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.

That’s such an incredible story, Christian! You’re one of the few people who spent time with Tina during her marriage to Ike and through those initial years after she left him. What did you observe about how she navigated that transition, forging an identity and a life independent of Ike?

I saw two performances of Ike & Tina at the Waldorf Astoria, which was March 1976. She fled in July of 1976. I was at the table for the first show, went up to the suite, and then came back down for the second show. For the second show, I stood in the wings. There’s a door from which they came onto the main stage. I was standing there so I could see her semi-profile. I could see what she was presenting to the front and I could see her face when she turned upstage … and there was rage.

Right after that, there was a Long Island gig that was cancelled. I had a dress that I was going to send to her and I called Bolic Sound. I usually asked for [assistant] Rhonda Graam. “Oh Rhonda’s not with us anymore.” “Might Tina be there? This is Christian Holder.” “No, Tina isn’t with us anymore.” Oh, okay. A couple of months went by and I was getting sort of worried. It went on … this void of information. I read somewhere in one of the trades that she had been picked up for a traffic violation and there had been a gun in her purse. I thought, Tina? I didn’t know what was going on.

I’m at home on 75th Street and it’s evening. The phone rings. I pick up the phone. “Hi, Chris.” “Tina, are you okay?” “Yes, I’m okay. I don’t work with those people anymore, but I knew there would be some people that would be wondering about me.” I was one of those people. She called me to let me know that she was alright. Didn’t go into detail, just that she had left.

I said, “You’re gonna start from scratch. Do you need anything?” She said, “That’d be great Chris but I can’t pay.” I said, “Tina it’s not about that. Let me do what I can.” “Thank you Chris. If you ever need to get a hold of me, call Rhonda. This is Rhonda’s number. She’ll know where I am. She’ll always get the message to me. I’m okay, but say a prayer for me, okay?” That was the beginning of the next part of the journey.

I know that she was practicing Nicheren Buddhism. There’s a thing in the practice called “Actual proof”. That’s when one’s dreams come to fruition through application of the practice, and the result is visible and tangible.

She was very clear that she was not happy. She was very clear about her motherhood, that the children were in school, that she’d made a promise. She trusted me. She would pick my brain, especially after she saw me with the Joffrey at the Greek Theatre. She wanted to know how we traveled, did we travel with our own stage, did we travel with our lights? All of that.

The letters that I got from her as her star began to ascend? Extraordinary. Tina told me, “You know Chris, I would go to these big record executives and they wanted to know where Ike was because they thought that everything was Ike. They didn’t give me any credit. They’d say, ‘I’m afraid we can’t …’ I wouldn’t get angry. I wouldn’t get mad. I’d just say ‘Thank you very much’ and as I’d go out the door, I’d say to myself, I’m gonna prove them wrong” … and that’s what she did. God bless her. She triumphed.

Yes, there have been dues to pay. She’s lost her son Craig. There’s all of that, which I can’t even begin to imagine, but she has someone who loves her, unconditionally. She’s happy. She’s content and it’s what she calls, and what I see as, her nirvana.

Christian Holder
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

I know that Chita Rivera is someone who’s had a tremendous influence on you, as well. What was it about seeing Chita Rivera as Anita in West Side Story that lit a spark in you?

In West Side Story, you have “Something’s Coming” and then the bridal shop rolls on. It’s Anita and Maria. First of all, it was the way Anita sat. It was her presence. There hadn’t been the reveal of the fabulous costume yet. She had on an outer garment, a pinafore sort of thing. You could see bits of the lavender dress peaking through. I could see immediately that she had on sheer black stockings and, the way the feet were arranged, I could see the shoes were not the ordinary character shoes with the little heel. They were what was called “peau de soie” — silk skin. It had a certain sheen to it. Halfway through that, she takes off the outer garment and then you see the dress, that lavender color against her skin, the sheer black stockings, and the shoes, and the fringe, and all of that.

