She steps to center stage, oozing regal in an emerald ball gown, cheekbones stretching honey skin taut, sleek silver hair dancing with the light.
And everything just seems . . . still.
The stillness works a weird kind of magic, considering that it's another dress rehearsal at the Kennedy Center and Debbie Allen's watching from the audience, mike in hand, throwing out commands in English and in Spanish, sounding just this side of tense as she orchestrates this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Gothic dance extravaganza. The break-dancers are poppin' and lockin', the tappers are tappin', the gospel singers are wailin' and the flamenco dude is doing his thing. Meanwhile, the ballet dancers are twirling, legs a-flyin', and Patti LaBelle is whoopin' and hollerin' in that very Patti whoopin' and hollerin' kind of way.
But suddenly, there's this woman onstage. And well, as she stands there, there's no choice but to watch her--never mind the bare-chested hunk grinding his hips next to her. Her torso contracts again and again and again in a spasmodic burst of some unspoken something, something disturbing and rage-filled, something elegant yet primal. In the imperious carriage, the arched back and swooping movements are echoes of a heritage that goes back to long-forgotten dance masters and Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and Alvin Ailey. She grabs a sheer white scarf, all focused fury as she dances with it, caresses it, turns it into a shroud, then a noose, choking the life out of it until she is in complete command of even the air in the theater.
"Ladies and gentleman," Allen intones into the mike, "Miss Carmen de Lavallade."
The audience applauds wildly, even though most watching probably have no idea just who this Carmen de Lavallade is. But it's clear that they like what they see.
And what they see is a 68-year-old woman whose serenely wrinkle-free countenance gives truth to the adage "black don't crack," a dancer who hails from a hearty line of mixed-race Louisiana Creoles, a wife and mother who's been married to the same man for 44 years, an artist who continues to hone her craft decades after most of her contemporaries abandoned the art. For over 50 years--she began dancing at the relatively late age of 14--de Lavallade has committed herself to a love so deep she can't explain who, what or why she dances. Except that dance is what she does.
"I love dancing with these young dancers," de Lavallade said of her role of "Francine Leshan," the mother who loves her son just a bit too much, in Allen's new work, "Soul Possessed," which runs through Sunday at the Kennedy Center.
"And I don't feel any different, I really don't. But I forget my age, and start throwing myself around. Of course, then my bones hurt a little. I don't know why I keep dancing. It just sort of happened. Maybe that's why. Because I don't pay attention to time."
While ignoring the vagaries of time, de Lavallade has danced alongside Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in "Carmen Jones," shared the screen with Sidney Poitier as a dancer in "Porgy and Bess," performed on the Ed Sullivan show, met her husband, actor-dancer-painter-choreographer Geoffrey Holder (best known as the "Uncola Man" of those old 7-Up commercials), and leaped and swirled through the '50s, '60s and '70s dancing with Lester Horton, John Butler, Glen Tetley, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
She is known for what she brings to the stage--and what she brings to choreographers. In junior high school and high school in her native Los Angeles, she counted Alvin Ailey among her classmates. And it is because of her that Ailey got involved with dance in the first place.
Way back when, she says, she took one look at Ailey stretching in gymnastics class, observed his "beautiful body" as he tied himself in knots and told him, "Ohhhh, you should dance." She promptly dragged him to her modern dance class in dance pioneer Lester Horton's studio. The Ailey-de Lavallade thing ended up being a connection that would endure until Ailey's death in 1989. Together, they performed in New York, bopping from the Gypsy life of a Broadway dancer to the more austere life of a modern dancer in the early '60s. From the very beginning, she was his muse, serving as Ailey's earliest memory of what a dancer could be--and should be. She was the prototype of the Ailey dancer--long-limbed, long-haired and possessing a formidable ballet technique. It's an image that can be traced back to Ailey's youth.
As he later told it, he sat, amazed and enchanted, watching de Lavallade dance en pointe in the school cafeteria.
Ailey was not alone in his enchantment.
"Carmen de Lavallade has always been one of the most exquisite and most beautiful women ever to grace the stage," says Allen. "It's a good thing for those of us coming up behind her to see how to live a full life and mature into your creativity and to your artistry."
The encroachments of age have a way of slowing things down, even when you don't want them to. The phone doesn't ring so much these days with work offers, a fact that de Lavallade shrugs off.
She just finished directing a tribute to Lena Horne at Lincoln Center. She has formed a dance trio with her old dancing pals, longtime Ailey principal dancer Dudley Williams and the quirkily avant-garde Gus Solomons. They are, she says, the "Old Guard, getting out our dancing clothes." Being a member of the Old Guard brings with it a certain amount of tranquillity. Disappointments along the way have taught her humility. There was a time as a young girl when she wanted to be a movie star. But she looked at the lumps that Lena and Dorothy took, and tucked those dreams away. Modern dancers were a rarefied breed who didn't really care what color you were, as long as you could move. And so she embraced them.
She's taught movement at the Yale School of Drama to Henry Winkler, Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep, soaking up the theatrical lessons as she watched them rehearse. Eventually, she became a lead actress at the Yale Repertory Theater, later appearing in indie director John Sayles's film "Lone Star." She loves what she does, and when it's all said and done, she says that's what matters, more than money or accolades or Hollywood stardust.
"You have to love what you're doing," she says, "or the muses will turn on you. It's mystical. It's spiritual. It's the energies. Creative work is the most dangerous thing. You can use it for the good--and the not good."
To that end, she's a long way from retiring.
"I'm not going to sit around and wait," she says, her words tumbling out in a lilting rush. "Yessssss! It's terrible when looks and things become so important. It's destructive to the soul. You earn your life. We disrespect age now. I'm Mama Carmen now. When you're referred to as an elder, that's special. It has nothing to do with chronological age. You have to be real about age. Look it in the eye. Some nice things happen when you do."
CAPTION: A moment of stillness: "I forget my age," the dancer says. ". . . I don't pay attention to time."
CAPTION: A formidable pas de deux: Carmen de Lavallade has been married to husband Geoffrey Holder, a fellow dancer and actor (and 7-Up "Uncola Man"), for 44 years.