.”

Miss de Lappe, who was petite, worked well into her older years, surprising other dancers with her vigor. “She was physically strong and could throw herself into a lift or a hinge in her 80s,” said Liza Gennaro, a choreographer and head of musical theater at Indiana University.

In 2007, she received the Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theater from the American Theater Wing and the League of American Theaters and Producers.

In addition to Mr. Carisi-de Lappe, Miss de Lappe is survived by another son, Jonathan Carisi. Her husband, the jazz trumpeter and composer Johnny Carisi, died in 1992.

Miss de Lappe was a regular presence at New York Theater Ballet, where she often helped reconstruct de Mille’s dances — and offered nuanced appraisals of the performers.

Elena Zahlmann, the company’s principal dancer and associate artistic director, recalled that at a particular moment in “Oklahoma!” Miss de Lappe would sometimes tell her not to point her toes so much but rather open herself up to her feelings for the person she was onstage with.

“I always felt that I was getting information directly from Agnes de Mille through Gemze,” Ms. Zahlmann said. “I really learned how to be a person onstage, and not necessarily to always be a dancer.”



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