Worldwide icon-chevron-right North America icon-chevron-right United States icon-chevron-right New York State icon-chevron-right New York icon-chevron-right Carmen de Lavallade looks back at her six-decade career

Carmen de Lavallade looks back at her six-decade career

The modern-dance legend goes solo in As I Remember It at the Baryshnikov Arts Center

Carmen de Lavallade
Photograph: Christopher Duggan Carmen de Lavallade
By Gia Kourlas |
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“This thing is driving me nuts,” Carmen de Lavallade shares. “It’s scary being in a solo. It’s like you’ve got no clothes on.” For the glamorous 83-year-old dancer and actor, the “thing” is As I Remember It, a penetrating and poetic program in which, through movement, film and storytelling, she creates a performative look back at her life. And what a life it’s been: Born in Los Angeles, De Lavallade, who worked with Lester Horton and Lena Horne, introduced Alvin Ailey to dance; all the while, she managed to conquer TV, film, theater and opera. She talks about her show; how she’s coping after the death of her larger-than-life husband, Geoffrey Holder; and Dance Moms. (She’s obsessed.) 

Did you have this idea or did someone approach you?
I had the idea. My history goes back quite far and this starts in Los Angeles at a rather interesting time. I grew up in the ’30s. It’s really a thumbnail. It’s like a sketch. The title is As I Remember It. We could be in the same room, and you’re going to remember it differently than me, so it’s what I remember growing up. I wanted to keep it like that, so it’s bits and pieces, like our memories that come and go in chunks; they go back in time, forward in time. It’s linear, but not; it’s more of a poetry piece.

Can you describe the environment of working with Lester Horton?
It was a very special place. It was a theater, not a studio. We didn’t have barres or mirrors. We worked on the stage. There were about ten rows of seats. Bella Lewitzky was dynamite. Rudi Gernreich was one of the dancers. He designed the topless bathing suit [the monokini, in 1964]. He was a very unusual dancer and performer. Very odd, very quirky, and I loved him. You really knew the theater, because you didn’t just get in there and take a class. We were working on costumes, on sets, doing the lighting—you did your performance and afterward, you cleaned up. You did everything, and I think that was the best because I could go into any situation and take care of myself. When I went to Yale Rep, it was almost like Lester’s because it was a school of doing. I can be put in almost any situation because of Lester. 

Was Salome your first role?
Yes. I think I started working with Lester in ’48 or ’49, but by 1950, that was my debut. I must have moved very quickly for some reason. I don’t know what Lester saw. 

Did he talk to you about your career?
No! I was just one of the many sitting there and then, bingo. I didn’t think about it. He treated us with great care. Everybody was dealt with differently. When I was given the role of Salome, he said, “You’re not Bella; she’s not you.” He wasn’t afraid to change it for somebody else. I never heard him say, “Bring the leg higher and point the foot!” I don’t remember him criticizing; he gave you the information, and then you had to make it work and if you couldn’t figure out a step, he’d say, “Work it out.” He was right; that way, you’re not just depending. 

Did you have an easier time because you were in modern dance and not ballet?
Oh, yes. Heavens, even look at it now! Contemporary people were always a little more welcoming. In the ’50s all the black companies were coming up. It was out of that House of Flowers group, and it was good stuff: Donald McKayle and Louis Johnson and all those people. Later on, Arthur [Mitchell] started his ballet company. I have to give Mr. Balanchine credit, because he’s the one who helped Arthur start that company and a lot of his teachers went there too and his kids were fabulous. Bless his heart, Mr. Balanchine. Evidently, he wasn’t able to have more people of color. I guess you just weren’t allowed.

How did you meet Alvin Ailey?
We were in high school. 

Did you introduce him to dance?
Yes. He was in gymnastics, and I said, “You oughta dance,” so I dragged him to Lester’s. He was always sitting in the audience looking at class and Lester said, “When are you going to stop sitting?” We came to New York and I met Geoffrey on House of Flowers. I had [to do] nightclubs with Lester because sometimes we had to do that for money, but Broadway was something entirely different. The black companies were starting, and I was working with them, I was working at the Met, with ABT sometimes, with John Butler—I just hopped around. Sophie Maslow—I did a lot of Hanukkah festivals. 

Did you like that you had freedom? 
Yes! I stayed with John a long time, but I was able to do other things and then as years went by, that began to wane. The companies were going away, and I got to Yale. But, it was an enormous lesson for me, because everything combined, from the Lester Horton to the nightclubs to the concert stage to the ballet. I didn’t like nightclubs at all, but they sure teach you a good lesson, because you admire people who have to put up with that stuff. It’s hard. People eating and drinking. I worked with Pearl Bailey in Las Vegas. Lord. You have to have a really strong constitution. Some people revel in it and are wonderful at it. For me, it was very painful, but it was a good lesson. I don’t consider anything a loss, even when it doesn’t work. 

