Impressions of Carmen de Lavallade’s “As I Remember It”

Impressions of Carmen de Lavallade’s “As I Remember It”

Published on February 24, 2015
Photo: Stephanie Berger

A Legend in Motion

Baryshnikov Arts Center

As I Remember It

Performed by Carmen de Lavallade

Conceived by Carmen de Lavallade with Joe Grifasi and Talvin Wilks

Written by Carmen de Lavallade and Talvin Wilks

Original Music by Jane Ira Bloom

Set Design by Mimi Lien

Video Design by Maya Ciarrocchi

Costume Design by Esther Arroyo

Before it was common, Carmen de Lavallade was a hyphenate: dancer-actress-muse-professor-wife-mother. She, still sleek and gracious at 83, reminisces about her life in the premiere of As I Remember It at Baryshnikov Arts Center. As the multimedia show unfolds, it becomes clear another descriptor must be added to the already lengthy chain — legend.

The hour-long show features de Lavallade in a slinky maroon jumpsuit and fuchsia cardigan narrating the broad strokes of her life. A curtain constructed of fringe (like a lady’s flapper skirt) cuts across the stage. Film clips and pictures are projected on it, accenting the streaky, wavering quality of memory: certain details stand out while others recede into darkness.

Carmen de Lavallade in As I Remember It. Photo by Stephanie Berger
Carmen de Lavallade in As I Remember It. Photo by Stephanie Berger

de Lavallade was, and continues to be, a mesmerizing dancer. She glides with silky poise, her shifts of weight barely registering. Each movement, from supple port de bras to cadenced hip isolations, is imbued with purposeful radiance.

The most distinctive quality of de Lavallade is her presence: confident, but never haughty, refined but never stuffy. Although she speaks simply, plain words with plain meanings, each phrase carries emotive power due to her conversational delivery. Occasionally, de Lavallade flubs a line, but it doesn’t rattle her or us: She laughs it off and continues with her story.

Born in Los Angeles to Creole parents, she enrolled in ballet lessons where she found herself as the only person of color in the studio. Eventually, she and her friend Alvin Ailey made their way to modern dance pioneer Lester Horton, who instilled a hardy work ethic in his pupils, both on- and off-stage; once students completed his strenuous classes, they swept the floor and scrubbed the bathroom. Her technical and dramatic acuity garnered attention, and a marvelous career soon unfolded. She appeared in the movies and acted as a muse for choreographer John Butler, dancing her way through the heroines of The Bible in his religiously themed ballets.

Carmen de Lavallade in As I Remember It. Photo by Stephanie Berger
Carmen de Lavallade in As I Remember It. Photo by Stephanie Berger

While de Lavallade’s biography is well known, she enlivens these facts with delicious tidbits that showcase her wry wit. When relating her anxiety and excitement during her debut in the title role of Lester Horton’s Salome, she strides through the fringe curtain — regal, commanding — and with a dramatic pause, exclaims, “And then the tape broke.” The love for her recently deceased husband, Geoffrey Holder, and his enthusiasm for her adds a bittersweet note. Upon an offer from Yale University School of Drama to teach movement to actors, de Lavallade, imitating his deep baritone, says he told her, “GO! GO!”

There is much to admire about de Lavallade: her preternatural talent, her seemingly effortless balancing act between multiple demands, and her insistent refusal to let her skin color stand in the way of her dreams. While the evening ostensibly functions as a living autobiography, it becomes, through de Lavallade’s luminous grace and intelligence, a master class in how to be a superb human.

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