Then that set rolls off and Maria does the chaines across the stage. The ribbons come down and we’re in the dance at the gym. Chita begins to do the mambo. That was glorious. She just created a spell and I was swept in. It was about craft, it was about technique, it was about charisma. There wasn’t a moment that wasn’t thought out. I know now that’s her work with Jerry [Jerome Robbins]. It was so thorough.

My father took me backstage and we went to the dressing room, which was at Her Majesty’s Theatre. It was a beautiful, bright corner dressing room and her daughter Lisa was asleep. Chita was there and she signed my souvenir program, which I still have. In fact, I showed it to her when we got to know each other.

Chita came back in Bye Bye Birdie and then I saw her in New York in Bajour and Kiss of the Spider Woman, and then the cabaret performances, but it was the initial impact of West Side Story that just made me realize that I was hers forever.

I worked with Jerry so then that enabled me to understand the process that must have gone on with West Side that affected me so much. A lot of what I’m able to do now when I perform is Jerry. When [Jerome Robbins’] Ballets: U.S.A. came to London, I saw “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz”, “Interplay”, and “Moves”. I ended up doing all three of them in New York with the Joffrey. “Moves” is in silence. It’s a ceremonial exercise in weight, in the density of space, in controlling the audience’s reaction, in listening. Although there was no music, we had counts that we knew in our head, but when to start was actually just the subtle sound of a shoe on the stage. That would be our “one” and then we would all be together. The audience wouldn’t know how we were all together.

It was a fabulous exercise because, in those days, “Moves” had to be first on the program. Jerry wanted that because there were always latecomers, people rustling programs, and all that sort of stuff. Our challenge was, with that going on, to just pull the audience in with our concentration. There were several sections. He would say if they don’t applaud at the end of the section, you know you’ve done it really well because it’s not presentational. It’s not about that.

That approach is subtext for almost all the movement I do. That and seeing Martha Graham as a performer. With Martha, it was in her aura and you just couldn’t take your eyes off of her. Martha, Jerry, Kurt Jooss — those three people enable me to do what I do and then to siphon that through the lyric and the story that the song is telling so I can find my truth as a storyteller to enhance the lyric.

Christian Holder
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

In 1977, you performed a solo piece that Joffrey co-founder Gerry Arpino choreographed called “Touch Me”. It was set to a live recording of Reverend James Cleveland and the Charles Fold Singers. In the New York Times, Clive Barnes praised your “strength and ability to project a mystic sense of soul” (16 October 1977). I’d love to know the inception behind that piece.

[Laughs] How far back do I want to go? I’ll go all the way back. During the time that Joffrey wanted Michael Bennett to do a ballet for the company, Michael had initially thought that he would do a solo for Gary Chryst. Now, I had seniority on Gary. We were best of friends but I had seniority and I wasn’t okay with it, dammit! [laughs] I kept it quiet. It turned out that, in the interim, A Chorus Line hit, so the ballet was nixed. Michael didn’t have the time to do it. I thought, Oh dear, what a shame … [laughs]

Then Joffrey asked Gary if he would care to work with Gerry Arprino and Gerry would do a solo for him. Gary had been given a very tough time with a ballet called “Clowns”. God bless him, Gerry was good at putting sequins on headdresses and giving energy and how you exit into the wings … he was show biz. Most of the choreography was ours. He’d say, “Oh baby what was that step you did?” After a while, when you don’t get credit and the ballet is a hit, you think I don’t want to do that anymore, so Gary had reached that point and he declined.

I put a little cologne on. [laughs] I went up to Gerry. I said, “You know Gerry, I’d like to work with you.” “Oh really, baby?” That’s how the first solo in the Joffrey rep became mine. It was seduction and angling and manipulation and, for better or worse, I got it.

The season before, I had done a ballet with Gerry called “Orpheus Times Light” and I had played Pluto, the king of the underworld. Willa Kim was the designer. I was in a little sort of silver dance belt thing with some silver body paint, very exotic, beautiful headdress. It was crazy, with wriggling and moving and falling and getting up and all that sort of stuff. I’m surprised that a photograph of that wasn’t included in any of the After Dark issues. It was very Folies Bergère — looking fabulous with the brown skin and the silver highlights and the little g-string. It was fun so I did it.

