At 83, dancer Carmen de Lavallade has stories to tell
NEW YORK — In the current issue of The New Yorker, there’s a passing reference to “Ed Sullivan, who used his power as a white host to feature African-American artists” on his legendary CBS variety show, back in the middle of the last century.
The dancer Carmen de Lavallade was one of those artists, and she is not a complainer. She says unequivocally that racial discrimination was much harder on performers of color who came up even a few years before she did.
But at 83, she has had a career in dance, film, and theater that stretches more than six decades and involves many famous names, among them Alvin Ailey, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, and Ezra Pound. Also Robert Brustein, whom she followed for a time when he left Yale for the American Repertory Theater; Janet Collins, her pathbreaking ballerina cousin; and Geoffrey Holder, de Lavallade’s dancer-choreographer-director husband since 1955.
So she has some stories to tell. One is about her appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the early 1960s. Working with her frequent collaborator, the choreographer John Butler, who was white, she was supposed to dance “Willow Weep for Me” with Glen Tetley.
“They wouldn’t let me dance with Glen. Because he was white,” she said the other day, sipping coconut water as she recalled an era when black and white performers weren’t allowed to touch on television. “I did the dance with Claude Thompson, which was fine, because he was a great dancer, black dancer. John was from Greenwood, Miss. I thought he was gonna die.”
De Lavallade has been thinking back on her life a lot lately, preparing a solo show for its world premiere June 20-22 at Jacob’s Pillow, where she made her debut in 1953, performing “Prado de Pena” with the Lester Horton Dance Theater. She was all of 22.
The new piece, “As I Remember It,” is a memoir for the stage. Written by de Lavallade and playwright-dramaturg Talvin Wilks, it combines storytelling and movement — though the proportions of each were still in flux last week at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on Manhattan’s West Side, where they were making the show with director Joe Grifasi. Partly, it’s a matter of conserving the physical resources of de Lavallade, one of the founders of Paradigm, a high-profile ensemble of older dancers.
“As Joe keeps reminding me, ‘Tell the story,’” said de Lavallade, who radiates such serene beauty and grace that she could subtract a couple of decades from her age and get away with it. “But that dancer mind gets in, which can be dangerous, because all of a sudden your energy wants to go way beyond. I can’t do that anymore. I have to learn what works.
“The other day, I rehearsed, and I had to do part of a little video for the piece, and I just went and went and went with my adrenaline. And, boy, the next two days — oh, dear. But that’s a dancer for you. They can’t help themselves. Because they remember, the muscles remember, everything remembers, and the energy and the force that you use is tremendous. It’s much harder than it looks. The whole idea is to look easy, to look effortless.”
“As I Remember It” came out of recollections de Lavallade had been writing down for a book that she may still complete. She wanted to tell some stories her son didn’t know, and she thought she might correct some bits of misinformation that are floating around about her life, some as basic as where she was born: in fact, Los Angeles.
It was in Los Angeles that she studied with Horton and went to high school with Ailey — then a gymnast whom she persuaded to come to Horton’s studio “because I thought he moved really well,” she said.
Ailey later made dances for her, and she choreographed for his company, so he is part of the story of her career, which has included Hollywood, Broadway, and the Metropolitan Opera. But, she said, Ailey is also someone she can’t leave out of the telling because people are so curious about what it was like to work with him — as if it had been “some mystical thing.”
Grifasi was one of de Lavallade’s students at the Yale School of Drama when Brustein was the dean — the era that spawned Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Durang, and Wendy Wasserstein. So Grifasi knows something about how myth is grafted onto the quotidian, and it makes him wary in shaping the Ailey part of de Lavallade’s piece.
“If I tell people about the story and I say, ‘Carmen basically found a way for Alvin to get involved with dance,’ they go, ‘Really? I didn’t know that,’” the director said. “Everyone thinks it would’ve been maybe the other way around or whatever, but the point is, no, that’s how it really happened. We don’t want to make it into a discovery moment. It wasn’t that at all. You’re just talking about what, at the time, were just chums.”
In her career, de Lavallade said, one experience has built on another, even if they were many years apart. Her path hasn’t necessarily been linear; neither is memory, she said. The structure of “As I Remember It” will reflect that, with her recollections somewhat fragmented in the telling — “Beckett-like,” she said.
“When you think about your past, it’s really more in snapshots,” she said. “And it jumps around.”