J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Carmen & Geoffrey

He is instantly recognizable from the famous 7-Up “Uncola” campaign. She appeared in classic films like Odds Against Tomorrow and Carmen Jones, but frankly those are the least of their credits. Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder are the reigning royal couple of American dance, whom directors Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob pay just tribute to in their new documentary, Carmen & Geoffrey, which opens today in New York.

Most critics concede the Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical House of Flowers has not aged well, but its use of Caribbean-derived rhythms and choreography was considered innovative at the time. De Lavallade and Holder met as featured dancers in that 1954 Broadway production, which he also helped choreograph. The show would not last long, but their marriage is now in its fifth decade.

Both accomplished dancers and choreographers, the couple has collaborated with the likes of Alvin Ailey, Duke Ellington, and Josephine Baker. Jazz listeners are sure to enjoy the clips shown of de Lavallade’s signature piece, John Butler’s “A Portrait of Billie,” a beautiful tribute to the tragic vocalist Billie Holiday, perfectly suited to the sophisticated dancer.

Atkinson and Doob hit many of the couple’s considerable career highlights, including de Lavallade’s collaborations with Ailey and Holder’s Tony-winning triumph as the director, choreographer, and costume designer of the original Broadway production of The Wiz. Naturally, we see his lucrative commercials for 7-Up and a brief clip of his work as Punjab in John Huston’s Annie. It is all certainly informative and engenders tremendous respect for the power couple of the stage. Yet, even the hint of tribulation in their long, storied careers is notably absent in the documentary.

Now in her seventies, de Lavallade still performs on-stage at a level that could be described as superhuman. Also a painter whose work hangs on some of the walls of highly prestigious galleries, Holder still has numerous creative outlets. However, his days as a dancer, at least on-stage, are behind him. One might think that would have been difficult change to accept, but it remains unexplored in the film.

C&G is an informative celebration of its subjects, but it never shows any inclination to really try to delve beneath the surface. While scrupulously respectful, it never gives a sense of their personalities outside of the public spotlight, particularly in the case of the more reserved de Lavallade. Still, the filmmakers’ portrait is also somewhat refreshing, since it honors not just their artistic triumphs, but over fifty years of marital fidelity. C&G opens today in New York, at the Quad Cinema, with Holder and de Lavallade scheduled to appear for Q&A’s after the 6:00 and 800 screenings, tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday.

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