Christian Holder
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Master of Reinvention: An Interview with Joffrey Ballet Icon Christian Holder

Dance icon Christian Holder reflects on a career where reinvention is the key to his longevity, from designing for Tina Turner to singing Joni Mitchell and Marvin Gaye in his new cabaret show.

June 21, 1977 — Tina Turner has just read an interview with Christian Holder in the Los Angeles Times. The article spotlights Holder’s career as a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet as well as a choreographer and costume designer. Over the past four years, he’s created several stage ensembles for the singer, inspired by her routines with the Ikettes. Turner will derive inspiration from watching Holder perform an eleven-minute solo, “Touch Me”, during the Joffrey’s residency at the Greek Theatre the following week. His magnetizing movement turns swaths of fabric into a special kind of superpower.

“‘Touch Me’ was the first ballet that Tina saw me do,” Holder recalls 45 years later. “She came to the dressing room door on her knees because I had done the little bourrées on my knees. This was someone she knew and she was just really excited. She was seeing ballet dancers, she was seeing elegance, and then all of a sudden, in the middle, there was this Black dancer who was doing this whole thing with fabric. She was thrilled because Bob Mackie had just made her these showgirl wings and I was using the fabric in the same way. Tina was so inspired that she canceled the rest of her weekend and came to the Joffrey’s closing night when we did ‘Trinity’.”

“Trinity” and “Touch Me” were among the signature pieces that Holder performed during his tenure with the Joffrey from 1966-1979, a period he revisits in his cabaret show, Suite ’60s-Sweet ’70s. Trading bourrées for serenades, he reflects on his own personal and creative progression through those years with a set of pop, soul, and stage standards that underscore how Holder not only witnessed history, he helped make it, too. The Joffrey Ballet became the first classical dance company to create a rock ballet (“Astarte”), the first to incorporate multi-media in performance, and the first to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, all within Holder’s first two years as a Joffrey dancer.

“Watching Christian Holder was everybody’s dream,” declares Broadway veteran Jamie Patterson (Dreamgirls), who worked alongside several of Holder’s contemporaries, including Michael Bennett and Michael Peters. Ever since Holder first stepped onstage, critics, audiences, and fellow dancers have been struck by his commitment to creating a story through gesture and movement. Just shy of twenty years old, he won a rave review from New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff for the way he embodied “Death” in Kurt Jooss’ anti-war ballet “The Green Table”: “Mr. Holder’s debut here was impressive, with a proper feel for the changes required of his role … an indubitably strong performance” (26 February 1969). Two years later, New York Magazine described him as “lithe, tremendously powerful and totally individual” in “Mingus Dances”, a piece that Alvin Ailey choreographed for the Joffrey Ballet. “He dominates the stage whenever he is given solo work to do” (8 November 1971).

That same sort of praise has followed Holder for nearly six decades, and yet dance is but one facet of his boundless creativity. In recent years, he’s translated what he learned firsthand from master choreographers like Jerome Robbins and Martha Graham to his cabaret shows. “Holder succeeds in weaving a spell over his audience,” BritishTheatre declared after one of his earliest cabaret performances. “His ability to deliver truth and drama through song enables him to captivate an audience for nearly two hours and leave them wanting more” (17 May 2016).

Suite ’60s-Sweet ’70s arrives at a creatively fertile time for Holder, who returned to New York from London earlier in January to premiere the show at Feinstein’s/54 Below. It’s one of several projects that Holder has piloted through the unpredictable trajectory of a global pandemic. Last fall, he performed Piano & Song: A Celebration at the Pheasantry, wrote and directed Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act at Playground Theatre, and unveiled “New Horizons”, a solo exhibition of his artwork at Campbell’s of London. In between, he completed the text for Travels in Rhythm (2022), a beautifully illustrated compendium of artwork by his father Boscoe Holder, one of Trinidad’s foremost performers and visual artists, that will be published by Rosenstiels later this year. London audiences will get their own taste of Suite ’60s-Sweet ’70s when Holder brings the show to Crazy Coqs on 31 May.

