On Stage: The Incomparable Carmen de Lavallade

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When Kelly Strayhorn Theater executive director janera solomon stepped out onto the stage, she mentioned that the Pittsburgh landmark was celebrating its 100th anniversary. As a result of that, she talked about the process of finding the perfect opening for such a historic season.

The theater had seen so many changes go on around it in East Liberty. Who could embody the ups and downs of those experiences? The answer, and a perfect one at that, was Carmen de Lavallade, 83 years young, and a legendary dancer, along with respected actor and choreographer.

She actually had performed on that same stage 10 years ago in a duet with Gus Solomons, Jr. at the first National Performing Arts Convention here. The pair electrified a knowledgable audience back then and Ms. de Lavallade enthralled new fans in a master class Wednesday morning, a showing of a documentary with her husband Geoffrey Holder Wednesday night and most telling in a solo performance on Friday. (Bravo to KST!)

Called “As I Remember It,” this was a story that needed to be told. With dance spinning in so many new and exciting directions, it is imperative that today’s performers use the past as a springboard into the future.

But as important as Ms. de Lavallade was to dance history, her inspirational story was one that should be heard by non-dance audience members as well. Peppered with names of which they may have no knowledge, it was apparent that her charismatic presence, not only elegant, but filled with determination, hadn’t diminished.

A young girl who “grew up with earthquakes” in Los Angeles, she talked about the “Balinese top” and “African bottom” that served her so well, even as she was often the only “colored girl” in ballet class — not that many studios would allow her admittance at that time.

But she was able to study with another legend, Lester Horton, who gave rise to Los Angeles choreographer Bella Lewitsky, fashion designer Rudy Gernreich, teacher James Truitte and most famously, Alvin Ailey, and where she swept floors, built costumes and cleaned bathrooms.

It was all told in a beautiful production that literally moved with her. Mimi Lien’s set flared like a trumpet and, at the same time, curved like a new Samsung television. It was draped with fringe-like threads that captured a panorama of archival footage in Maya Ciarrocchi’s video design.

Directed by Joe Grifasi, Ms. de Lavallade told her story with the aid of documenter Talvin Wilkes, both of whom were present for the event. She was able to move fluidly back and forth through the set piece, sometimes seated on a bench or chair, sometimes seen in shadow behind it, sometimes gloriously bursting through the fringe.

All the while she was telling her compelling story.

The audience saw various movie clips — “The Golden Hawk,” “The Egyptian,” “Demetrius and the Gladiators” and “Lydia Bailey,” where she danced with Jack Cole (a taskmaster known as “The Terror”), who had to wear “Negro Number 2” make-up. On television’s Ed Sullivan Show, she was scheduled to perform “Willow Weep For Me” with Glen Tetley, who was white. African-American dancer Claude Thompson had to replace him. They heard how Duke Ellington kissed her after a performance of “Portrait of Billie” at the Newport Jazz Festival.

They heard how, after many performances with Alvin Ailey and as a principal dancer at the Metropolitan Opera, she joined the Yale Repertory Theater and performed in 19 productions while teaching movement to young actors like Meryl Streep. They heard how she pushed through the vagaries of age over six decades.

But she moved — and oh, how she moved. Still in her prime in many ways, Ms. de Lavallade didn’t just convey the art of dance, she got to the heart of dance…and life.

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