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By Kina Poon
“Great gods cannot ride little horses.” So goes the Haitian proverb, and when it comes to Geoffrey Holder, it’s true. The dancer, choreographer,
painter, costume designer, actor, and musician does nothing in a small way. Dignified and imposing, Holder, who was born in Trinidad 80 years ago, still retains a vivacious, slightly mischievous air. While he held court at the Ailey studios last summer, people lined up to pay their respects.
Walking down the street near his art-filled loft in SoHo, he is apt to stop and admire the way shadows from a backlit tree fall on the sidewalk—while tourists stop and wonder, Who is the 6'6" man who looks so familiar?
Holder may have passersby doing double takes because he’s firmly established in the pop culture canon: as Daddy Warbucks’ bodyguard Punjab in the film Annie, as the henchman Baron Samedi in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die, and especially as the charming actor in the original 7-Up “Uncola” commercials. But in the art world, he is treasured for his paintings, his books, his roles on Broadway, his status as a danseur noble with the Metropolitan Opera in the 1950s, his Tony Awards for costume design and direction of The Wiz, and his ballets, including Dance Theatre of Harlem’s signature piece Dougla.
Holder’s 1968 The Prodigal Prince for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—he choreographed it, put together the music, and designed the costumes—is being remounted this month as part of Ailey’s City Center season. It is Holder’s love letter to Haiti. “I wanted to do the same with Haitian folklore as we do with Greek mythology,” he told Dance Magazine in 1998, when the ballet was last mounted. “I revere Haitian art and I treat it with the same sense of grandeur and respect.”
Prodigal Prince tells the story of Hector Hyppolite, a high priest of Haiti’s voudoun religion, who painted with a brush made of feathers that he claimed was guided by St. John the Baptist. In 1943, Hyppolite had a vision of the voudoun goddess Erzulie, and of St. John the Baptist, who foretold that a foreign man would buy his paintings and make him famous. Inspired, Hyppolite painted the voudoun loas, the African gods, as he dreamed and imagined them. Holder imagines Hyppolite as a “prince coming home” to Africa. “Hyppolite was like the Picasso of Haiti. I love Haitian art because they take nothing and make something out of it. We are all children creating things out of what we have around us. That’s what art is all about.”
The 33-minute ballet is a visual feast, replete with elaborate props, masks, and costumes. The dancers move in patterns around Hyppolite and Erzulie with reverence and camaraderie. “Fireworks. It is deliberately spectacular,” says Holder. “Why not? If you go see The Nutcracker, it’s deliberately spectacular. Swan Lake is spectacular. I’m tired of these leotards and empty stages. Everything I do has to be a vision!” He continues, “It is dance theater. They are wearing costumes that will blow your mind, costumes that dance.” In 1970 critic Clive Barnes wrote about Prodigal Prince, “Few works have so vividly conveyed the feel and texture of paintings.” In 1998, The New York Times’ Jennifer Dunning wrote, “What was newly fascinating about the piece was the contest that emerged between physical innocence and sensual experience.”
Holder also composed the music (with vocals by Jim Papoulis), which he feels is a way of evoking emotion. “I am always listening to classical music. When you go see a movie, the violin makes you cry. Same thing with the ballet. It begins with Ave Maria—Erzulie is like the Virgin Mary. Then the drums come in, the Congo rhythms.”
The ballet’s impact owed something to the original cast, namely Holder’s Hippolyte, Miguel Godreau, a Broadway and Limón dancer whom Holder met in Paris in the 1960s. “Miguel was Nureyev, better than Nureyev,” says Holder, who was especially impressed by Godreau’s theatricality. “Nureyev’s a brilliant dancer. But Miguel could fly like a bird. He had the fire of a bullfighter.” Holder moves his elegant hands, implying some fabulous movement. “Bah! And as if nothing happened. In-cor-edible.”
Godreau was also a short dancer, and Holder loves to take extremes and magnify them. “As a tribute to Miguel, I said, ‘Put this little man with this tall woman. It will be magnificent.’ ”
The original Erzulie was Judith Jamison. While his wife, Carmen deLavallade, remains Holder’s lifelong muse, Jamison also inspired Holder. “Judy was so gorgeous. It’s more than just dancing, it has to do with her attitude—what you are saying when you move.” He has said that when he first met Jamison, she looked like she stepped out of one of Hippolyte’s paintings, a sentiment he repeated about the current Erzulie, Briana Reed.
It is Jamison’s position as artistic director (her final year in the role) that allowed this ballet to be revived. Prodigal Prince had been the source of a falling out between Holder and Ailey. In 1970, the Ailey company toured to the Soviet Union and Ailey wanted to bring Prodigal Prince, but with a particular costume change: He wanted to put tights on the bare-legged men. Holder was angry and told Ailey not to take the ballet if he felt that way. So Holder was surprised when Godreau, remarking upon how well the ballet was received abroad, admitted that the tights had been added. Furious, Holder called Ailey and told him that the company could never again perform Prodigal Prince. It was only after Jamison took over upon Ailey’s death in 1989 that Holder was persuaded to allow the company to perform the work again. It was revived for Ailey’s 40th-anniversary season in December 1998, with new lighting by Clifton Taylor.
For this production, Matthew Rushing, the Hyppolite from 1998 and now rehearsal director (see “DM Awards,” Nov.), and associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya helped set the ballet. “Chaya remembered things, I remembered things,” says Holder. “They have exquisite dancers in the company. Exquisite.” What kind of advice did Holder give them? “I tell them why they’re doing it. They’re not steps, they’re statements. I talk about acting, performing, life, observance. They take what they want and go with it.” He continues, “I dream a lot and I think a lot, and if you want to take it, take it. I want to see what you do with it. Each dancer is a spirit. I let them look inside themselves.”
Samuel Lee Roberts, a former Battleworks dancer (see “On the Rise,” May 2006) who joined the Ailey company last year, is thrilled to be performing the title role. “I am so honored and I am so committed to making it wonderful, for Matthew and me. I have tall shoes to fill.”
Roberts, like the other dancers, describes working with Holder as a surreal experience. “I was starstruck—he’s ubiquitous and he’s been so successful at everything he does. He sees the world as an incredibly open and beautiful space for art. And that’s why he can put up a production like Prodigal Prince and do everything. He totally immerses himself.”
As Hyppolite, Roberts finds the role highly challenging. “The prince is offstage for only about a minute. It’s extremely exhausting, but the good kind that makes you grow. You become invincible. That lends itself to the character.”
Roberts describes Holder as very encouraging. “You feel intimidated, but Geoffrey is incredibly magnanimous. It’s really about him opening you up to yourself. One of the things he repeated most was, ‘There’s no one in this room who’s not important.’ It’s something I think we know, but hearing it from someone with his presence, it just really clicks.”
Holder is fond of saying, “God gives you two things: a brain and a heart. Use that mind, and you can do anything. Use that heart, and you are kind. Or,” he grins, “nasty.”
Holder’s love of splendor is intricately woven with his love of innocence and his curiosity—it seems that he creates work for his childhood self, the young boy in Trinidad who stole his brother’s paints. “I create for that innocent little boy in the balcony who has come to the theater for the first time. He wants to see magic, so I want to give him magic. He sees things that his father couldn’t see.”
Kina Poon is an assistant editor at Dance Magazine.
AADT's Briana Reed and Samuel Lee Roberts in Holder's The Prodigal Prince. Photo by Lee White, courtesy AADT.