Geoffrey Holder exhibition looks to capture ‘absolute joy’ of Trinidad’s ‘charisma bomb’

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He might be most famous for his turn as Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die, but Holder and his wife Carmen de Lavallade were black pioneers in Broadway and ballet who pushed boundaries throughout their careers, Stacey Anderson reports for London’s Guardian.

While shooting his climactic scene as the menacing Bond villain/voodoo spirit Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die, Geoffrey Holder found himself in a situation that not even he could dance his way out of.

“Geoffrey was an absolute joy, great fun, always very pleasant and happy on set. Though we discovered he had one major phobia: snakes,” recalls Sir Roger Moore, 87, whose 007 sparred with Holder. “That was rather unfortunate, as his character had a death scene where he fell backwards into a coffin full of the slithery beasts. However, it just so happened on the fateful day Princess Alexandra was visiting the set, and Geoffrey knew he couldn’t back out – not in front of royalty.”

Dutifully, Holder flung himself to his fate, thrashing with extra panache for his posh audience; later, he confided to Moore that not all the snakes had felt as safely defanged as the prop supervisor had promised. The moment aside, little else seemed to faze Holder in his long career: a 6ft 6in native of Trinidad with a sonorous baritone and a quick thunderclap of a laugh, he cut a singularly joyful figure as a Renaissance man of the post-war African American arts community in New York. When he died in October, at age 84, he left behind a dense body of work as a choreographer, dancer, actor, director, designer and painter – and, in a role often forgotten, he had broken significant racial barriers for black artists.

Holder’s life and catalogue will be commemorated twice this summer in New York. On Thursday, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts debuts the retrospective The Genius of Geoffrey Holder. It pairs video of his ballets, which fused the traditional dances of the Caribbean with classical forms, with several of his paintings – elegant and socially charged oil tableaus, often of black Madonnas and cryptic forms obscured by tropical foliage. Also represented: recordings of his early steel band ensemble, Geoffrey Holder and His Trinidad Hummingbirds, and relics from his most recognizable acting roles, which included genteel turns as the bodyguard Punjab in Annie (1982) and the spokesman of 7 Up’s ubiquitous “un-cola” commercials of the 1970s. Alongside will be his whimsical interpretation of Dorothy’s dress from the 1975 Broadway soul musical The Wiz; Holder directed and designed costumes for the ecstatic, all-black re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz, and became the first black man to win a Tony award in both those categories. (It inspired the 1978 film that starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, as well as the live production that will air on NBC this December.)

On 1 August, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival will host a tribute afternoon that includes a screening of the 2009 documentary Carmen & Geoffrey,which chronicled Holder’s nearly 60-year marriage to the celebrated dancer Carmen de Lavallade, his proclaimed muse until his death.

“They don’t make artists like him anymore. He never stopped creating, not for a moment,” says Judith Jamison, 72, Artistic Director Emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She originated the role of the goddess Erzulie in The Prodigal Prince, Holder’s breakthrough Trinidadian fusion ballet for Alvin Ailey. “He used to tell us at his rehearsals, ‘You are like gods and goddesses,’ and we believed him. You felt terribly regal and worthy and proud to be a dancer.”

Holder’s constant in his many projects was an exuberant energy and deep pride in his homeland; in the fertile 1950s-60s dance community of New York, a time when all-black Broadway and dance productions gained their greatest traction, he was an early figure to introduce audiences to the traditions of the Caribbean. His choreography was sharp, ecstatic, pyretic; while his dancers, swathed in brilliant fabrics and ornate feathered headpieces, merged the rhapsodic convulsions common to the Shango and Yoruba faiths with sleek pirouettes and dazzling leaps. As a dancer himself, he and De Lavallade cut regal forms as two of the first African Americans to dance with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet; he also received a Guggenheim fellowship for his painting, much of which focused adoringly on his wife.

“We were fans of each other’s work; we never held each other back from doing what we wanted,” says De Lavallade, 84. She will perform The Creation, an adaptation of a work Holder choreographed for her in the 1970s, on 1 August at Lincoln Center. “People seem to think that’s very rare, but it worked out well. We were good companions.”

