Carmen de Lavallade
Jul 3, 2014
To know Carmen de Lavallade is to know a gentle giant, and learning about her six-decade journey to becoming an icon in the dance world, is to be well informed. Ms. de Lavallade recounts her intriguing story in her solo show, As I Remember It, which received its world premiere at Jacob’s Pillow in June, but for a special audience she opened the doors during rehearsal at BAC just weeks before the show premiered.
Carmen de Lavallade, a Los Angeles native, began her performing career with the Lester Horton Dance Theater, the first multi-race dance company in the United States. She introduced to the school her high school friend, Alvin Ailey, who was also interested in dance, and both studied with Horton for years until Horton’s death when Mr. Ailey was chosen to run the Company. By invitation, during a Company trip to Jacob’s Pillow, Mr. Ailey and Ms. 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. She went on to appear onscreen in Carmen Jones and Odds Against Tomorrow, among other films, and has performed with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Metropolitan Opera, and American Ballet Theatre. Ms. de Lavallade holds the longest Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival performing career -- from 1953 with the Lester Horton Dance Theatre to 2004 with Paradigm. For her momentous return to Jacob’s Pillow, she premiered As I Remember It, described as a combination of “…powerful movement and poignant storytelling to weave a theatrical memoir about her venerable life on stage.” Of a 1993 appearance in Milton Myers’ Ain’t No Way, dance critic Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times wrote, “her performance…ought to be required viewing for today's young dancers.”
It has been long coming, but this year, BAC invited Ms. de Lavallade to complete her solo show, in the second part of a two-part residency. Her “team,” as she calls them, who helped to realize this work are: Joe Grifasi (director), Talvin Wilks (dramaturg/co-writer), Maya Ciarrochi (video designer), and Mimi Lien (set designer). Ms. de Lavallade shared some thoughts on the residency, the process, the “Open Rehearsal” at BAC and the first performance at Jacob’s Pillow.
Charmaine Warren (CW): Congratulations on your opening at The Pillow.
Carmen de Lavallade: Thank you, dear. I'm so happy that it went well. It's not finished yet. This is our maiden voyage, we're going to do some re-writes, and we’re still working on it. We have other engagements coming up at the Kelly Strayhorn Center in Pittsburg and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
CW: The first residency at BAC was in 2012, correct?
Ms. de Lavallade: Yes. Thank goodness for BAC, we could never have accomplished this without BAC because it is so complicated. With the set and the projections I have at least four or five partners that I’m working with on stage. The audience is the other partner because we are going through it together.
CW: Did you set specific goals during the first residency?
Ms. 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. It was a lot of information.
CW: How did this second residency come about?
Ms. de Lavallade: It's always been Anna Glass [the show's producer]. She's the one that approached BAC. Anna's the angel. She's the person that really put this all together.
CW: Can you talk more about the team that you brought together in the beginning: Joe Grifasi and Talvin Wilks. Why these two men and what brings them to the table?
Ms. de Lavallade: Joe was one of my students at Yale (University). He's part of my Yale family; I have a dance family and a theatre family, he's also part of that special group of people in the 70s that produced extraordinary work. I met Talvin when we were doing those “10 Minute Plays.” He's a dramaturg; he works with words but he's also a director. He knows everything about me, he's like a book, and he has chronicled my whole life. When Joe and Talvin got together, Joe was worried about the relationship. He said, "I don't know, I'm a director and dramaturgs are really just into words and dates...we are from two different worlds." But they worked brilliantly together because they are both directors. Talvin also worked with dance people and has a different outlook, and Joe is particularly imaginative, as actors can be, plus he's movement orientated. Talvin has this thing about words…he sees things that Joe couldn't see in the text. He’d say, "Well this says this here, but we can do this here." That’s how he worked; he tried to make it more poetic, so it wasn't just a linear piece. It's more like a [Samuel] Beckett piece; it pops all over because that's the way memory is.
CW: How long has As I Remember It been on your mind?
Ms. de Lavallade: Anna and I touched on it a couple of years before. But everything was kind of crazy because Geoffrey [Holder, her husband] was having his 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!
CW: With the team, the thoughts are not only yours now, so what were the next steps?
Ms. de Lavallade: All three of us [Carmen, Joe and Talvin] looked at each other and said, "where are we gonna start"? And we just threw something together. Joe threw up a set [a bar and a couple of chairs], and said, "...ummmm, now what about Lester [Horton]?" And I said, “Well, he was one of my friends.” And just like that, it came from a little thing and it kept morphing.
