I’ve been missing out not knowing much about the work of these two tremendous artists, icons I shall say, of what we regard today as modern dance.
Married since 1955 not long after they met after working together in Harold Arlen’s House of Flowers, Geoffrey Holder and Carmen De Lavallade’s work and personal lives are documented in the inspiring and quirky documentary Carmen & Geoffrey, now streaming on Netflix.
Directed by Linda Atkinson, a student of De Lavallade, and Nick Dobb, the documentary follows our eccentric and fascinating subjects through rare dance footage from the 50’s and 60’s, both individually and together – from their childhood dreams and aspirations, becoming stars in their own right, their partnership and romance, to the their life together and continuing careers.
I find it odd that Geoffrey and Carmen’s work isn’t more celebrated, although they have both received several honors throughout their artistic endeavors.
The first Black man to be nominated in either category, Holder garnered two Tony Awards 1975 for the direction and costume design of The Wiz, the all-black musical version of The Wizard of Oz.
Holder has helmed many dance pieces for different companies, including 1974’s Dougla, influenced by African and Indian dance styles and 1978’s Broadway musical Timbuktu! He also has several acting credits under his resume like 1973’s Live and Let Die. 1982’s Annie and 1992’s Boomerang.
Born in Trinidad and standing at 6’6”, Holder followed the footsteps of his brother Boscoe Holder- visual artist, dancer, choreographer and musician- since age 7. Not only does he possess a natural aptitude for dance, Holder is also a painter, fervent art collector, music composer and book author. The documentary showcases some of his impressive paintings and costume artwork.
Carmen De Lavallade, a 2004 Black History Month Lifetime Achievement Honoree, was born to Creole parents in Los Angeles. De Lavallade is the cousin of Janet Collins. She was Carmen’s biggest inspiration as a child; Collins was the first African American prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera.
From 1949 until 1954, Lavallade was the lead dancer of the Lester Horton Dance Theater, where she also studied other crafts including painting, acting, music and set design. During her career, she performed in numerous theater shows and made several appearances in TV shows and films including Duke Ellington’s A Drum is a Woman, Othello, Death of a Salesman, Carmen Jones and 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow.
Carmen & Geoffrey features amusing interviews with Geoffrey’s brother Boscoe, who reveals their peculiar sibling rivalry and competitive nature. Also featured, are Carmen’s work with lifelong friend and partner Alvin Ailey, Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker, the latter whom Carmen worked with on stage.
At the heart of the doc, is the enduring love and passionate friendship between our two subjects. Not only are they immensely talented dancers, artists and performers, but their ambition and confidence engulf everything they do.
Even if you’re not a lover of dance, whether classical ballet or modern, you will enjoy watching these two creative forces at play. Their work fuses art, passion, African culture, and acting performance into the beauty of dance; it’s dance of the African diaspora at its best.
Watch the trailer and clip below.