Carmen de Lavallade calls herself a woman of her time.
During her one-woman stage show, As I Remember It, the 83-year-old star dancer of stage and screen recounts growing up during the Great Depression and being raised by her father after her mother died in a sanatorium. She remembers listening to programs on the radio and making a game of empty oatmeal boxes.
“The world is so busy now,” de Lavallade says after a recent performance of As I Remember It at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. “There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s of its time.”
Still, de Lavallade, now a teacher, warns, “There’s a lot of eye and ear garbage going on. … You don’t want to be a copy of someone else. I tell my students to go hug a tree.”
Her “Go live life, don’t just watch it on your smartphone” mantra is one she has lived herself. Never one to sit on the sidelines, de Lavallade went for the full experience at a time when the full experience was denied to most African Americans because of segregation.
In her show she recounts how, when de Lavallade was 17, Lena Horne introduced her to filmmakers at 20th Century Fox, where she would go on to appear in four films, including Carmen Jones. She tells stories about legends like Alvin Ailey and Lester Horton, who were her friends. She recalls reducing Louis Armstrong to tears with her performance as Billie Holiday, and receiving four kisses from Duke Ellington, who whispered that they were “one for each cheek.”
De Lavallade’s As I Remember It is a celebration of her prodigious career and love of dance and theater. She applauds the moves she made in her younger days, exclaiming, “Eat your heart out, Beyoncé.”
Throughout the show, she tells the story of her life through old footage from her films and plays, projected on a screen that is illuminated with moving images and photographs. De Lavallade punctuates the action with humor and grace. Still lithe at 83, she sneaks and slithers, shimmies and snakes around the stage.
Outside of dance, de Lavallade is best-known for her 59-year collaboration with her artist husband, and fellow dancer, the equally celebrated Geoffrey Holder. De Lavallade considered canceling her Kennedy Center performances of As I Remember It after Holder passed away Oct. 5 at the age of 84.
Of Holder and their marriage, de Lavallade says, “He allowed me to be me … he let me go out and do anything and really encouraged it.”
De Lavallade says that they were a support to each other and each other’s ambitions. Holder was also creating up to the end of his life, she says: “He was always creating. He made over 100 paintings and drawings. He never stopped creating. His mind was always working. He was always designing clothes for me.”
There are hopes eventually to film As I Remember It, de Lavallade explains, and she will continue a limited tour of the stage show. There might even be a book, since she is considering writing down all the stories from her life that didn’t make it into the hourlong stage show. But nothing definite is planned.
“I didn’t plan any of this,” de Lavallade says. “I just walk from one thing to another.”