The couple was also a fixture in glamorous social echelons; they performed with Josephine Baker in Paris, danced alongside Mick Jagger at Studio 54, painted with Jackson Pollock in private salons, and rubbed elbows with Andy Warhol at Metropolitan Museum of Art galas. (Warhol later drew Holder in a little-seen portrait series of dancers.) One of their favorite traditions was attending the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in Washington DC. “That was our Christmas present every year,” De Lavallade recalls. “He designed my evening dresses for that. Every year, I’d get two new dresses, one for the White House and another for the State Department dinner.”

Holder’s youth in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, was substantially more modest. As a child plagued by dyslexia and a stammer – impediments that even teachers mocked him for – he gravitated to the artistic inclinations of his older brother Boscoe, nicking his paints and joining his dance troupe. (The elder Holder would go on to be a well-known painter and choreographer, too, in Trinidad and England.)

Geoffrey moved to New York in 1954, at age 23, and debuted on Broadway that year in House of Flowers, Truman Capote and Harold Arlen’s fantastical tale of Haitian bordello life. Offstage, he fell in love with De Lavallade – then a bigger star than he – and proposed within four days. They had one son, Leo.

Holder’s breakthrough creative statement arrived in 1968 with The Prodigal Prince, his vivacious ballet about the Haitian folk painter and voodoo priest Hector Hyppolite. Intended as a Trinidadian answer to Swan Lake and Giselle, it brimmed with the imagery and movements of the country, atop a folk-infused score that Holder composed. Three years later followed the equally decadent show Dougla, a evocation of a Caribbean wedding processional (the title being regional slang for someone of African and Indian descent).

“His choreography was really a meal for the eye, delicious to watch. There were colors, movement that were surprising if you hadn’t seen anything like that before, and most people hadn’t,” says Jamison. She staged a revival of The Prodigal Prince a few years ago at Alvin Ailey. “People were still stunned by what they saw. It worked very well, a whole new generation dancing his work.”

Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, performed in Dougla at the Theatre. “He would tell us about the culture and the history of these works, the history, the ideas behind the movement,” said Johnson, 65. “That’s what made him really outstanding.”

In film, Holder was usually cast in character parts of exaggerated exoticism, roles that made ample use of his accented lilt and natural flamboyance. In Live and Let Die, he baited Bond in ribald parody of his usually refined dancing, his grinning visage half-spackled white per voodoo lore; as a sorcerer, he confounded Woody Allen in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). For 7 Up, he urged harried Americans to purchase a “marrrvelous” sip of his island placidity; as that ad campaign reached ubiquity, he won his groundbreaking Tony awards for The Wiz, and merrily nodded to the pitchman gig in his charisma bomb of an acceptance speech.

But Holder’s nonchalance at the Tonys belied the progress he represented to many. “After the war, something really big was happening: black people were opening the door into the arts. Geoffrey and Carmen were part of those pioneers. We don’t think they were praised enough,” says Linda Atkinson, 69, who directed Carmen & Geoffrey with her husband, Nick Doob. However, Geoffrey didn’t like to talk about race. He’d say: ‘I don’t want to be the first anything. I just want to be part of the wave.’”

When Holder died on 5 October 2014 from complications due to pneumonia, he was memorialized by younger entertainers including Beyoncé and Edgar Wright.“His influence goes under the radar, but you see it in modern pop culture,” says Leo Holder, a designer for film and television (who wrote a stirring letter about his father’s death). “It’s a sort of consciousness. I saw it in Michael Jackson.”

Kenny Leon, the director of NBC’s upcoming version of The Wiz, credits Holder with leading a charge. “He designed, directed, choreographed and acted all at the highest level. His inspiration on The Wiz in the 70s makes it possible for what we are to do with the revival in 2015,” says Leon, 59. In vein of Holder, he won a Tony for his direction of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway last year. “I have the highest respect and gratitude to the man.”

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