NPR

At 83, Dancer Carmen De Lavallade Looks Back At A Life Spent Onstage

Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade were a magnetic couple — he was towering, 6'6", with a deep, Caribbean-lilted voice. She was a poised, petite dancer who brought sensuality and soul to ballet. He was best known for playing a James Bond villain and starring in 7 Up commercials. She was one of the first African-Americans to dance with the Metropolitan Opera.

As a couple they seemed inseparable. But Holder died on Oct. 5 at age 84, and now, without her husband of 59 years, de Lavallade must go on. This week she's scheduled to perform her one-woman show As I Remember It, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

De Lavallade says she wasn't counting the years they were married, but she's pretty clear on why they stayed together for so long.

"He allowed me to be myself," she says. "He was my champion, he was my biggest fan, and I was the same way with him."

They met in 1954 — Holder was instantly smitten. She and her friend Alvin Ailey (before he started his own, legendary company) were cast in the Broadway musical House of Flowers, starring Pearl Bailey.

As she says in As I Remember It, "Alvin and I got a featured duet." But the two dancers were new to Broadway, so, she says, "This one, tall, handsome man from Trinidad named Geoffrey Holder took us under his wing. Three days later he proposed; four months later I accepted." The story received cheers and applause when she performed As I Remember It at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts this past summer.

Between them, the glamorous, hard-working couple's credits include movies, TV shows, major stages around the world and a Tony Award. There's a delightful video of de Lavallade dancing in the late 1960s, in high heels and a low-cut, tight-fitting black dress. She's got hips and she shimmies them elegantly.

In As I Remember It, de Lavallade watches footage of herself dancing in old movies projected on a large screen behind her. She jokes about her hips in the show. But she's clearly proud of them, too: "Eat your heart out, Beyonce," she says watching herself do moves that are strikingly similar to the pop diva's.

At 83, de Lavallade is still gorgeous and graceful; her moves in her solo theater piece are just gentler. She critiques herself, reminisces, and talks about what she learned from some her famous teachers and fellow artists.

"I remember Duke Ellington kissing me on the cheek four times and whispering 'One for each cheek,' " she says in her show, to laughs from the audience.

When Holder died, de Lavallade considered postponing her Kennedy Center shows. But she knows he wouldn't have wanted that.

"I really want to do it for him, and for my friends and the other people who I've missed who are in it — because they made my life," she says.

Holder was de Lavallade's closest companion and collaborator of 59 years. She says she plans to talk about her husband's death in the show — she just doesn't yet know how.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos
Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For Carmen de Lavallade, The show is going on, even without her most important collaborator - her husband. Geoffrey Holder died earlier this month. He was 84. They were a power couple - dancers, actors on Broadway, off-Broadway, on screens big and small. NPR's Elizabeth Blair caught up with de Lavallade to talk about her new one-woman show, and about Geoffrey Holder.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: You were married for 59 years.

CARMEN DE LAVALLADE: Correct (laughter).

BLAIR: Carmen de Lavallade says she wasn't counting, but she's pretty clear why she and Geoffrey Holder stayed together for so long.

DE LAVALLADE: He allowed me to be myself. He was my champion. He was my biggest fan.

BLAIR: And he was smitten with her instantly. They met in the 1954. De Lavallade and her friend, Alvin Ailey, were cast in the Broadway musical "House Of Flowers," starring Pearl Bailey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AS I REMEMBER IT")

PEARL BAILEY: (Singing) When you flyin' too high.

DE LAVALLADE: Music by Harold Arlen, written by Truman Capote. Alvin and I got a featured duet.

BLAIR: This is from de Lavallade's one-woman show, "As I Remember It."

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AS I REMEMBER IT")

DE LAVALLADE: This one tall, handsome man from Trinidad, named Geoffrey Holder, took us under his wing. Three days later, he proposed.

(LAUGHTER)

DE LAVALLADE: Four months later, I accepted (laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

BLAIR: They were a glamorous couple. Between them, their credits include the Metropolitan Opera, movies, TV shows, Tony Awards. Holder lent his famous voice to commercials.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

GEOFFREY HOLDER: Crisp and clean and no caffeine - never had it? (Laughter) Never will.

BLAIR: There's a great video of de Lavallade dancing in the 1960s, in high heels, a low-cut, tight-fitting black dress. She's got hips and she shimmies them elegantly.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

BLAIR: Today, at 83, de Lavallade is still gorgeous and still graceful. Her moves and her solo theater piece are just gentler. Videos of her dancing in old movies and TV shows are projected on a big screen behind her. She critiques herself, reminisces, jokes about her hips and the famous people she called friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AS I REMEMBER IT")

DE LAVALLADE: I remember Duke Ellington kissing me on the cheek four times and whispering one for each cheek.

BLAIR: Carmen de Lavallade is scheduled to perform "As I Remember It" at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. this week. She says she thought about canceling when her husband died, but she says Geoffrey would not want that.

DE LAVALLADE: I really want to do it for him, and for my friends and the other people who I've missed that are in it because they made my life.

BLAIR: De Lavallade says she's not yet sure how to talk about Geoffrey Holder's death in the show - her closest companion and collaborator 59 years. But she says she is planning to. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular