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.

In 1983 Michael Jackson emerges as a fixture on MTV, especially with “Beat It”, which Bob Giraldi directed and Michael Peters choreographed. They were also behind the video for Diana Ross’ “Pieces of Ice” (1983), which featured you among the dancers. I’d love to know the experience of being brought in for that video and working with Michael Peters.

Michael was one year ahead of me at Performing Arts. We were really good friends. Two years ahead of me was Ben Vereen, so the lineage was quite wonderful. I’d known Michael all this time, then Michael worked with Lester Wilson for awhile and then went off to Europe and came back. He’d done Dreamgirls (1981) and then he was about to do “Thriller” and “Beat It”. He had a name.

Michael got the gig to work with Diana Ross. He knew Margo Sappington. We were his posse, so he asked us to be in “Pieces of Ice”. It was about these wild animals with the masks depicting which animals we were, so I was a black leopard. The lead animal in the video was Vince Patterson. Vince went on to become Michael’s assistant and also choreographed “Smooth Criminal”. The eyes lit up when we had the masks on, so it was this menagerie, coming out of doorways and hallways and cracks in the wall. Diana’s hallucinating. She’s having this fantasy about the fellow who is the wolf in the white.

That was when we first worked with Bob Giraldi who was the director. I think we did the music rehearsals at SIR Studio and then I think the soundstage was Astoria, Queens. We did it in probably one day. We went until five in the morning. Diana would say, “Mama’s gotta take off these shoes because these dogs are barking!” [laughs]

Diana was due to do the Central Park performance and so she thought that would be a good place to promote the single. By that time, Vincent wasn’t available so then David Warren Gibson, who’s also blond, became the wolf. It was just the boys. The first night we got rained out. We were all worried about the electrical equipment because she was drenched. She got fabulous reviews and then of course she wanted it to be just her — a solo show. Michael went into her trailer and raised hell. He said, “These guys have worked too hard. It’s my choreography and I have the contract …” and so we did it but he had to fight for that.

After that, Bob Giraldi also did a video with Barry Manilow called “Read ’em and Weep” (1983). Gary Chryst choreographed that with Wayne Cilento and I was in it. Then we did the Jermaine Jackson/Pia Zadora video, “When the Rain Begins to Fall” (1984), choreographed by Margo for Bob Giraldi. There are two versions of that video. The longer of the two has extended scenes. We filmed that in Sperlonga, Italy. The auditions were at Cinecittà in Rome. Sperlonga is a gorgeous Saracen town. It was “off season”, so we had full reign of the one and only hotel, the bar, and the empty streets.

In an interview with the San Francisco Examiner in 1981, you said, “When a dancer reaches 40, it’s time to think about putting the body away. I intend to be prepared for that day.” What happened when you actually reached 40?

My life began. 30 was challenging because I was in class, out of class. I had left the Joffrey, I was designing costumes. Up until ’86, I was still designing for Tina. I was designing for Peter Allen. I began designing for Phylicia Rashad. I was choreographing. I was in shape, out of shape. The phone would ring, I would get back into shape. That’s when the injuries started. When you’re in your 30’s, that’s when the body starts to change. Gravity takes over. I had to change or adapt what I wore for ballet class because I could no longer wear a cinched-in waist. It had to be just above the hip bone because the shape had changed. [laughs] It was a different body.

Luckily, I wore several hats. I was teaching. I was in Italy and then I came back. Then in 1984, I went back to the Soviet Union. It was during perestroika. I was there with Grover Washington, Jr. and a ballerina from American Ballet Theatre, Susan Jaffe and Karen Akers, who’s a cabaret singer. We all went as a package. It was a State tour. I also did some acting. There was a repertory theater called AMAS, which was run by Rosetta LeNoire on 104th Street. I did a show called Bingo! which was about the Black baseball player, the American colored baseball league, so that was a musical.

By the time I was 40, mid-’80s, that was sort of difficult because that would have been the Reagan era. Everything was beginning to be very mercenary. As a freelancer, it was very difficult to get a foothold and that’s when I realized that I was not comfortable anymore in my 75th Street flat because I thought I couldn’t really network and say, Hi, come over for drinks. It was a funky flat. I wasn’t comfortable doing that.

