Geoffrey Holder: Death of a Renaissance Man
By Herb Boyd Special to the NNPA
NEW YORK, NY (NNPA) – His voice arrived first, deep and sonorous, prefiguring a man of enormous life and vitality and such was the often imposing but impressive visage and physique of Geoffrey Holder, who many remember mostly from his promotion of Seven-Up “Uncola” commercials. But the multitalented Holder was much more than a pitchman. This artist with almost magical gifts died Sunday, Oct. 5 at his home in New York City. He was 84.
According to Charles M. Mirotznik, a spokesman for the family, Holder’s death was the result of complications from pneumonia.
Standing 6 feet 6 inches, Holder commanded practically every room he entered, and the niches not covered by his giant-like presence were filled with his resonant voice and laughter, his flamboyant style and persona, something magisterial, je ne sais quoi.
If viewers were reminded of the Jolly Green Giant or Mr. Clean from the many films and Broadway productions, it was understandable inasmuch as he had that same powerful countenance but embellished by a graceful sense of movement and artistic savoir faire.
Even the swerving arc of his autograph provides some semblance of his absolutely total absorption in the theater, dance and art as writer and dance authority Jennifer Dunning captures so well her biography.
“Who is Geoffrey Holder?” Dunning asks rhetorically in the preface to her book.
“He paints and photographs, but he has never wanted to be cal-led simply an ‘artist.’ He dances and choreographs, but he has no desire to be categorized as a ‘dancer and choreographer.’ He designs costumes and has directed shows on Broadway, but do not call him a ‘man of the theater.’”
Through these things he chose not to be called, we gather some idea of the complexity of his life, the expansiveness of his endeavors and successes.
“Life is strange and sweet and divine,” Holder told Dunning during one of her many interviews with him as he folded his long frame into a delicate white chair in the garden corner carved out his wife, the actress and dancer Carmen de Lavallade, in their loft in Soho. She notes that Holder’s paintings are everywhere.
And Holder throughout his remarkably productive career seemed to be everywhere—on stage, on film, in the studio, galleries, and anywhere a convivial ensemble was ready a night of gaiety and cultural chit chat.
Whether surrounded by a gaggle of his admiring friends or strolling the streets of Manhattan that he dearly loved and became fond of many years ago when he arrived from his homeland in Trinidad, Holder was immediately recognized and onlookers were not sure if it was Punjab from the movie “Annie,” or Baron Samedi from the James Bond movie “Live and Let Die.” Or he could have been, for some of his older fans, the principal dancer in the Met’s production of “Aida.”
If left to him, he was Geoffrey Holder, born August 1, 1930 to parents who had migrated from Barbados to Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He attended Queen’s Royal College and at very early age began demonstrating his prowess as a dancer in his brother Boscoe’s company. It was from this older brother that he got his first lessons in choreography and design.
Given his height and agility he easily stood out in a troupe and got the eye of dance maven Agnes de Mille in the early 1950s during a performance in the Virgin Islands. She invited Holder to New York City and subsequently he was hired to teach at the famed Katherine Dunham School of Dance. After a brief stint as the lead dancer at the Met, he made his Broadway debut in “House of Flowers” with book and lyrics by Truman Capote and music by Harold Arlen. Here, he met another dancer, Carmen de Lavallade, who became his lifelong companion. Their only child was Leo.
With excellent reviews from his performances on Broadway, he appeared in a series of films, beginning with All Night Long, a British film in 1962; five years later, he was featured in Doctor Dolittle; then he was the sorcerer in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex; and there was his voodoo turn in the Bond movie mentioned above in which he was also the choreographer.
For the most part Holder appeared to be caught between two very jealous muses: dance and painting. And they both were somewhat pacified when he was the choreographer, set and costume designer as he did on many occasions, but with particular panache in 1968 with The Prodigal Prince for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. According to Kina Poon, an assistant editor at Dance Magazine, this was his love letter to Haiti. “I wanted to do the same with Haitian folklore as we with Greek mythology,” he told her. “I revere Haitian art and I treat it with the same sense of grandeur and respect.”
Grandeur is certainly a word that is evoked when visiting a gallery of his paintings. Most impressive are his study of the human form and his nudes, male and female, are full of the freedom and abandon that characterized Holder’s restless spirit.
To list even a portion of his awards is daunting, but it’s hard to ignore the stunning work he in The Wiz, which earned Tony’s for direction and design. In both categories were first for a Black man. One of his most spectacular productions was Timbuktu, which choreographed and directed, featuring Eartha Kitt. Here again, the full arsenal of his artistic genius unfolds.
“Geoffrey is someone who speaks with movements and with images more than some other people might,” said Clifton Taylor, a lighting designer who worked with Holder in several productions, including a revival of The Prodigal Prince four years ago. “Another choreographer might say ‘This is what I want the lights to look like.’ Geoffrey is really about giving images to people, both the dancers and the designers. He’ll say, ‘We’re in a village at night. It’s stars and it’s gorgeous.’ He’ll go on in kind of rhapsodic prose. ‘Dahling,’ right? And then we go with it.”
Then, to express his appreciation, might come that drawn out but melodious “maarvelous,” in a voice as inimitable as his life and legacy.