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Carmen de Lavallade & Geoffrey Holder (Photo: First Run Features)

Produced & Directed by
Linda Atkinson & Nick Doob
Released by First Run Features
USA. 79 min. Not Rated
With Carmen de Lavallade & Geoffrey Holder


Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade are easily recognized, separately and as a long-married couple, from their flamboyant public personas. From the 1950’s through today, they’ve eased on down the roads of dance, theater, art, fashion, and even commercials—he with his signature, jaunty white suit and distinctive Caribbean-inflected bass; she, the willowy, long-haired beauty, ineffably graceful in the striking outfits he designs for her.

In this overview of their groundbreaking careers, the biographical insight on Holder is more revealing than for de Lavallade. Directors Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob traveled with him to his hometown in Trinidad, where he strolls through his past to point out his inspirations—from the bitter, such as the private school where the teachers cruelly never let the students forget they were colonial subjects, and the inspirational, the island culture. (Unfortunately, little is heard or seen of the local music and dance that influenced him). His lively older brother, Boscoe—a competitive mentor who encouraged his brother to leave for New York—is interviewed at length.

De Lavallade also cites a relative as inspiration, her cousin, ballerina Janet Collins, who she emulated from a young age. (Neither artist says much about their parents.) But the focus here is on her lifelong friendship with high-school classmate Alvin Ailey, who she convinced to leave his gymnastics training and come along to her dance class under the tutelage of legendary teacher Lester Horton (though his significance in modern dance and as a mentor for dancers of color is not noted.)

She colorfully describes how the two friends left Los Angeles to drive to New York City and conquer the dance world together soon after Horton died in 1953. The powerful clips of them dancing together, including in Joe Layton’s “Porgy and Bess” and Ailey’s signature “Revelations,” are landmarks in dance history, especially for those of us who were never privileged to see the muscular young Ailey perform. (He died of AIDS in 1989 at age 58.) White writer Jennifer Dunning, an Ailey biographer who also co-wrote a book with Holder, explains the context for African Americans in the modern dance world, as well as parses De Lavallade’s and Holder’s complicated, triangular relationship with Ailey.

In New York, the three joined the cast of House of Flowers, the 1955 West Indies-set musical. De Lavallade and Holder each describes the love-at-first-sight that led them to marry even before rehearsals were finished for their show-stopping number, which is seen in one of the documentary’s extraordinary film clips, most of which are from the couple’s own collectionmust-sees for any dance fan, especially a fascinating excerpt of the couple dancing while Josephine Baker sings.

The work-for-hire that brought the couple celebrity is mentioned in passing. (Her early movie career is only glimpsed in posters and photographs). Instead, the emphasis is on the extraordinary breadth of their artistry. In a brief interview, their son Leo comments how his father resented that the establishment was reluctant to recognize Holder for his astounding wide range of talents, particularly in getting The Wiz to Broadway, where he won Tony Awards not only as director, but also as the costume designer. He is seen as a visual artist as well, painting vivid canvases and murals. De Lavallade’s importance as a living embodiment of dance heritage is beautifully communicated through a wonderful sequence of her working with the late, bushy-browed John Butler on “A Portrait of Billie” that he choreographed for her in 1960.

While the documentary wasn’t released theatrically to coincide with Black History Month, it should in the future be a highlight in surveys of African-American artists and modern dance. Nora Lee Mandel
March 13, 2009



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