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Geoffrey Holder: A Life in Theatre, Dance, and Art

If ever there was such a term as a contemporary Renaissance man, it could be applied to Geoffrey Holder—dancer, choreographer, painter, director, set and costume designer, actor, and musician. Those of us who are aware of him in all those capacities will see all these related in the huge book written by Jennifer Dunning, "Geoffrey Holder: A Life in Theatre, Dance, and Art." Ms. Dunning is a dance critic for The New York Times and has written several books on that subject, including a biography of Alvin Ailey.

Dunning presents Holder's credo right from the start: "My whole philosophy is that you should do everything. I don't care how old or how young you are. God bless Grandma Moses for picking up a paintbrush at 90, or however old she started. You are never too old to learn or to do something you've always wanted to do."

Natives of Trinidad, both of Holder's parents were art conscious. He states that his father, Arthur Holder, bought a piano during the Depression, when everything was rough for everybody. Holder's brother, Boscoe, taught himself to play the piano. He played for parties and bought paints with the money he earned. Boscoe's portraits of the family, reproduced in Dunning's book, are masterful. It was Boscoe who drew his brother to the arts.

Boscoe moved to London from Trinidad, while New York would eventually become Geoffrey's domain, thanks to the initial interest in him by Agnes de Mille, who saw him dance in Trinidad in 1952. In 1954, after only three months in the U.S., producer Saint Subber hired him for the Broadway musical, "House of Flowers," written by Truman Capote and Harold Arlen, and choreographed by the great George Balanchine (who was replaced before Broadway by Herbert Ross). It was there that Holder met Carmen de Lavallade, whom he would later marry and describes as "my beautiful wife, goddess, and muse." He describes their son, Leo, as "my most precious possession."

By 1955, Holder had put together a small company of black dancers with whom he continued to perform through 1960. He was hired by the Metropolitan Opera to perform in "Aida" and "La Perichole" in 1955-56. He was also given an exhibition as a painter at the Barone Gallery that attracted numerous celebrities, and won a 1956 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship for his paintings. Before that, he cut a record of Caribbean songs called "Geoffrey Holder and His Trinidad Hummingbirds."

He even put together a book of original stories and drawings based on Caribbean folktales for Doubleday, published in 1959 under the title "Black Gods, Green Islands." In 1957, he appeared on Broadway playing Lucky the Slave in a revival of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." The all-black cast included Earle Hyman and Rex Ingram, the latter known for his portrayal of De Lawd in the 1936 film, "Green Pastures."

Holder appeared in the musical film, "Dr. Doolittle," which starred Rex Harrison, and had one of his best film roles in another musical, playing Punjab in "Annie" (a role not in the Broadway version of the famous comic strip). He also appeared in the Peter Stone and Richard Rodgers TV musicalization of George Bernard Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion," whose starry cast included John Cullum, Inga Swenson, Ed Ames, and Noël Coward as Caesar. Soon after, Holder became a familiar personality via television commercials.

Among Holder's most lavish creations—for which he provided choreography, music, and design—were the dance works "Prodigal Prince" and "Dougla." "Prince," created for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was a cavalcade of the life and work of Hector Hyppolite, a leading Haitian folk painter. "Dougla" drew on Haitian and Trinidadian folk themes, dances, and music. It portrayed the wedding ritual of a dougla, a mixed-race Indian and African couple, and is currently in the repertoire of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

One of Holder's most notable projects was "The Wiz," the all-black musical based on L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz." There was many a travail before the show arrived on Broadway, but he ended up with two Tony Awards, one for best direction and one for best costume design. The experience drained him, however, and for a while, he felt that he had used up all his magic.

Holder eventually directed, choreographed, and designed set and costumes for the Broadway musical, "Timbuktu," an all-black version of "Kismet," starring Eartha Kitt, Gilbert Price, and Melba Moore. Not as long running as "The Wiz," the show still played a year on Broadway and had a successful subsequent road tour. Holder won extensive praise and a Tony nomination for his lavish costume designs.

It would take a review of encyclopedic proportions to list every one of Holder's accomplishments. No doubt his future will hold further endeavors that will require another volume.

Holder's achievements, together with Dunning's painstaking documentation, have resulted in a book that can be treasured by dance, theatre, and graphic art collectors everywhere.

"Geoffrey Holder: A Life in Theatre, Dance, and Art" by Jennifer Dunning is published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. It runs 238 pages, has 250 illustrations (150 in full color), and costs $60.

Ryan Kelly's First

Full-Length Work

Dancer-choreographer Ryan Kelly, formerly of the New York City Ballet, presents his first evening-length work, "Re-Covering the Concrete," conceived, choreographed, and directed by Kelly, with found texts and original writing by Kelly and Michael O'Brien, and original music by Regina Spektor, Anders Griffen, and Aaron Severini.

Venue: Mazer Theater, 197 East Broadway (east of Essex Street), NYC. Performances: Sept. 19-21 at 8 pm. Tickets: $15, $12 for students, call (212) 614-0775 for reservations.

NOTE: There will be an additional, special performance of "Re-Covering the Concrete" on Mon., Sept. 23 at 8 pm, to be held at Dixon Place, 309 East 26 St. (at Second Avenue), NYC. For reservations for this performance only, call (212) 532-1546.

Randy James Dance Works at the Ohio

Randy James Dance Works, headquartered in Highland Park, N.J., will have its annual fall New York City season on two upcoming September weekends. As always, the performances will feature live music and new and repertory works by choreographer Randy James, who formed his own company nine years ago.

The season's world premiere will be "Among the stars that have a different birth." (The lower case is James', not mine.) Also featured will be "Moonlight Sonata," performed to Beethoven's musical masterpiece.

Venue: Ohio Theater, 66 Wooster St., NYC. Performances: Sept. 20-22 and Sept. 27-29, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets: $15, $12 for students and seniors, call (212) 924-0077 for reservations.

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