Carmen de Lavallade; keeping the muses busy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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."

She and Alvin Ailey started the de Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Theater, which went on a US State Department tour of Southeast Asia and returned as the Ailey American Dance Theater. No less a dance star than Judith Jamison credits de Lavallade with giving her her start.

De Lavallade has given herself plenty of starts, in many different enterprises. She has danced with Glen Tetley, the American Ballet Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and for the last 11 years she has been working with Robert Brustein. "I went in as a dancer, I came out as an actor," she says.

But there was never any question that the Queen of the Fairies could move. After one poetic little speech to Oberon, she put her arms out slightly and her body did the tiniest bump to the side, the classy legs in their glittering leotards posed just right and bent at the knee, and she had the self-satisfied look of a Rockette coming down off a record-breaking kick. Yet it is, yet it isn't, as she would say. There is something utterly Shakespearean about her glamour. You get the sense she can't help it. She's in supreme control of her body and seems to shoot her energy around the stage even when standing still, but her rich voice bespeaks her love of the poetry. She luxuriates in the role.

Getting to the point where she could be Titania and not just another beautiful choreographer's instrument was tough, though. She had never choreographed or acted. She began in a Storey Theater version of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," directed by Larry Arrick. All she'll say for herself at that time was that she knew her way around the stage.

"They didn't have to mark things down or remember where I am. Oh, the transition was painful. It was scary, because as a dancer you're told what to do. You're not asked any opinions about anything, really . . . . [As an actress] when people asked my opinions or what I'd like to do or go create something or what -- no way. I said, 'Tell me what to do and I'll do it.' And Larry [Arrick] was the one who said, 'Nope.'" She shakes her head. "Oh, dear. I thought I was going to die."

She was cast in the role of Henriette in August Strindberg's "There Are Crimes and Crimes," and though at first she was "terrible," she worked on it and got better. "I worked on it and changed it, because I'm one of those persons who changes as I perform."

The result of all this is a good actress. And a different dancer.

"It taught me independence. When I go back to work with a choreographer I'm better, because the acting experience broadens my perception of character."

She is accused by old dance friends of changing such pieces in her repertoire as "Portrait of Billie" [Holiday], choreographed by John Hutton. "Dance people don't see me and once in a while I pop up. And one year I popped up with that piece. People would come back and say, 'Have you changed the piece?' I said, 'No, it's the same step. It looks different, I suppose, because I've changed.' I'm not the same person. . . . I can take those steps and see them totally different now. I can get something richer out of them than I did."

She feels that every good role has infinite possibilities, and that redoing them just brings these possibilities to the surface. At this point, after having danced "Portrait of Billie" on and off for 10 years, she feels "like Rubinstein, saying, 'Now I want to go back and play everything again.'"

What she learned from acting was to explore the role more than a dancer is allowed to explore his or her steps.

"You have a situation and you take that situation from every kind of standpoint, and then you get 10 people talkin' about what it is. Actors do talk. But you get all different kinds of viewpoints" of the character, which the actor can draw on and explore while performing.

Dance, being set to music, requires that the timing be exactly the same every night, and that more meaning be telescoped into motions that don't last long. "Dancing is a distillation of reality, so it's using shorthand."

Because she knows both acting and dancing, she is now in a position to help the actors, after all these years of painful transitions and acting classes. She is especially at home in "Seven Deadly Sins," which has been performed as a ballet, choreographed by Ballanchine, and in this ART production of the Brecht-Weill rendering, has a lot of choreographed movement and singing.

She says it's hard to communicate the distillation process to actors.

"Oh, they just go crazy, and they'll get logical," she says. "You cannot be logical with movement. It's totally illogical." She resorts to her choreographer's stance with them. "I say just stop being so logical. You have to stop saying 'Why?" Just do it. And once it starts going and they start working, all of a sudden they see it. It's harder for them, because their working process is different.

"According go through a whole period of discovery, discovering discovering discovering. Drop one thing, try another. Drop one thing, try another. . . . When you're working with a choreographer, bang, that's it. We do have discovery , but it has to be held. It's reined in by the music. . . . Once you find it you can't fool around with it."

All these artistic variations point up similarities to Carmen de Lavallade, not differences. She has all the arts in the family. Her own family is artistically inclined. If the theater hadn't been though of as "shady," she's sure her grandmother would have been on the stage.

And she's married to Geoffrey Holder, who dances, acts, choreographs, paints, and designs (the costumes in the Broadway production of "The Wiz," for example), and whose 6-foot-6 bald personage is familiar to millions as "the Uncola man" of TV fame. He also wrote a cookbook. Their son, too, is moving in an artistic direction, though at present he is going through that "good old 20-year-old finding yourself," says Carmen.

The Holders have been married for 25 years, and the main thing she says about that is not that they have bounded off in different directions constantly, but that they care most about what kind of a production they're involved in, not about how much it pays. "Geoffrey and I are always hangin' by our one hand" -- she makes a desperate-looking claw in the air.

What's he doing now? I ask. "I don't know, some big project. But he's like that, too. The important thing is the peace of mind. If the money comes out, great. Sure, we've had a few years that were good and more that were bad, as far as money. But you gotta think about what you produce, and if somebody asks you to do something that's really terrific and pays nothing, I'd rather do that" than make television commercials for paper products "and make some money. No. Other people, that's OK. . . . I envy then when their checks come in. But I do things a little different."

The unified vision of Carmen de Lavallade takes on all the arts. She was asked to dance a modern jazz piece for a benefit and chose Roberta Flack singing "Sweet Bitter Love" as her music.

"It's a beautiful song. Very sad and lovely. . . . Somebody who hurts a lot because they love somebody but it feels good. It's like that thing in Midsummer Night that says, 'If love's a sweet passion why does it torment?'" (a line from Henry Purcell's opera "The Fairy Queen" sung in this production.)

Comparing Roberta Flack to Shakespeare or Purcell makes perfect sense to her. She has an all-embracing sense of poetry.

"All those blues things? Poetry? Shakespeare? It's just the same thing. They're poets, they're poets. Little street people" Poets."

More young performers now want to be proficient in both acting and dancing. They are realizing, she says, "that you are able, but you have to take the time to do it, that's the only thing."

It's nearly time for rehearsal. The actors are gathering. She hops out of her chair. That particular sluice gate closes, as she peels off yet another layer of clothes, rolls on her leg warmers, and is off to be Anna Two in rehearsal. She does her part, then pauses as the actors learn their moves, take direction from alvin Epstein, and complain they can't do it. She suggests a change to Alvin, letting him pass it on to the actors. She dishes out her suggestions as neatly as she does her thoughts on arts and inspiration, in just the right doses. She takes the time, all right, but she also makes every minute pay off. The muses can't be too far away. Maybe if they were as organized as she is, she wouldn't have to wait for them.

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