The day after holding court at 54 Below, Holder met with PopMatters at Joe’s Pub (the Public Theater) where he re-traced his years in New York, from joining the Joffrey Ballet to soaking up the city’s nightlife, shared how legends like Tina Turner and Chita Rivera have made an indelible impact on his life and illustrated the different ways that reinvention has been the key to his longevity.

Let’s start with last night. It was your second time performing at 54 Below but your first time performing in New York since the beginning of the pandemic. How did you feel just before going onstage?

There’s all that sort of adrenaline that is needed to perform. It was wonderful because the show that I presented was actually scheduled for 2020, I believe, and then it got pushed back … and then it got pushed back! Finally, we got the green light, but then there was always this sort of amber light flashing: “Well, you don’t know …” There’s another variant, and then there’s another variant.

When it became pretty obvious that the venue was gung-ho, and they were just going to go ahead, I thought, Man up, get on with it. Throw it up to the universe and do it. Everything sort of fell into place.

Music’s been my entire life. Some of the things I’ve known since I was a child. My mother sang, etc. Now I have the opportunity to share it and it’s fabulous. It is just this love affair with the musicians. The concept starts in my head. Each show has been autobiographical because of the life I have led — it’s conducive to 100 different shows.

As you mentioned in your show last night, you moved to New York in 1964 to attend the Martha Graham School on scholarship while also attending High School of Performing Arts. You opened the show with a song that was all over the airwaves at that time, the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”. Of course, there’s no way you could have forecast when you began working on Suite ’60s-Sweet ’70s that Ronnie Spector would pass away only a week before your show. That song definitely held a special poignancy last night. I’d love to know what drew you to “Be My Baby” as a young teenager.

It’s sort of like opening a perfume bottle and the scent just wafts. I remember when I first heard it. It was in London. I was at my stage school. It was about the vibrato in the voice. You just get lost in her voice. Some voices you think “whisky and cigarettes”. Not her voice. It’s like cognac. There’s a mellowness and a warmth.

Then when I came to New York in 1964, there was “Walking in the Rain” and “Baby I Love You”. I remember Murray the K’s shows at the Brooklyn Fox. I would go with my guardian’s daughter, Pamela. We’d go down to Brooklyn on the express. We’d get a ticket and there would be all these acts, one after the other. They would only do maybe four minutes a piece. Maybe some of the bigger ones might do two songs. It was very vaudeville because Murray the K was such a ham. It was all schtick, but fabulous.

I remember the Ronettes coming on doing “Be My Baby”. They had on those Chinese cheongsams with the slit, the hair all the way up, and the mascara, and they were working the audience. I remember Ronnie was carrying on: “For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you … 24!”

Ronnie was just fabulous. I danced with her at one of the early discotheques, Ondine. She was at a table and they’re playing music. I asked her to dance. She said “Sure!” I’m there with Ronnie Spector! It was fabulous. God bless her.

Christian Holder
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

During your show, you performed “Walking in Space” and “What a Piece of Work is Man” from the musical Hair. We’re actually sitting in the Public Theater, where Hair premiered in 1967. You knew the show’s co-writer Jerry Ragni and the creative team behind that show. What were your first impressions of Hair?

It was so exciting because it was our generation. I wasn’t a hard-core hippie because I had a career, but peripherally I was in tune. Hair was beautiful. I saw it at the Biltmore. The voices, the points of view … it’s of its era. It was wonderful. I met Jerry after the show hit. He used to come see the Joffrey. We had friends in common. Sweet, sweet man — completely mad, but fabulous.

In 1979, you appeared in the film version of Hair directed by Miloš Forman. Twyla Tharp created new choreography for the film. How were you cast as one of the dancers in the trip sequence?

It was by accident! I hadn’t worked with Twyla yet. She had done ballets on the company [Joffrey]. I wasn’t in them. There was a dancer who favored me, a tall Black dancer. In the trip sequence, they had to leap over a trough. As they leaped over, there was pyrotechnics, so flames would shoot up, etc. The timing was off and he got third-degree burns, so he couldn’t continue.

Shelley Washington was assisting Twyla. She said, “Well, what about Christian? He looks like Christian. Call Christian.” I spent a day at Twyla’s studio, just learning combinations and things like that, and then I think it was like two days on the soundstage, which was shooting for Miloš Forman. I think maybe two and a half seconds is actually in the film!