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.

The Joffrey Ballet addressed the changing social and cultural mores of the ’60s and ’70s in pieces like “Trinity” and “Astarte”. As a dancer, you reflected those changes during your time with the Joffrey. In your show last night, you explored that era as a singer with Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. Thinking back to the late-’60s and early-’70s, what kind of personal growth did you experience parallel to the cultural changes of that time?

Those really were my salad days. I was finding out who I was at that time and what I could do. I was always very confident. I knew I had something personal to offer. I knew that obviously there’s always a path to pursue and the pursuit is that of excellence, which you never really attain, but it’s about the journey.

I was 6’4″, I was Black. I was not someone who one would miss onstage, but then that’s also pressure because you have to make sure that you are immaculate, that you know that you are drawing people’s attention and gaze and focus, so you don’t get lost in the crowd.

I was lucky to have been chosen by Robert Joffrey because his vision included people like myself with that early company who were not necessarily the people you would find in American Ballet Theatre or the Bolshoi or the Royal. Joffrey didn’t have any sort of color preference. It was your talent. Timing is everything because I wouldn’t have gotten into American Ballet Theatre and I wouldn’t have gotten into New York City Ballet because Arthur Mitchell was already a leading dancer and I don’t think they would have wanted two [Black dancers]. Joffrey was the right place at the right time.

We were well-rounded, yes, in classical ballet, but there were also dancers who had more theatrical attributes and perhaps didn’t have the perfect classical physique. For instance, I could never have done Prince Siegfried in “Swan Lake”. I’m not someone who could have gone and been a guest artist at Christmas every year doing “Nutcracker” as the Prince. That wasn’t what I did.

In the old lexicon, I would have been called demi-caractère. I had technical ability. However, my theatricality led people to see that I could embrace other aspects of performing. I was a dancer whose everyday class and technique was classical ballet. I was what we called a “bun head”. Ballerinas wear their hair in a bun, so if you are “tunnel vision” ballet-oriented, you’re a bun head. It’s a term of endearment. I was a bun head, but I also had this wild side. I was a rock ‘n’ roller and I also went to the theater. I went to museums. I was moonlighting and taking jazz class, so I was at home with various styles of jazz dancing.

Of course with the Joffrey Ballet, there was this cross-pollination. I don’t think New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre dancers had the same cross-pollination but Joffrey was a pop-oriented company. We did 19th-century classics, we did all that, but [Joffrey] also commissioned people of the generation, people who were up-and-coming, or people who you wouldn’t have thought of as choreographers for ballet. We did rock ballets.

Because we had that edge, singers would come to see us, Andy Warhol would come to see us. We fed each other. We did a cubist ballet from 1917, “Parade” (1973). It had cubist sets and costumes by Picasso. The music was by Satie and the choreography was Leonide Massine. Mr. Massine was still alive. He came and he sat in on us. It had some really good PR, so there was a buzz about it. Bette Midler came to see it and in her next concert, she did a cubist number.

Christian Holder
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

There’s a writer and dancer in Los Angeles named Ken Anderson who recalls seeing a portrait of you in a March 1971 issue of After Dark magazine that made an impact on him as a young Black gay man. He wrote that “After Dark‘s closeted/open queerness was the single source by which I was able to access my sexuality and identity as a creative individual”. He said After Dark didn’t feature many Black artists in its pages, so Jack Mitchell’s portrait of you was one of the magazine’s few images of an eroticized male that wasn’t white. Describe your experience in creating such an open and empowering expression of sexuality, especially within the platform of After Dark.

I was thinking sculpturally. It’s about the musculature, it’s about the muscles through the body, the light on the skin. I wasn’t thinking of being sexually alluring or anything like that. I’m thrilled that it had that effect, but that wasn’t my intent. I mean, I was aware that it would be perceived that way, certainly, but that wasn’t where I was coming from.

It was a different time. There was always voyeurism, but there was an innocence to it. With After Dark, everybody had their nude photographs. You had your session, you had your dance photographs, you had your headshot, and then, okay let’s do some nudes. Kenn Duncan also did some of me, which I love. And of course, there was being commercially astute: “Oh, this could get me into After Dark“. Bill Como, who was the editor of After Dark, was also the editor of Dance Magazine. He was also a friend of Mr. Joffrey. There was all of that going on: how can this reflect well on my career and on my relationship with these people?

It’s inspiring to consider how a young boy could look at that photo and feel a special kinship with you at such an early age. Representation makes a difference.

This might be hard to understand but I never really thought of myself in terms of color. I was Christian Holder and this is the package. I mean, I was proud of who I was. I knew my heritage, all of it, but that was not an issue. People often ask, to this day, “Do you know my friend Christian Holder? He was a fabulous dancer in the ’70s in New York.” Then people say, “Was he in Dance Theatre of Harlem or Alvin Ailey?” Immediately it’s that. Those companies are superb; it’s just that they’re not where I danced. The constant assumption really began to cloy after awhile.

In your show, you sing “What I Did For Love” and pay tribute to Michael Bennett who directed and choreographed A Chorus Line. You share a story of him teaching a jazz class with the Joffrey and him saying, “Christian, you’ve got to make me want to work with you”. What do you recall about the circumstances around that exchange?

I had known Michael. By that time, he had choreographed Company. He’d done brilliant work. I had been to his apartment for dinner. He had an apartment on West 55th St., literally x amount of yards away from the front of City Center theater on West 55th St., which was the Joffrey Ballet’s home. Literally, you could walk out the front door, turn right, go for a while, and there was Michael’s building.

Mr. Joffrey had hoped that Michael would create a ballet for the company. He invited him to teach some jazz classes down at the Joffrey school, which was on Sixth Avenue and Tenth St., 434 Sixth Avenue. Michael had seen me dance with the Joffrey dozens of times, but then there were ballet dancers in the company that hadn’t studied jazz. He didn’t know many of the other dancers.

