Geoffrey Holder was in his element. Well, actually one of them, since he is one of those amazing artists blessed with many gifts: choreographer, dancer, painter, actor, director, costume designer, voice-over artist and photographer.
On this day, he was director. Seated on a high director’s chair in the spacious fifth floor rehearsal studio of the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) on West 55th Street, the Tony Award-winning director was thoughtfully helming a rehearsal of a new production of his acclaimed 1968 masterpiece “The Prodigal Prince.”
The ballet, for which the Tony Award-winning costume designer choreographed, costumed, and composed the music for, will be among nine premieres and new productions of the highly anticipated 2010 AAADT season, which runs from December 1 through January 2 at the New York City Center (131 West 55th Street). “The Prodigal Prince” premieres on December 7, with additional performances December 9, 21 and 23.
Subsequent to the afternoon’s rehearsal, Holder discussed some production notes with Masazumi Chaya, associate artistic director of the AAADT, who’s the assistant to the choreographer for “Prodigal Son.” (In addition, during several of the rehearsals, both Judith Jamison, the artistic director, and Robert Battle, the artistic director designate, sat in).
Soon the divine, ephemeral strains of the score’s religious chants gently embraced the space. Moments later, the humanizing sound of the drums and chants ensnared the room, transporting it and its occupants to another time and place: Haiti, the mysterious and seductive setting for Holder’s intriguing ballet about the distinguished painter and priest Hector Hyppolite. After years of painting without being recognized for his talent, a vision appeared to him in the forms of the Voudon goddess Erzulie and Saint John the Baptist. This revelation, in conjunction with a actual or imaginary trip to Africa, motivated Hyppolite to paint the world of the Voudon “loas,” the gods of Africa, who prophesied “that a man from overseas would buy Hyppolite’s paintings,” which would change his future. Andre Breton, a Frenchman, did purchase Hyppolite’s artwork, which brought him fame, as well as accolades for his artistic genius.
Holder’s rehearsal was electrifying. The brilliant company of dancers sparkled. You could see their love for the work and for Mr. Holder, who lavished them with well-deserved praises: “I love it!” “You all are flying!” “It reads beautifully.” It’s like dialogue.” “It’s a line drawing…lovely, lovely!” “Bless you!” ‘It’s hot and tasty,” he boomed before giving them encouraging notes: “I don’t want to see dancers…don’t think like dancers. I want to see people…” and “Remember, this is a dialogue between Mary, John the Baptist and Hyppolite” and “I want to see this expression: ‘Whoa! I’ve seen the Virgin Mary!’”
A few hours later, Mr. Holder and I are in a cab heading downtown to his SoHo residence. During the trip, he shared the backstory for the evolution of “The Prodigal Prince.”
“I met Judith Jamison when she stayed in our home. She had done a ballet with Carmen [Holder’s wife, Carmen de Lavallade, the acclaimed dancer, choreographer and actress] called ‘The Four Marys’ for the American Ballet Theatre. She was also working at the World Fair, and Carmen said she could stay with us in our home.” Geoffrey recounts. “I was in Paris. When I came back, she was there, and she was so gorgeous. She looked like a Jocometti sculpture. Very tall. And I’ll never forget. They were playing the music of The Supremes,” he said, singing “Baby, baby” you know, from “Where Did Our Love Go?” And she was just strutting around, and I said, ‘This lady has a wonderful body language.’”
Holder revealed that Jamison later became a member of the Ailey Company. “What happened was Miguel Godreau asked me, ‘Geoffrey, why don’t you do a ballet for the company?’” Consequently, Holder went and spoke with Alvin Ailey about doing a ballet about Hyppolite for the company with Miguel and Jamison as the lead dancers.
Holder had first learned about Hyppolite when he was in Puerto Rico for the first Caribbean Festival. He recollected: “The Haitians were incredibly wonderful. The dancers were incredible. I got exposed to the Haitian folklore and their art, and I found out who Hyppolite was and that he was one of the greatest painters.”
Subsequently, a woman came to dinner at Holder’s home. Holder picks up on the conversation that ensued that evening. “She said, ‘I just came from the Museum of Modern Art, and do you know who was there? Hector Hyppolite.’ And I said, ‘Oh really?’ ‘Yes. He was there all dressed in a white suit and a big crown on his head.’ I said: ‘A crown?’ And I said, ‘That’s a lovely image.’ And she said: ‘He was talking, and he said he dreamt he went to Africa. To make a living, he painted flowers on chamber pots.’
Abruptly switching from his colorful storytelling, Holder asked: “You get that? I mean that’s a piece of poetry! He was known for painting with a feather. One white feather. That, for me, is magical…a story for a fairy tale. Instead of the prodigal son, ‘Prodigal Prince.’ For me, he was royalty,” Holder continued. “And plus, he felt himself royalty because he wore a crown.”
Holder went on to create the ballet, which starred Jamison and Godreau.
“He is the most brilliant dancer I know. To me he surpassed Nureyev. He is a Puerto Rican man. Very petite and brilliant..” The ballet achieved world-wide success. “It went to Russia…Then after that, I hung it up and didn’t do it anymore.”
Jamison, who had by this time become the artistic director of the AADT, asked Holder to revive it again. “The very beautiful Brianna and talented Mathew Rushing were in the lead roles. They did it brilliantly, and again the ballet survived.”
That was 30 years ago. Then recently, Holder said to Jamison that he would like to do “Prodigal Prince” again as a salute to Haiti.
“Hector Hyppolite is a Haitian Picasso. And I love his collection,” declared Holder, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship Award. “I have a very big collection by Haitian painters. They are very inspiring. There’s a beautiful innocence about what they paint and what they do and what they see.”
Bringing in the aspect of Haitian folklore to his conversation, Holder, who was born in Trinidad shared: ” I respect Haitian folklore. I made my name in this country in a Broadway musical called ‘House of Flowers,’ which was set in Haiti.” The Truman Capote musical starred Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Alvin Ailey and Carmen DeLavallade, who Holder met during the production and married.
“I choreographed and I played the part of Baron Samedi, who is the god of life and death. “He brings you into the world and he takes you out,” Holder said about the character, which is based on the African religion called Voodun. “It was a big success for me, and then 30 years after that, I was called to do the same character in a movie called ‘Live and Let Die,’ which was James Bond with Roger Moore.”
Lingering on the subject of Samedi, Holder reiterated: He is life and he is death. We celebrate him on All Saints Day, you know the first of November, the Day of the Dead. In other cultures, like Mexico, you respect the dead. Switching back to Haiti, Holder exclaimed: Their material is so rich in folklore. It’s like that of Greek or ancient Africa, and they have not lost it, thank God.”
For information, schedule and ticket prices for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre 2010 season at New York City Center, visit www.alvinailey.org.