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Friday, February 20, 2015

Carmen de Lavallade: Remembering it her way

Carmen de Lavallade in As I Remember It (photo: Stephanie Berger)

Carmen de Lavallade's solo, As I Remember It, seems to rip by in a flash, faster than its by-the-clock hour length. Premiered last June at Jacob's Pillow, now presented by Baryshnikov Arts Center, it's less a comprehensive tale of a life unfolding at the epicenter of American entertainment than a gesture towards that history and its dazzling characters--Lester Horton, Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, Alvin Ailey, Jack Cole, Duke Ellington and de Lavallade's late husband, the multi-talented Geoffrey Holder, among so many more. And, of course, as a de Lavallade gesture--direct, shaped with elegance and efficiency--it doesn't need much embellishment. Everything in this production, from set to video to text, works by light touch.

The title tells us two things. First, these are de Lavallade's remembrances of her six-decade-plus career in dance, theater and film; others, she knows, might recall people and events differently. Second, we can expect a little tongue twisting and a few--very few--memory slips along the way. At 83, though, de Lavallade commands better alignment and lively, playful dexterity of body and mind than a lot of folks many years younger.

The memories, brief as snapshots, come with sensory sharpness: a hardworking father's hands, one rough, one smooth; a mother often sitting and staring; the sinuous coils of smoke from ballet teacher Carmelita Maracci's cigarette. Maracci, impatient, would upbraid de Lavallade: "Carmen, talk to your feet! What are they saying to you?" Carmen: "Help!"

In her dance of story, de Lavallade lights but never lingers. She keeps it moving, even when she speaks of racism. Particularly when she speaks of racism. Of being selected to study with LA dance master and choreographer Lester Horton, she says, "In those days, there were only some people who would take you if you were colored. And the white girls would walk out of class." If Hollywood is Hollyweird (as a sign says), we're not privy to a lot of the gritty details of what makes it so. I suspect de Lavallade is one of those sisters--I see them all around me today--who survive and thrive by keeping positive-mind phasers set to stun. I must study this.

Go see As I Remember It and marvel at how good the young de Lavallade looked in any setting, how thoroughly self-possessed. Time has diminished absolutely nothing of that.


Joe Grifasi (director)
Talvin Wilks (co-writer/dramaturg)
James F. Ingalls (lighting design)
Maya Ciarrocchi (video design)
Mimi Lien (set design)
Christopher J. Bailey (sound design)
Esther Arroyo (costume design)
Jane Ira Bloom (music)

As I Remember It continues: February 20-21 and 24 at 8pm as well as a February 25 at 1pm (with a moderated conversation with de Lavallade).
When advance tickets are no longer available, a wait list will begin at the Box Office one hour prior to show time on the day of the performance. In the event of last minute cancellations, seats may be released and sold to those on the wait list on a first-come, first-served basis.
Jerome Robbins Theater
Baryshnikov Arts Center
450 West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenue), Manhattan

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