Near the end of her program, Carmen de Lavallade wistfully stated that she was beautiful when she was young. Well, Ms. de Lavallade, at 85 years of age you are still incredibly beautiful. For those in attendance, As I Remember It will remain in their hearts and minds for a very long time. Looking around the sold-out audience, it was clear that prominent dancers, actors and other artists congregated at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts to pay homage to one of America’s “100 Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”.
The set for As I Remember It is perfect for Carmen de Lavallade. A curved crescent shaped curtain acts as a projection screen and prop for de Lavallade to move behind, walk through and to aid in expressing her emotions. There is a simple chair on stage left and a lovely red padded bench placed on stage right. Just like de Lavallade, Mimi Lien’s set design is truly elegant.
Dressed in a lovely costume and sweater by Designer Esther Arroyo, Carmen de Lavallade uses her words, her movements and a wealth of historic film clips, to escort us through her personal life and her extraordinary professional career that has spanned over six decades. With her words and gestures, she helped us see, feel and almost smell the scent of orange, lime and peach blossoms that grew around the Los Angeles of her childhood. She shared very painful memories of her mother’s mental illness and death, and how her famous aunt Janet Collins, the first African-American prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera, helped lead her to dance classes.
At age 17, Carmen de Lavallade joined the Lester Horton Dance Theater, performing alongside the legendary Bella Lewitzky, James Truitte, Alvin Ailey and others. She showed us how she learned to move around Horton’s set for his work Salomé with her eyes closed, and we felt her frustration as she related the story of the Horton Company’s first trip to New York. Through her body language we felt the hurt and anger as she remembered the horrible prejudices that black performers suffered in the film, theater and television business.
Carmen de Lavallade has danced with dance legends Lester Horton, Alvin Ailey, John Butler, Jack Cole, Bella Lewitzky, James Truitte and her husband of many years, Geoffrey Holder. She has been onstage with Ella Fitzgerald and other famous entertainers. Works were created for her by Horton, Ailey, Butler, Glen Tetley and Agnes de Mille. She has performed on Broadway in House of Flowers and Porgy and Bess, and in four movies, including Carmen Jones (1954) with Dorothy Dandridge and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) with Harry Belafonte. She has acted onstage and in television, and taught Movement for Actors at Yale University. She was a member of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, performing in numerous off-Broadway productions.
Through the production of As I Remember It, we got to see film clips from many of the performances listed above and to see de Lavallade move onstage with them. Sometimes she danced in unison with her on-film self; an abbreviated version, yes, but still beautiful. She helped us envision her tall, handsome and multi-talented husband, Geoffrey Holder, with arms stretched skyward while standing on relevé. She even provoked laughter and warm sighs as she acted out personal experiences with other well-known dancers, choreographers and actors.
One of the most beautiful sections came near the very end of As I Remember It when Carmen de Lavallade used narrative, movement and pantomime to perform the creation of man by God. Even if one was not a religious person, she/he felt the power and inspiration of that creation. We saw God mold man’s body, limbs and fingers, and watch as He breathed life into man’s lungs. We watched as man took his first awkward steps and we felt his joy as he saw the world around him for the first time.
Other very fine designers for the production included Lighting Designer James F. Ingalls, Sound Designer Christopher J. Bailey and Video Designer Maya Ciarrocchi. As I Remember It was conceived by Carmen de Lavallade with Joe Grifasi and Talvin Wilks, and written by Carmen de Lavallade and Talvin Wilks. In one hour, Carmen de Lavallade’s life experiences come together within her body to produce a priceless gem.
Thank you, Carmen de Lavallade! At age 85 you are still entertaining, moving and enchanting us.