Can you talk about the design for your show? What did you want or not want?
[Director] Joe Grifasi and the designers came up with it. There’s a curtain made of string and it’s so beautiful, because it’s not hard. It really looks like you’re in a dream. It moves. You can project through it, walk through it, play with it. I wanted to be bare. My clothing is very simple. Everybody’s used to my gowns, and I thought, No, I want to strip it down to nothing; yes, I have beautiful gowns and they’re wonderful, but they’re for specific things. For this, I don’t even put earrings on. I’m trying to be bare-bones without being bare-bones. 

Why do you want this solo to be so bare-bones?
I didn’t want to hide anything. I’m too old. [Laughs] If you’re going to tell something about your life, you don’t want a lot of lights and sparkles—it’s just like when you watch some performances now. They’re beautiful, but if you strip it away, what do you have? When I grew up, you were pretty much out there. We didn’t have the fancy stuff. I just didn’t want any sparkles, no nothing, so I could just tell a very small story.

Is this intense to perform?
It is. There are a lot of words, memorizing. [Sings] Pain-ful! And this is probably the last challenge. It’s been emotional, especially with Geoffrey’s leaving. It makes it a little different. Your energy—it’s like plowing through things right now. I’ve talked to ladies who have been through what I’ve been through and the same thing happened to them. They’re performers. It’s like becoming a different person. But it’s good for me to do this. I have to work my way through it.

Do you talk about Geoffrey in the show?
I do a brief thing. I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for him. He just let me do anything I wanted to do. You don’t get husbands who will do that very often. A lot of my friends who were in the theater—[their husbands] wouldn’t allow it. Geoffrey wouldn’t care.

He encouraged you.
Oh yeah. Number-one fan. 

What do you think of the Ailey company now?
It’s different, and time does that. They’re more like thoroughbreds. We were all kind of messy. [Laughs] In a good way. But it has to change; you have a legacy, and it’s going to move on. I think everybody’s bolder, because of what our society is now. Physically, they’re doing incredible things. Sometimes they get too physical. It’s very easy when your body can do all of that just to fall in love with it, but what is it about? What are you trying to say? If you’re going to put a turn in there, why are you turning? A turn has to take you some place for a reason. I was watching Dance Moms.

Seriously?
I’m fascinated. I look at the dancers and just think those young kids are incredible. The only trouble is do they really know what they’re doing? The dancers have great facility, but then again, I keep seeing the same steps. [Sings] Cir-cus! I keep looking at it. I really like some of the kids. I think they’re lovely, and they work very well together. I don’t know if all that browbeating does it; I can’t see that. The lady gives me the creeps. Even the mothers. [She shudders.]  I find it rather abusive. I’d like to see what happens when they leave that. Who are they going to work with or if they can change?

I love that you watch Dance Moms.
I get so angry sometimes. It’s this competition thing. Dance is not a competition. You compete with yourself. You’re not there to win a prize. Who’s better than somebody else? You can be great one night and terrible the next. That’s human. And they’re being taught that it’s not human to lose. You have to grow in something. I’ve always been on my own road. I liked working with different people. I liked changing colors. As scary as it is—and it’s pretty frightening—in the end, you feel you’ve accomplished something. I don’t know where I’m going from here, what’s my next door that I’m walking through because it’s a whole other life now. You get to face nature and age. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can do your exercises, but sorry: Your genes are your genes. You just try to take care of it as best you can. Respect it. Not abuse it. You have to know your limits.

I love that you watch Dance Moms.
I get so angry sometimes. It’s this competition thing. Dance is not a competition. You compete with yourself. You’re not there to win a prize. Who’s better than somebody else? You can be great one night and terrible the next. That’s human. And they’re being taught that it’s not human to lose. You have to grow in something. I’ve always been on my own road. I liked working with different people. I liked changing colors. As scary as it is—and it’s pretty frightening—in the end, you feel you’ve accomplished something. I don’t know where I’m going from here, what’s my next door that I’m walking through because it’s a whole other life now. You get to face nature and age. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can do your exercises, but sorry: Your genes are your genes. You just try to take care of it as best you can. Respect it. Not abuse it. You have to know your limits.

Do you have a dance practice now?
I do my own thing. I like qigong. I like that circular, slow thing and the concentration. 

And using balance?
It’s lovely, and I’ve got to get it back, because it’s really interesting—the body goes. It’s weird, because when I was working with Paradigm at the church, Geoffrey fell on the second day. And I was feeling very cocky. I was feeling good and strong and the next day after putting him into the hospital and running all around and I had to perform…the body started to take the brunt. I’m noticing that. I think that’s what’s good about doing this: It makes you focus and takes you away from self. You’re talking about yourself, but it makes you focus because it’s a pas de deux between you and the audience. They’re not just sitting there watching; you’re exchanging energy. That’s what you hope to do, but you just don’t know. There’s always tomorrow. 

See the show!

Dance, Modern

Carmen de Lavallade

The iconic performer recounts her onstage life in As I Remember It, a solo production comprising movement, film and storytelling. Directed by Joe Grifasi and cowritten by dramaturg Talvin Wilks, the piece was developed by Lavallade during two BAC residencies.

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