In her solo show at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, As I Remember It, Carmen de Lavallade, 83, gazes up at a video projection of her much-younger self, dancing with unabashed sensuality. “Eat your heart out, Beyoncé,” she declares, and the crowd laughs in agreement. It’s an odd, almost-breaking-the-fourth-wall moment, but what Ms. de Lavallade says is, it turns out, entirely true. She was the Beyoncé of her time, a fact that many of today’s dancers and even choreographers may not know. As I Remember It’s success resides in the fact that, by its end, the audience knows this beyond a doubt.

© Stephanie Berger
© Stephanie Berger

The structure of Ms. de Lavallade’s show—conceived during her BAC residency—is simple, but never slow. Short monologues and remembrances of her past are interjected with video and photograph projections on a free standing, curved curtain of white fringe. (The wonderfully bare set design is by Mimi Lien.) Occasionally, music plays. Infrequently, Ms. de Lavallade dances. (There are also present-day projections of her dancing that appear throughout the show.) She starts at the beginning: a childhood in Los Angeles tinged with sadness — her mother entered a sanitarium when Ms. de Lavallade was young — and a boisterous family on her father’s side (many aunts, which Ms. de Lavallade does brief, loving caricatures of). She then describes her legendary ascent in modern dance, first in the biracial company of Lester Horton, and then on Broadway and in film.

Ms. de Lavallade has an impressive collection of photos and video sfrom her career, much of it black and white (and some of it cleverly color-corrected so that Ms. de Lavallade is easy to spot in a crowd of dancers). Anecdotes about Alvin Ailey—it was Ms. de Lavallade who first dragged him to dance class—and a tyrannical, if well meaning Jack Cole are pleasant surprises and land well. Generally, the evening feels adequately paced; it is only near its end that As I Remember It feels slightly rushed, as if the production team had run out of time and decided that the latter part of Ms. de Lavallade’s life must be wrapped up swiftly.

It’s easy to see that Ms. de Lavallade is a veteran of stage, screen and concert dance. She’s a gentle, natural performer who doesn’t make the mistake of over-sentimentalizing her material and who does not perform visibly choked up when retelling difficult parts of her past.

© Stephanie Berger
© Stephanie Berger
The only time her performance felt slightly cheapened was when she would stumble over her words and poke fun at herself, directly addressing the audience and commenting on her inability to speak clearly. Moments of direct interaction with the audience such as these felt out of place, almost inappropriate in an otherwise entirely formal show. It’s worth noting, though, that Ms. de Lavallade only stumbled (and just a handful of times, at most) when reciting lines of her own; otherwise performing long and difficult passages of Shakespeare, François Villon and even Terrence McNally with complete ease and even an air of regalness.

And any stumbles or memory slips could’ve been just opening night jitters. It takes extreme confidence, composure and room-control to head your own solo show, and Ms. de Lavallade wears that mantle with grace and directness throughout most of her performance.