Friday, May 29, 2015

The Beautiful (and Ageless) Carmen de Lavallade


When I was four years old, long before I knew anything about movie stars, my idol was my first dance teacher. It was only natural. Carmen de Lavallade was tall, slim, and a beautiful café au lait color. She had a sweet smile and a gentle soul. And she moved like a dream.

I wasn’t her only admirer, needless to say. At Lester Horton’s Dance Theater, a bravely multicultural venue on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, she was a star. And stardom of course meant eventually heading for the bright lights of New York City. In 1954 she left her native Los Angeles, along with future choreographer Alvin Ailey. Soon the two were dancing on Broadway in the premiere of a fabled Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical, House of Flowers. That’s where she met dancer-actor-director-choreographer-designer Geoffrey Holder, still remembered by many as the Uncola Man. They were married in a vibrant Caribbean ceremony much documented in the black press of the era. And they remained married until Holder’s passing last October, at the age of 84.

Through the years, my family kept in touch with Carmen. We greeted her backstage after L.A. performances. My parents saw her dance in Las Vegas, and later we watched for her in movies. (Among her screen roles is a small but vivid part in John Sayles’ Lone Star.) When I wrote articles about Lester Horton, I knew I could phone her for a few heartfelt quotes. After I published in the Los Angeles Times a piece about how Dance Theater had taught a small girl to be colorblind, she called to express her thanks.  

 But I could never have imagined the experience I’ve just had: sitting down with Carmen in a New York café for a few hours of comfortable girl-talk. I’m happy to say that she’s still elegantly beautiful, and still deeply involved in things artistic. No, she doesn’t exactly dance these days: at age 84, “I don’t call it dance, I call it movement.” But she’s just launched a one-woman show chronicling the three phases of her career. There were the L.A. years, of course, as well as the time she’s spent in New York, and also an unforgettable ten-year period when she taught stage movement at Yale Repertory Theatre, under the legendary Robert Brustein. Her students in that era were such future stars as Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. While at Yale, she learned to augment her dance training with a thorough understanding of the actor’s craft.

Since then she’s had modest but significant stage roles. She played the Mexican flower-seller in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire that (alas) raised some hackles because it cast black actors in the central roles. We chatted frankly about skin color: curiously, as a light- skinned African- American, she often finds herself chosen for Hispanic roles. Not long ago, she played a foul-mouthed Puerto Rican abuela: I was thoroughly tickled when she demonstrated this very flamboyant, and un-Carmen-like, voice.

We also talked more personally, about the pain of Geoffrey Holder’s last days. He was a man who reveled in color. While wasting away, in the aftermath of a broken femur, he was still able to do paintings of brilliant hue. I was moved to learn that at the service held in his memory, somber shades were banished. Mourners attended wearing all the colors of the rainbow.

It must be tragically hard to lose your husband of almost sixty years. At Dance Theater, I remember an expression: “Make a fall into a dance.” Carmen, I think, has done so – and done it beautifully. 

Here’s a small sample of Carmen’s enduring performance skills. She can also be seen dancing (or moving) to Stephen Sondheim’s “Children and Art” on a recent app called Dances for an iPhone. I’m also posting a recent snapshot, as well as a photo of myself at age 4 as Carmen’s student. Yes, that’s me, jumping into a hoop as she watches.




2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed learning about Ms. de Lavallade when you graciously consented to an interview for my blog. I've enjoyed your subsequent posts about her and Mr. Holder. I'm so sorry she lost her husband - but I'm pleased she's still hale and that you were able to have that lunch with her. My best to her - may her movement go on for years to come.

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  2. Amen to that. Long life to Carmen . . . and to you, Mr. C!

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