The Perfect Pair
At the top of the list of fabled husband-and-wife artistic partnerships you will find such pairings (for better AND for worse) as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe, and Picasso and Dora Maar.
Add to that list of “creative royal couples” the names Geoffrey Holder, 82 (who, at various times has been an actor, choreographer, director, dancer, painter, costume designer, singer and voice-over artist), and Carmen DeLavallade, 81 (a dancer’s dancer, choreographer, actress, director, writer, teacher and coach). Their careers now span seven decades, and together they occupy a unique place in African-American cultural history.
The couple — who are as stunning to look at as they are accomplished — have been married since 1955 and continue to work at their art. And now they are being celebrated in a major exhibition, “Geoffrey & Carmen: A Memoir in Four Movements,” that will run Feb. 9-May 5 at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History, before traveling to the California African-American Museum in Los Angeles (DeLavallade’s hometown), and the new National Academy for the Performing Arts in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad (where Holder grew up).
The show, curated by Charles Bethea, with assistance from the Holders’ son, Leo (a visual effects and animation specialist now working on the Fox TV series “The Following”), will include about three dozen of Holder’s paintings, drawings and collages, as well as photographs and memorabilia from throughout the couple’s careers, several gowns Holder designed for DeLavallade, the costume for Dorothy that Holder designed for the original Broadway production of “The Wiz,” rare film footage (recently unearthed in Malaysia) of DeLavallade dancing with Alvin Ailey in “Revelations” and more.
“Putting this show together has been a multifold, multi-year adventure to say the least,” said Leo Holder. “And along the way things changed. Two years ago, my father, who is 6 feet 6 inches tall, broke his hip, and he has been in rehab at the Actors’ Fund Home in New Jersey ever since — producing more works of art than ever and using whatever he can get his hands on, from wrapping paper and cardboard boxes to wire hangers and styrofoam cups.
“At the same time, my mother and I had the unenviable task of emptying the 5,000-square-foot loft in SoHo they had shared since 1981. So multiply the archives of two octogenarians with the sort of unique, artistically fertile lives they’ve led. Then add the fact that they amassed a huge library. Plus, from the start, my father has been a major maker of art — painting everything from scenes that recall life in the Caribbean, to people he sees on the street, to my mother. And of course he also has been a major collector of art — Matisse, Diego Rivera, Dogon masks and a great number of Haitian paintings that, since the destruction of the 2010 earthquake, have become incredibly precious. So you will understand that finding, selecting and shipping everything for this show has been a Herculean task.”
“It is hard to explain our lives,” said DeLavallade, who now lives in a Harlem loft and will attend the Feb. 9 gala opening at DuSable that will begin with a tribute to the Holders (Geoffrey will join via Skype), and a conversation led by Susan Taylor, former editor of Essence magazine. “We lived in a great big playground. Now, at the Actors’ Home, Geoffrey has a small space, and it is hard to control; he just fills it up with his work.”
Holder confirms the situation.
“I make something every five minutes,” he said, proceeding to retell the Genesis story in a highly theatrical way, and suggesting that God was clearly an artist — a man who took mud and started sculpting life. “All I see is art; it just comes out of me. And I’ve always believed that if you love what you’re doing you’re not working.”
It was in 1952, at the age of 21, that Holder first left his big, gifted family in Trinidad, traveling with his own dance company to a Caribbean arts festival in Puerto Rico. He was spotted by the great choreographer Agnes de Mille, who invited him to New York. In 1954 he made his Broadway debut as Samedi, a Haitian conjurer, in “House of Flowers,” the fabled Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical. He was immediately smitten with fellow cast member DeLavallade, and they were married the following year.
“Carmen is the most wonderful woman in the world — my goddess, a brilliant artist, very kind and very beautiful, and she gave me a good son,” said Holder. “I have good taste.”
He began his movie career in the 1962 British film “All Night Long,” a modern remake of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” following up with roles in “Doctor Doolittle,” “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask),” and the James Bond movie “Live and Let Die.” In the 1970s, Holder also became a memorable spokesman for “The Uncola” advertising campaign for 7Up, as well as the lilting voice for BWIA (British West Indies Airways).
In 1975, Holder won two Tony Awards — for direction and costume design — for “The Wiz,” the hit all-black musical version of “The Wizard of Oz,” becoming the first black man to be nominated in either category. In 1978, he directed and choreographed the Broadway musical “Timbuktu!” He also has created choreography and costumes for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
DeLavallade grew up in Los Angeles, raised by her aunt, who owned one of the first African-American bookstores. Her cousin was Janet Collins, one of the first African-American prima ballerinas, and, inspired by her, DeLavallade began studying ballet and modern dance at the age of 14. She won a scholarship to the pioneering Lester Horton Dance Theater, and it was there that she first met the young Alvin Ailey, who also became part of the cast of “House of Flowers” in New York.
It was Lena Horne who introduced DeLavallade to 20th Century Fox studio executives, which led to her appearance in more than 75 films and television shows. She later joined the faculty of the Yale Drama School as a choreographer and dancer-in-residence, teaching such young actors as Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Henry Winkler.
“That was in the 1970s — a remarkable time to be in the midst of so many terrific writers, designers, directors and actors of the future,” she said. “I worry about young artists now. There are too many distractions, and everyone is worried about ‘branding’ themselves. My advice to them is always to be disciplined and focused, and to take their time.”
And DeLavallade still dances.
“I call it moving,” she said, laughing. “It is very important to keep moving.”