CW: At the “Open Rehearsal” for BAC, which was the first time you’d run the entire show, you began with “I remember growing up,” and immediately took your audience to your beginnings: watching your favorite TV shows, you talk about your mother, your many aunties, your cousin and dancer whom you admired Janet Collins, your first dance class, first teacher, and so much more. What was this recall/this journey like?
Ms. de Lavallade: It was daunting! It was also very strange, particularly my mother's story. You want to get the essence of each moment… [but] it was so much. I went to the past because nobody knows where you're from, but those things are a part of you, you can't help being who you are, that affects your choices and how you deal with things. We actually kept changing things the day of the performance. My brain was fried, but everybody was working together. It was a team effort and they were incredible. Now the real work begins. We have to do the nipping and the tucking for the next time.
CW: Were some topics more difficult than others?
Ms. de Lavallade: Oh yes, I think my mother's topic was really difficult. It's a beautiful section; very moving, but then you lighten it up with all the other stories. Of course there was my daddy's story—he’s the hero. My sisters and I think about it, we don't know how he did it, being that young, they must have been in their 30s. They were newly married during the depression, and he with three little girls by himself, boy, what a man. He was an extraordinary man.
CW: You’re known as a dancer to many, but you are also a respected actress. Did movement and acting weigh equally during the creative process?
Ms. de Lavallade: It all goes together. I don't know where one leaves off and the other begins, in fact my dancing changed because I could explore more. I was never a technical person, I was not interested in technique; I just thought you had to have it. I didn't have those big turnouts; God didn't make me that way [laughs], but I was fortunate to work with Lester Horton. When I was in the company, everyone had their knees down to the floor in splits—not me! But I'm the one he picked to dance Salome. I had certain things that I was really good at because my body was made that way, but I didn't have a turnout worth a hoot [laughs]. My knees were always sticking up when everybody had their heads on the floor. Lester was a dramatic choreographer, so was John Butler and a lot of the people that I worked with. That was my strong point; I was more the dramatic person and I work very well with choreographers who work that way.
Then there is all that text. There were times when I didn't remember things and I call for line because that's the way memory is. Actors do that very well, they say, "don't worry if you miss…make it up," and they clean it up later. It's very hard because I'm in dancer mode, and as dancers we don't make mistakes; we get into that mode and if we freeze it drives you nuts! But that can happen to the best of us. Actors deal with words and emotions, everybody gets keyed up but they find their way back. That to me is what I have to work on.
CW: You’ve worked with some pretty important people whose stories you’ve shared. How did you decide who to include and who not to include?
Ms. de Lavallade: That was so difficult. What do you cut, what do you keep? What is going to fit, what is not? I still have to make some changes, I keep saying, "Oh dear, I forgot so and so," but I want to at least mention the things that they did; pop them in. We call it “the book" because you can’t put everything in, we also wanted to keep it at an hour, no more.
CW: Are there favorite memories included in the show?
Ms. de Lavallade: Oh, you took me off guard there [laughs]. All the memories are fun. I think my favorite are of my sisters and I playing radio, we used to make up all our games. We didn't have things, but it was to our advantage, anybody growing up in that period had to invent their own games because we didn't have things, but it was fun. I also want a little more of Yale, we went through that quickly. We added poems and the Titania speech from Shakespeare [“A Midsummer’s Night Dream”] where the old woman talks about her youth. That takes things out of context...it's not linear at all…because we put one thing with something else and it makes it more poignant.
CW: Has this BAC residency revealed new ideas around the work since 2012?
Ms. de Lavallade: Thanks to BAC for this last residency because that’s how we got the set in, at least the mock up, so that when we got to the Pillow we were ready to at least set up. It was complicated, but it never could have happened without BAC. I say thank you Mr. Baryshnikov and everybody there. I know they were wondering what in the world we were bringing; they were nervous. But this was an experience for everybody, it was something new, that set/curtain is like a dream and with the projections, it breathes. At the very end when I walk through the middle, I was like a cat, it was fun. There are other things we want to add…but that's still happening.
CW: How was it to finally premiere the work at Jacob’s Pillow?
Ms. de Lavallade: We are happy and The Pillow is happy. The Pillow didn't want a travelogue, but they were very pleased. It's still a work-in-progress. Like my son said “Ma, you're in your front room.” We will leave openings until we really get it down...but I don't want to lose that flavor, I want to have that feeling like you can go and talk to somebody in this room, this audience. It's a learning process for me, a huge learning curve.