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The Legendary Carmen de Lavallade Reflects on Her Career

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Feb 19, 2015

Distilling a nearly seventy year career into a taut, 70 minute performance is no easy task, especially when the artist in question has had encounters with notables ranging from Josephine Baker to Stephen Sondheim, Susan Hayward to Duke Ellington. Still, with her new work As I Remember It, Carmen de Lavallade highlights an enormous portion of her incredible journey. By acknowledging mentors and collaborators while featuring major periods of transition and growth, the show demonstrates exactly why this peerless performer is so treasured in the worlds of dance and theatre.

"It's more of a poetic piece," says de Lavellade, seated in her dressing room at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where As I Remember It  has five performances this week and next. "It's like one's memory; it jumps around. It's a way of thanking and remembering all these people in my life."

This glamorously elegant octogenarian retains a capacity for deeply communicative, emotionally resonant movement, as evidenced by her performances with Paradigm, an enterprising ensemble of "older" dancers she co-founded. So this new solo piece incorporates movement as well as text, as she takes audiences from her childhood years in Los Angeles to her immersion in the rich arts scene of mid-1950s New York, and then to her evolution as a theatre artist, becoming a noted teacher at the Yale School of Drama.

"Those are three major points of growth," she says, and they give focus to the piece. A major figure during the Los Angeles years, where her career got quite an early start, was her cousin Janet Collins, a ballerina who broke ground by defying the idea that ballet is not for black people. She was the first black ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera, and she led her younger cousin Carmen to two pivotal mentors---Lester Horton, a modern dance innovator, and Carmelita Maracci, an influential ballet teacher.

De Lavallade performed with Horton's Los Angeles troupe while still in her teens, and she evokes her role as Salome during As I Remember It. She persuaded a high school pal, Alvin Ailey, to come along to Horton's classes, and soon he too was performing lead roles.

"The training that we got there was unique," de Lavallade recalls. "Our classroom was the stage, not a studio with mirrors. I thought that was terrific, because we weren't going from the studio into the theatre. <em>Everything</em> happened on the stage. And the dancers had to do it all. You had to come in early, iron your costumes, hang them up. We were the stage crew; we did the lighting. And then at the end, we had to clean up. So it taught you independence, and that everything's not given to you."

Through Horton she found her way into film work during the early 1950s. Most notably, she was a solo dancer in Carmen Jones, where she can be seen vamping Harry Belafonte. She laughs now, recalling such titles as <i>Demetrius and the Gladiators</i> (in which she played a slave girl serving Susan Hayward) and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But she does speak with pride and admiration of working with choreographer Jack Cole.

Horton died suddenly in 1953, leaving his dancers bereft. Around that time, Herbert Ross, the choreographer of Carmen Jones, invited de Lavallade and Ailey to dance in the Broadway musical <i>House of Flowers</i>, so she came to New York---and stayed. The cast of that show included a tall dancer from Trinidad, Geoffrey Holder, whom she immediately captivated. They married a year later (and had a son, Leo).

They became celebrated individually and as a glamorous, notable couple, both expanding their careers in enterprising new directions. Their life and work together was portrayed in the 2005 documentary Carmen and Geoffrey, which includes fascinating footage, such as the two of them lighting up the stage as dancers in a 1964 Josephine Baker Broadway revue.

De Lavallade danced with Ailey and other modern-dance choreographers, particularly John Butler, who created many roles for her. Most notable was <i> Portrait of Billie</i>, in which she devastatingly portrayed Billie Holiday's rise and fall.

Then, after meeting Robert Brustein, dean of the Yale School of Drama, she joined the faculty in the 1970s, teaching movement to a generation of acting students there and also performing frequently in Yale Repertory Theatre productions. Among other memorable achievements, she choreographed the swimmers for the legendary 1974 production of Sondheim's The Frogs, staged at Yale's swimming pool.

"I loved teaching the actors, because they're fearless, and they're very imaginative," she says. "I was not trying to make them 'dance.' I wanted them to be comfortable with their bodies, to be able to move in the way they wanted to, without trying to look like dancers. I learned a lot from watching them."

Among her students was Joe Grifasi, now a highly respected New York stage actor, who is directing <i>As I Remember It</i>. The two performed as colleagues in Yale productions and have re-connected for various projects over the years. "Every actor who worked with her loved her," says Grifasi. "She's a storytelling dancer, so there was a natural connection to us, coming from the world of scripted drama. She helped us discover how to use our bodies in terms of storytelling."

Also collaborating on the new piece are writer/dramaturg Talvin Wicks, set designer Mimi Lien, lighting designer James F. Ingalls, video designer Mata Ciarrocchi, and composer Jane Ira Bloom. The show took shape over three years, before she first performed it at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival last June, when changes were still being made. She performed its more completed form at the Kennedy Center in October, just weeks after Holder had died.

Now she gets to present her hometown audience with this eloquent distillation of her multi-faceted experiences. "It's like a tapestry," she says. "It's all interwoven, and it's very hard to extricate what's most important. So I had to figure out, 'What are the highlights? What led you here?'"


Susan Reiter is a journalist based in New York City

Photo by Christopher Duggan

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.