I was a senior dancer in the company. Some of the others danced as if their life depended on it. I was doing it, but I wasn’t hungry because I knew he knew me. Michael called me aside. He did it very discreetly. He said, “Christian, what’s up? Why are you marking? You’ve got to make me want to work with you.”

It was what I needed to hear. I was being a little blasé and he just wasn’t having it. [laughs] I sucked it up. He knew he had done his part. It was wonderful, but he never did the ballet for the Joffrey because A Chorus Line took off and the whole ball game changed.

Christian Holder
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

You’d mentioned earlier about how Mr. Joffrey would bring in other choreographers to create a more rounded repertoire. In 1971, Alvin Ailey choreographed “Mingus Dances” for the Joffrey, based on the work of Charles Mingus. How would you distinguish Ailey’s work as a choreographer from other choreographers that you had worked within the Joffrey at that point?

[sighs] It’s multi-faceted. I knew Alvin because my aunt, Carmen de Lavallade, was the reason he began dancing. He’d also done a beautiful ballet called “Feast of Ashes” (1962) for the Joffrey when the Joffrey was sponsored by Rebekah Harkness.

“Mingus Dances”, for me, was difficult. Obviously, I’m Black, I was a Black dancer, but my background being British, my personal history is very different from African American history. Yes, I was in New York. I was there during civil rights, but I was a guest in the country. It wasn’t my country. It’s sort of like I was looking in through the window, if that makes sense, because I hadn’t paid those dues. When I was a child growing up in London, when Lena [Horne] and Eartha [Kitt] and Sammy Davis, Jr. and Abbey Lincoln came — they all knew my father — I was just aware that there was this rage and I didn’t understand it at the time because I hadn’t lived that.

When we got to do “Mingus Dances”, Alvin was very much aware that I was a Black dancer in a predominantly white company. He wanted the legs up there and ten pirouettes, etc. That’s not how I approached the work, but that’s what he wanted. Then Charlie Mingus came in and of course he didn’t know who I was, so he’s seeing a young Black dancer in a white company and he fixes me with this stare. There was pride in that stare. I understood it, but my subtext was not his.

The section that I did was a Black man — young, innocent — with a white woman on pointe with this big peacock feather headdress. She would step over him and crush him to the ground. It was understood that I represented Alvin, and my partner represented Rebekah Harkness. I did it and I did my best.

Alvin had a tough time. He couldn’t finish the ballet. It hadn’t been a great experience. He was yelling. He was venting. We were working till eight o’clock and by now it was quarter to eight and he didn’t have the end of the ballet. The ballet was to have its premiere in two days’ time. Mr. Joffrey came in and he sat down by Alvin. If I remember correctly, Joffrey created the final tableau and the ballet was finished. Alvin dissolved into tears, sobs. It’s five past eight. We all picked up our dance bags. We left him in the studio with his head in his hands, Joffrey cradling him.

“Mingus Dances” premiered in November 1971. Earlier that year, however, you saw a show that changed your life — the Ike & Tina Turner Revue at Carnegie Hall. Take me back to the experience of seeing Ike & Tina for the first time.

[laughs] Oh! How long do we have? There are just those moments when it’s an epiphany.

There’s a prelude to that, which goes back to my youth in London. I received a 45 from a friend who had a friend who worked at Radio Luxembourg, which was one of the first pirate stations. He had all these surplus 45’s and one of them was Ike & Tina Turner. It was “A Fool in Love” (1960). That was gutbucket R&B.

When did “Bold Soul Sister” come out? 1969. I went to this club in LA after a show and I heard it. It was irresistible. There was a Joffrey production assistant there. His name was Jay Stover. He said, “That’s Ike & Tina!” “Oh, really? I know the name.” “You’ve never seen them live?” I said, “No, I’ve never seen them live.” I might have seen them on television off and on. “Oh my gosh! She’s the whole act. Next time they’re in New York, we’ll get a ticket. I’ll take you. You have to see her live.”

We go. It’s Carnegie Hall. We’re sitting way up in the balcony, the very top. The band is late. Fats Domino is the opening act and he’s in purple sequins with a big pompadour, with a grand piano. He’s playing boogie woogie. His big exit was that on each downbeat, he’d bump the grand piano across the stage. The house was going crazy.

The group hadn’t arrived and everyone’s like [chants] “Ti-na! Ti-na!” Through the grapevine, we heard that their plane was late but now they’re in the building. The Kings of Rhythm came onstage, these big guys. They had on suede vests with fringe. They had on hot pants over pantyhose, and moccasins with fringe, big newsboy caps — tam o’shanters — with their Afros underneath that.

And the show began! The Ikettes came on. It was Esther, Edna, and Jean in white halter minis with fringe and the wigs going. They opened with “Piece of My Heart” with Esther doing the lead. They went into “Everyday People” — they were doing popcorn. Gorgeous! When they go into “Shake a Tail Feather”, the whole house starts to come down. Fabulous. The Ikettes exit and then you have Ike coming on, and he leads the band in a blues shuffle. Ike’s there looking mean!

Then the band leader does his intro: “Ladies and gentlemen, the hardest-working young lady in show business today, Miss Tina Turner!” And then she comes out. Oh my! We’re way up and she looks like this little golden mosquito. The voice was so electric. I couldn’t tell where Ike’s guitar left off and where her voice began. For me, the heavens opened up. I just knew this was going to be an important person in my life.

We had tickets for the second show, but I was too emotional. I had to leave. We went to a bar called Tamberlane and as I walked through the door they were playing [Ike & Tina’s] “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter”. I said, “Okay, this is a sign!”