I didn’t want the piece to be crazy, with silver and lashes again, so I said, “Gerry can it just be movement oriented?” “Oh, yeah baby. Yeah, yeah. Great!” Gerry wanted to use a gospel track because his assistant Jim Howell, who found all his music and suggested musical options, found the gospel track called “Touch Me”. Gerry’s idea was that it would be a sort of David Bowie character who would come off stage in his platforms and padded shoulders and lashes. He’d sit down at a dressing table and he’d start taking off his makeup and he’d be stripping down to his “real” self. While that happens, the gospel music comes on and he goes on a spiritual journey. It was getting off all the glitter, that glam rock stuff, and then hearing the spiritual and transforming into who he actually is inside, spiritually. That’s how it began.

The track is Black Baptist gospel. Now, I’m Church of England, so I don’t worship that way, so I had to find my truth. I can’t all of a sudden adopt that. I wanted it to be more truthful than just going where I thought people would want it to go, so I pulled it inside me. Yes, you have this Black American gospel going on but it’s deeper than that. I also was cognizant of the fact that it’s a Joffrey ballet — it’s not Alvin Ailey — so with everything that I did, I tried to have classical line.

Right before that, Judith Jamison had had this huge success with “Cry” and even though Gerry denied it, I knew that “Touch Me” was a male version of “Cry”. “Cry” is this big white skirt. Who’s going to design a big white something for me? Oh, my uncle Geoffrey. Okay, so Gerry asked Geoffrey and it was a glorious costume. Actually, there was more fabric in my costume than in Judy’s because they were culottes with accordion-pleated jersey for each leg, so it could really move.

I think it served me well. It was an eleven-minute solo. It was hard. I’m happy to have done it. The first performance was at the San Francisco Opera House.

Going back to W. 75th St., where you made those costumes for Tina, you lived just up the street from Nona Hendryx and Vicki Wickham, who managed Labelle. You’re one of the lucky audience members who saw Labelle perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1974 …

… And also, oh gosh, at the Continental Baths! The first time I saw them as Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles was at one of Murray the K’s extravaganzas at the Brooklyn Fox. Then in 1965/1966, they were at Ronnie Scott’s in London and Reginald Dwight — Elton John — was their pianist, so I was there for that.

Didn’t hear from them for a long time and then all of a sudden, Gonna Take a Miracle (1971) by Laura Nyro, came out. There’s Patti with a natural, and Nona and Sarah [Dash], and they’re singing all these fabulous songs. To hear Laura’s vocal and then Patti weaving around and up into the heavens and Nona’s voice is there on the bottom and Sarah … there were all of these different vocal nuances, just beautiful.

So, here we are at the Met. “Wear something silver” — absolutely. Several of us from the Joffrey went and it was just lovely. It was so warm. It was an experience, an event. What I remember from that was Sarah in this sort of silver bonnet, like a Salvation Army bonnet. All of a sudden there was a choir — and Sarah’s conducting it! Oh, it was so beautiful. Then there was the intermission. Vicki was there with Dusty Springfield. Went back for the end of the concert. It was fabulous.

I sort of knew Larry LeGaspi enough to say hi. He did all of their space outfits and things. With Patti, the shoes always had to come off. She was who she was. Nona was in this sort of Aubrey Beardsley-inspired outfit with handcuffs. Then Sarah with this voice … It was just this beautiful blend. They did their last concert and the next thing was Nona going rock ‘n roll. That was an uphill battle. If she’d been white doing that, it would have been fine. I remember on the cover of the first record, she had this dagger. Whoa!

I worked with Patti in House of Flowers (1991). It was directed by my uncle Geoffrey who asked me to recreate his original role in House of Flowers. Patti did the Pearl Bailey role, the main role of the madam. She was very sensitive and very vulnerable. I was Geoffrey’s assistant as well so he had me shadow her around singing the lyrics like a nano-second before she had to hit the note. Me singing the lyrics for Patti LaBelle? What’s wrong with this picture? She needed that until she really felt she could own it.