Carmen de Lavallade; keeping the muses busy
When Carmen de Lavallade stomped into the Loeb Theater here one morning for an interview, I didn't recognize her. I was looking for the queen of the fairies I had seen on stage in Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theater production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," declaiming grandly in iambic pentameter, moving her spangly limbs in a rather Broadwayesque style. Instead here was a slinky person in a pulled-down motorist's cap, fly-eye sunglasses, and a tweed jacket buttoned to her neck.Skip to next paragraph
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"A Midsummer Night's Dream" has moved with its controversial director from the Yale Drama School to Harvard. De Lavallade is one of a troupe of actors who came too. New she was in rehearsal for Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins," in which she plays the dreamy, beautiful half of the personality of a young girl who leaves Louisiana to make her fortune, and which she was also choreographing. In between the two roles, standing in the office, she looked tough, bristly, and businesslike.
I trailed after her into the theater, where some men were hammering at the lighting. She removed a layer of clothing and there under the hat was the skinned-back hair of a dancer, and behind the big tinted lenses was a small, soft, oval face. Sure, her eyebrows were perfectly plucked and the blushing powder was subtle and positioned with deadly accuracy. But here was the face of someone who has to warm up before rehearsals and probably washes her own leotards. Human, in a word.
Human. Good, I thought. Now to break the ice. But before I could ask what it is like for a dancer to act (she was a founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), or where she gets her inspiration, or what she thinks of as her art, she told me, in no uncertain terms. It was as if a sluice gate had opened and this lilting persona had come tumbling out to entertain me. I still wonder how she knew I wanted to know all those things.
Even though she sat still, cuddling her tiny shoulders against one of the theater seats, I found myself looking all around. For one thing, she didn't look at me too often, but up in the air the way one does when one is pulling down one's larger ideas. For another, I got a feeling I could almost see them myself. You get a sense of movement just talking to Carmen de Lavallade. Her ideas romp all over her sentences, and in fact, often escape them, so she interrupts herself with a totally different idea, follows it for a while, then goes back to what she was saying in the first place, but by now we're in a different paragraph.
It's impossible to parse them, but you don't need to. The sense of it gets through just fine, because her voice keeps up with her ideas, singing high or hushed and respectful or downright vernacular.
"The muses, and I love that word muses," she begins in her girlish, appreciative voice, "come when they're going to come. And if they don't want to come, tough,"m she says, tough as a little boy playing stickball. "You just sit and wait for them."
It was tough learning to act. Now that she has, she is helping actors learn to move. In the role of Anna Two, the dreamy, beautiful opposition to Anna One, the common-sense personality, she moves while Anna One sings. The whole cast sings, too, and it does some tricky maneuvers and formations as it goes. (Otherwise, "The whole cast sing, & seems awkward? too, and they do it some tricky maneuvers and formations as they go.") As she described it, "It's one of those weird things where sometimes you're acting, and then sometimes you're moving. Never use the word 'dance,' because it's not dancing per se. Yet it is , yet it isn't, yet you're acting, yet you're miming, yet you're not, and sometimes when you are right in the middle of a -- " she caught herself in mid-lilt and said, "It's a hybrid." With a nod.
One wonders when she ever sits down and waits for anything, muses notwithstanding. Miss de Lavallade has been on stages ever since her early years dancing with her pal Alvin Ailey for Lester Horton, dean of black jazz dance style.
"Lester Horton was my dance teacher. Best training in the world. To be around his little theater, we worked there all day and all night long, and wandered into college and our eyes were crossing . . . " -- she mugs stupefaction -- "We never got out of that place. We just couldn't help it. And so sometimes I say to people, 'Better tell me when to stop, I have no sense of time."