From 1986: Geoffrey Holder truly is an un-common man

SHARE From 1986: Geoffrey Holder truly is an un-common man

His deep voice ripples like the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Its West Indian rhythms conjure thoughts of mangoes and rum, coconuts and steel drums, and the warm breeze that floats through palm trees. And then there’s that teasingly demonic laugh — the one with a touch of voodoo magic.

You probably know him as “the Un-Cola Man” — the very large brown man (as he describes himself) in the dashing white suit and Panama hat. His real name is Geoffrey Holder. And he’s a prime example of how, in this strange world, a winning television commercial can bring greater glory than a lifelong pursuit of higher art.

Holder has no time to worry about such contradictions. As the dancer, choreographer, actor, director, painter, costume designer (and noted cook) observes: “I enjoy doing everything I do — or else I wouldn’t do it. I hate people who do things and then complain about them. Commercials are an art. They’re very difficult, and I work very hard on them. And meanwhile I do everything else.”

The “everything else” includes photography. Last week, Holder was in Chicago to talk about his book, “Adam” (Viking, $29.95), his first collection of published photographs. The large format art book contains a series of abstractions of the male body, based on the theme of the creation of man. They were inspired by the choreography in “The Blues and the Bible: The Creation,” a ballet Holder made several years ago for the World Festival of the Arts.

“I saw Adam as a flower, a tulip,” says Holder , “with his head curled earthward, slowly unfolding — a foot rising suddenly out of an egglike shape.” As he talks, the 6-foot-6-inch Trinidadian sculpts the air with his hands to describe the shapes he tried to capture. “I started with that egglike shape and began to see how the body of man would open up and out, flower into space.”

“After I finished the ballet, I was so taken with the forms the dancers made in it that I decided to photograph them,” Holder explains. “Of course the ballet was not done nude. And once I decided to do this project I began searching for other Adams, in addition to Kenneth Ard, the Broadway dancer who had originally starred in the ballet. I have a lot of friends with good bodies. Most of them have the natural black body — great shoulders, small waists, good buns, great legs and stomachs like scrub boards — with all these muscular formations. They’re not weightlifters, and many of them are not even dancers. I just see these great bodies all the time and I love to record them.”

Only one photograph in “Adam” reveals the face of the model. “If I had shown faces,” Holder explains, “it would have been sexier. But these photographs are not about sex. They’re about the architecture of the body, and the use of the body as landscape. If you look at the shapes of the body in strange ways, they can become abstract forms. The armpit, for example, turns into a mountain or a cave.”

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The “Adam” photographs are in black and white, but, as Holder notes, “There’s a rhythm to black-and-white photographs that gives them a feeling of color. I try to convey that color sense through skin tones, which can seem warm or light or simply alive with color, especially when you’re photographing someone with black skin. A black man has a sculptural quality — like black marble.”

The single photograph of a face that comes at the end of the book is prefaced by a quote from the book of Job: “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble.”

“My father always used to say that, and it sounded like the blues to me,” says Holder . “And I thought that was the right place to finally show a face.”

“My next book will be about Lilith, Adam’s first wife,” says Holder. “Not many people know about her, but she was the first women’s libber. Then I want to do Eve, and Cain and Abel. The Bible is a great book for ideas.”

In the introduction to “Adam,” Holder writes: “We’re all searching for somebody else’s soul, waiting for that moment when we can record it.” That, Holder says, is his key to taking good photographs. “When someone is posing for a photograph or a painting, they come to the studio all dressed up, trying to fit their own image of themselves. But as you begin to photograph them or draw them, and they get settled in the chair, the true self comes out. They get wrapped up in their own world — and that’s the moment I search for. It comes through their eyes. You see it in great paintings — in Modigliani’s paintings of women — where he shows you, through the eyes, that they are not lonely but alone with themselves. A good photographer aims for that. It’s easy to turn on a smile and flirt with the camera, but if a photographer is clever, he waits for that certain moment of truth between the smiles.”

“I like photographs of myself, and it doesn’t have to do with ego,” says Holder. “I’m contented with any way I look. I love the photo of me that’s on the book jacket, taken by Kenn Duncan. The day he took it, he was shooting pictures of my wife, Carmen de Lavallade. It was a great session, and as it was ending I picked up my black cape. I said, ‘Kenn, just for the record, take some quick photos of me with my cape.’ So I threw it around me and he got my spirit. Basically I am a very contented man. I have something inside me that’s always going; I feed myself with my own juices. And Kenn caught that.” (Carmen de Lavallade, the beautiful modern dancer and actress, choreographed a piece for the recent Chicago’s Better Boys Foundation benefit, featuring the Bears’ Willie Gault in his dance debut. Holder designed the whimsical quilted outfits worn by Gault and the kids in the show.)

Born in Trinidad in 1930, Holder began dancing at age 7, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Bosco, from whom, he says, he got all his talent. ” My environment, my home, was incredibly rich — talent oozed out of my parents and my brother. My father, who was a great supporter of the family, bought us a piano, and that was very important. Daddy was also a beautiful painter, and I would steal his paints.” (Holder has been a Guggenheim Fellow in painting.)

