"As I Remember It"
Created and performed by Carnen de Lavallade
Dramaturg/Co-writer Talvin Wilks
Director Joe Grifasi
Friday June 20 2014 to Sunday June 22 2014
Doris Duke Theatre
358 George Carter Road
Becket MA 01223
Approximate running time 1 hour
Friday, June 20, 2014
"You are the first audience in the world to witness this performance of 'As I Remember It," says Ella Baff, Executive and Artistic Director, in the hushed moments before the show begins.
First of all, this show was a love fest. Carmen de Lavallade could have sat and hummed for an hour and been accorded a standing ovation. Watching the woman walk from one side of the stage to the other is a piece of performance art. Every one of her vertebrae seem to be trained in a willowy ballerina mode, erect, self aware, conscious of how they control every millimeter of the rest of her body. The rest of us just don’t, maybe can’t, walk like that. I would probably pay to see a video of her shopping for vegetables.
Creativity comes in many forms. “As I Remember It” captures a perfect blend of the ones necessary to mount a terrific piece of dance theater.
Carmen de Lavallade had the idea of presenting a show and reached out to her network several years ago. The idea began to perk. Joe Grifasi, whom Carmen has known since her stint teaching at Yale in the 1970s, agreed to direct. Carmen needed a playwright-conscious person to whom she could relate the stories that surfaced after decades of performing, someone who could condense, shape and sequence what would be spoken onstage. Enter Talvin Wilks, veteran dramaturg, who condensed hours of interviews and conversations into tonight's narrative.
The production values are spectacular. Chief among them is Set Designer Mimi Lien’s contribution. Rather than show video and still photos on a giant flat screen, they’re projected onto Lein’s ingeniously devised armature of translucent streamers (see above photo) that form the backdrop of the show. The streamers undulate as de Lavallade brushes by them or walks through them.
When she moves behind them, her shape is visible in silhouette. The streamers upon which images and videos are projected become an integral part of the play as de Lavallade interacts with them in a creative pas de deux. “They breathe, it gives it a whole ethereal, otherworldly feeling to everything,” de Lavallade says in a post performance talk after Saturday evening’s show. Brilliant.
Add Lighting Designer James P. Ingalls, Video Designer Maya Ciarrocchi, Sound Designer Christopher J. Bailey, Costume Designer Esther Arroyo, and Associate Lighting Designer Seth Reiser and you have a breakthrough structure for story telling.
The only two other things on stage are a small bench and a wooden chair which the actress might transform into a dining room table in her childhood home or to pause to tell another story.
Then there is grace. Movement is her vocabulary. She even uses dance lingo to describe the gestures as she sinuously extends her arms, flicks her wrists, rolls her hips, bows and swoops while telling a story. The gestures become a leitmotif, the constant lodestar that grounds her, links the stories together with elegant grace ingrained from a lifetime of dancing.
Carmen de Lavallade was born in 1931, brought up in Los Angeles in a Creole household from New Orleans, began her career at 17 as lead dancer with the Lester Horton Dance Theater, discovered and later danced with Alvin Ailey, married choreographer/dancer Geoffrey Holder in 1955 (still married!), danced as prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera, appeared in films, choreographed for operas at The Met, taught and became a full professor at Yale 1970-80, appeared with the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in NYC in 1993, in 2003 was part of a rotating cast of the show “Wit and Wisdom,” and was part of the cast of Tennessee Williams “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 2012. When I googled her, l stopped counting after 10 pages. Think about that.
Carmen isn’t the only one heading down memory lane. I saw her perform at Jacob’s Pillow in 1964 and haven’t been back there since. Friday evening in rural Becket, inhaling the musky earth, the fresh scent of foliage, flowers, and turf vaulted me back to the days I haunted places like Jacob’s Pillow and the other cultural delights in the Berkshires. I couldn’t help comparing my physical self 50 years ago and now, something Carmen would do a few hours later. A hazy sensory scrapbook, I relive my youth as I walk past the weathered wood buildings that dot the verdant grounds. I look at the younger versions of myself wandering around the grounds, picturing myself in my youth. I wonder if any of them will return in 50 years. But I am here. Carmen is here. And we both have memories to savor.
This show is subtitled “A Memoir in Movement.” At 83, she commands the stage from her entry to her exit 60 minutes later. Liquid poetry comes to mind. Carmen de Lavallade's life story.
After After After...guests have departed, time for the principals and crew to pop a cork and take a deep cleansing breath.
Dramaturg/Co-writer Talvin Wilks (gray shirt, big smile, photo left) and Director Joe Grifasi (yellow shirt, photo right) celebrate with the crew and Carmen after Friday's premier, a bewitching performance by a woman who has climbed many mountains and opened doors for countless other black women after her.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.