Carmen de Lavallade: A gentle giant tells her six-decade story

CHARMAINE PATRICIA WARREN | 2/5/2015, 11:59 a.m.
New Yorkers will truly understand how lucky they are when the long-awaited original solo work about and performed by Carmen ...
Carmen de Lavallade Contributed

New Yorkers will truly understand how lucky they are when the long-awaited original solo work about and performed by Carmen de Lavallade, “As I Remember It,” opens at the Baryshnikov Arts Center Feb. 19. This intimate, autobiographical work combines movement with story and spans de Lavallade’s legendary six-decade career.

A Los Angeles native, de Lavallade began her performing career with the Lester Horton Dance Theater, where she introduced her high school friend Alvin Ailey to dance. Both studied with Horton until his death, when Ailey was chosen to run the company.

By invitation, during a company trip to Jacob’s Pillow, Ailey and de Lavallade auditioned and were cast in the Broadway-bound musical “House of Flowers” (1954). Soon after, they formed the de Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company, now the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. De Lavallade went on to appear in “Carmen Jones” and “Odds Against Tomorrow,” among other films, and has performed with the AAADT, Metropolitan Opera and American Ballet Theatre. She holds the longest Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival performing career (1953-2004).

After her momentous return to Jacob’s Pillow for the world premiere of “As I Remember It,” Deborah Jowitt wrote, “[De Lavallade] is a master of the subtly telling gesture and timing, as well as gutsy when that’s called for.” After the second stop, the Pittsburg-Post Gazette exclaimed, “De Lavallade’s charismatic presence, not only elegant but filled with determination, hadn’t diminished.”

The next stop would be the Kennedy Center when, tragically, her husband of 59 years, Geoffrey Holder, passed. The show opened just weeks after because de Lavallade insisted. She said, “[Geoffrey] was my biggest fan … I really want[ed] to do it for him, and for my friends and the other people who I’ve missed who are in it — because they made my life.” Of that performance, the Washington Post wrote, “The regal de Lavallade, 83, held her own.”

“As I Remember It” premiered after a two-part residency at BAC with her team, Joe Grifasi (director), Talvin Wilks (dramaturge/co-writer), Maya Ciarrochi (video designer) and Mimi Lien (set designer). De Lavallade shared some thoughts on the making of the work in June 2014 for “BAC Stories,” online essays about BAC’s resident artists hosted on bacnyc.org, and here for AmNews.

AmNews: Did you set specific goals for your BAC residency? 

De Lavallade: Yes, but it was bit by bit, starting from absolute scratch working with Talvin and Joe. It’s mainly my words, but with Talvin’s help, we put it together. Otherwise, we didn’t know how to go about it exactly. Anna [Glass, producer] is the one that approached BAC. Anna’s the angel. She’s the person that really put this all together.

How long has “As I Remember It” been on your mind?

Anna and I touched on it a couple of years before. But everything was kind of crazy because Geoffrey was having problems, I was in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and I’d just moved—it was really kind of messy. I was supposed to do a very informal version, but there was just no way, then this evolved. I’d gone to speak to Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov], and he was very gracious, he took the chance, then it all started!