Throughout Holder ‘s childhood and adolescence, dancing and painting compensated for the shyness caused by a severe stammer. Photography became part of his creative repertoire when he realized that painting was too slow. “My brother had a dance company, and the members of it were so beautiful — Indians, Chinese, Portuguese — dancers with marvelous bodies,” he recalls. “I wanted to paint all of them, but the camera could record their beauty immediately.”

As a teenager, during World War II, Holder danced with his brother’s company and often performed for the Americans stationed in Trinidad. The job gave him access to hard-to-get copies of Life magazine, with its treasured photographs by Arnold Newman and Margaret Bourke-White.

Trinidad was a British colony, and most Trinidadians went to England for their higher education, rather than the United States. When Holder reached college age, he recalls, “I told Daddy, ‘I don’t want to go to school anymore; save your money. I know what I want.’ And Daddy said ‘OK boy, go ahead.’ ” So Holder got a government job — as a clerical assistant on the wharves — and eventually started to do portraits of all the people who passed through his office. “They were all vain, so I tickled their fancy and tried to make them look like movie stars,” Holder writes in the introduction to “Adam.”

When his brother left for London to start a dance company, Holder took over the Trinidad ensemble. It had a great success at the first Caribbean Festival in Puerto Rico, and in 1953, at the invitation of choreographer Agnes deMille, Holder arrived in New York to audition for impressario Sol Hurok. Hurok didn’t like his work, but within two months, producer Saint Subber snapped him up and promised him a role in a Broadway show.

That show turned out to be the legendary 1954 Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical “House of Flowers,” which featured Pearl Bailey, Alvin Ailey and Diahann Carroll, who was making her debut. “That’s also where I met Carmen, my favorite wife,” says Holder, beaming. “I have had only one, for 32 years.”

“My history from that point on is very rich,” Holder says. “Carmen became prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera and I joined the company the year after while she was away having our son, Leo. He is now 29, and we use him as our ‘third eye,’ which is the biggest respect you can give your kid.”

Holder went on to direct and costume the Broadway musical “The Wiz” (for which he won two Tony awards) and to work in such films as “Live and Let Die,” “Dr. Doolittle” and “Annie” (as the exotic Punjab). He’s now involved in two new projects. The first is a musical version of “Phantom of the Opera” — the classic Grand Guignol-style tale of a disfigured man who hides behind a mask, abducts the prima donna of the Paris Opera and takes her to his lair in the city’s sewers. Scheduled to see the light early next year on Broadway, the big $5 million production — which still needs backers — will have a book by playwright Arthur Kopit and a score by Maury Yeston (of “Nine” fame). Holder will direct, choreograph and design the costumes. Of the other production of “Phantom,” being done by Andrew Lloyd Webber in London, Holder says: “I couldn’t care less. I mean, there can be five ‘Romeo and Juliets’ can’t there?”

He’s also trying to raise money for an independent film he hopes to direct. It’s a new version of the ancient Greek story of Electra, to be called “Voodoo Tragedy” — set in Haiti, during the Haitian Revolution of the early 1800s.

Ironically, of all his credits, Holder seems most proud of his Clio Award-winning commercials for BWIA (British West Indies Airline) and 7-Up — perhaps because they were the ultimate proof that he conquered his speech problem.

“I always tell the copy writers, ‘Don’t give me a lot to say, but when I say it, I want to be able to seduce them with the product.’ And that’s why they’ve been successful,” Holder says.

It all began with radio commercials for BWIA — ads that “caught fire.” When Holder was first asked to audition for the job he realized BWIA was the airline that had gotten him to New York in the early ’50s — providing him and another member of his dance company with free tickets. “I felt a sense of gratitude, but I asked them what they were going to say about my country, because I’m always very protective of it. Then I began to describe my island for them: How marvelous it was at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when you can see pink flamingos flying over the sunset to go back to Venezuela. The writer picked up on this. He was clever enough to get my lingo and the timbre of my voice, so the script sounded as if it came right out of my mouth. And I had a wonderful director who told me how to play with the words.” That success eventually led to an invitation to do the 7-Up commercial. It was Holder who came up with the idea of wearing a white suit, Panama hat and turquoise scarf (to suggest the color of the Caribbean). He also suggested that he should “sit back on a lovely wicker chair and be very grand, like the host of my island.” Then he read the script. “It was charming, but it didn’t have a punch line. So I asked if I could laugh at the end. I tried it, and the laugh caught fire.”

Holder ‘s stammer actually disappeared many years before his forays into the world of commercials. “When I first came to the U.S., I was invited to sit in on a symposium,” he recalls, “and I found myself listening to a lot of professors saying all this rubbish about the Caribbean and Africa. One of them started talking gibberish about my country and the Caribbean mentality — all those cliches about the rum-and-Coca-Cola, happy-go-lucky mentality. And I took it as an insult. I said: ‘No, no. You’re very wrong.’ I had never spoken like that before. But there were a hundred people in the room and I had to stand up and explain why I objected. It was the first time I had spoken out with my own private truth, and I never stammered again. I guess I just shocked myself out of it.”

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