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A dancer’s return to Yale Rep

Just a week after the racially motivated murders of nine people in Charleston, dancer Carmen de Lavallade took the stage at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas on June 25 and 27 to tell the story of her 60-year career as a performer and civil rights advocate. Her dance and acting performance at the Yale Repertory Theatre took the form of a memoir that she called As I Remember It.

Named one of America’s “irreplaceable dance treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition, de Lavallade, 84, was one of the first African American women to teach at the Yale School of Drama.

Festival director Mary Lou Aleskie said de Lavallade’s long career lent itself to the theme of this year’s festival: a reflection on history and “how to move forward in these challenging times.”  “Her performance was very representative of the festival,” Aleskie says. “It was unique and hard to define as either a dance piece or a theater piece or a music piece—it was all of that. And it was also quite inspiring.”

Audience member Jack Thomas ’80 said afterward that he was especially moved by de Lavallade’s humility amid the pivotal role she played in the civil rights movement. “Carmen de Lavallade’s history is an absolutely extraordinary portrait, which shows what an African American artist has been through amid a long and extraordinary period of her own work,” Thomas said. “I think one of the most telling moments in the show was that almost incidental section where she said, ‘By the way, we were going to be on the Ed Sullivan show in 1961, and they wouldn’t let me perform on camera with a white dancer.’ And how gracefully she just took that, and they changed the dance, and they gave her a black partner, and she went on to perform,” he added.

“It was in our work that we stood up for what we thought. We did our revolution with our work,” de Lavallade said in a phone interview last week, recalling her role in the civil rights movement. Along with her late husband Geoffrey Holder and Harry Belafonte (with whom she appeared in the 1959 film Odds Against Tomorrow), she was active in the movement throughout the 1960s.

A dancer, actress, and choreographer, de Lavallade interwove dance, film, and her personal writings to tell her story at the festival. She began by portraying her childhood days in a neighborhood of 1930s Los Angeles and her roots dancing in California with Lester Horton and Alvin Ailey in New York. Additionally, she recalled her years as a dancer performing on the world’s stages and her ten years at the School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theatre, where she served as a choreographer, performer-in-residence, and adjunct professor. (In teaching movement, she worked with a young Meryl Streep ’75MFA and numerous other future stars.)

The International Festival of Arts and Ideas, which takes place every June in New Haven, features 15 days of performing arts, lectures, and conversations that bring artists and thinkers both locally and internationally. More than 80 percent of the Festival’s programs are free to the public, including jazz, dance, classical, and theater performances. The Festival was established in 1996. “New Haven is a kind of hidden gem, [and the Festival] really puts New Haven on the map artistically,” said Susan Lustman Katz, who attended de Lavallade’s performance and a panel discussion on her work on June 26. “I also think it brings out a lot of different, unseen communities that come to the Green and mingle and appreciate things together in ways that they don’t necessarily the rest of the year.”

Filed under International Festival of Arts and Ideas, School of Drama, Carmen de Lavallade
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