I’d already started figuring out what’s the next step? It took some time, in fact, like fifteen years. Because my repertoire was so specialized, I couldn’t just go and do “Swan Lake” or “Sleeping Beauty”. I could do the occasional thing that was part of my Joffrey rep. I played Drosselmeyer in “The Nutcracker” in Minneapolis but that’s one or two things a year and to have to get in shape and stay in shape for that is very difficult.

Moving back to London, coming home to my spiritual home, that was when everything started. That’s when the person who had been in New York in the ’70s, unbeknownst to me, was now the manager of a cabaret venue and said, “Oh you should do one of my shows”. To think it’s blossomed into this? It’s fantastic.

Christian Holder
Christian John Wikane with Christian Holder / Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

2022 marks the 90th anniversary of a piece that you became closely identified with during your time with the Joffrey Ballet, Kurt Jooss’ “The Green Table”. He first presented it in Paris in 1932 and then the Joffrey Ballet became the first American company to perform “The Green Table” in 1967. In subsequent performances, you danced the role of “Death”, which Jooss himself had performed in 1932. A New York Times review from 1975 exclaimed, “Christian Holder is outstanding, capturing the weight and drive of the movement to suggest an inexorable pitilessness”. What process did you go through to become Death?

That was sacred. I inherited the piece from a wonderful dancer called Maximiliano Zomosa, who was in the Joffrey. He had chosen me to inherit the role. He taught me the role. He actually gave me his boots, because “Death” wears boots. I was basically doing what Max did and he allowed me to own it. Max committed suicide. We didn’t know that he was going to choose to exit like that.

There was also Michael Uthoff. His father had danced with the Jooss Ballet and he had created the role of the standard-bearer. Michael, in the Joffrey, was recreating the role that his father had originated. Max died and we were scheduled to go to London. I’d been doing it for two or three years. Kurt Jooss came because he wanted to see the new cast. We called him “Papa Jooss”. He was like Father Christmas: fine, white curly hair, jowls, and just an old-school gentlemen. He liked me.

I’m basically a very light mover. I’m quick and agile, in spite of my height. We were working on “The Moor’s Pavane” around the same time, which is also heavy, so I had to work on that. It’s really challenging. It’s 30 minutes and by the end of it, you are just gutted.

Before I went on stage, I would say a prayer for Max to be with me, to get me through the performance. When Papa Jooss died — he died in 1979 — I would include him in the prayer. I swear they were with me and they got me through the performance.

After Jooss died, Papa Jooss’ daughter Anna Markard was loyal to me, so I started guesting. I did it in Louisville, Kentucky, I did it in Helsinki and Torino. My last “Green Table” was in Essen, which is where the ballet was created. That was in 1986. I can’t say that I miss it but it fed me and it’s sacred. Papa Jooss is still with me. Max is still with me.

There are lessons to learn in things like that that affect my performance today — gesture, economy, stillness — and also working with Jerome Robbins on “Moves”, which was bringing the audience into you, not going out into the audience. Shifting weight, having the nerve, the guts, to just dare the audience to fidget, all of that in this big void, which is thick. It’s not empty space.

You carry an incredible legacy with you, not only in your own accomplishments but also the legends who informed your work over the years.

Gwen Verdon said something to Donna McKechnie when Fosse died. People were giving condolences. She said, “You have to understand, Donna. We keep them alive in our hearts. They’re alive in our hearts.” And they are. All of these people, especially anyone who’s lived through the ’80s and ’90s, with the AIDS crisis and all the people we’ve lost … Michael Bennett, Joffrey, Alvin [Ailey] … they had so much more to offer. Theirs are the shoulders on which I stand and I’m cognizant of that. It’s a privilege and an honor to not just let it drift by the wayside. This has informed who I am, so whatever I do, they are a part of that. That’s how I look at that, so it’s ongoing. It’s the only way to make sense of it.

The first time when I was teaching ballet, there’d be these youngsters coming in. “Mr. Holder, you wouldn’t know me but remember we had a morning matinee in Boise, Idaho? There was a matinee for kids. I was in the audience and that’s why I started dancing — because of you.” To think that I’ve touched other people’s lives and helped them along the way on their path … What do you say to that?

Let’s end where we began: 54 Below. Though you performed Suite ’60s—Sweet ’70s at 54 Below, you spent many nights upstairs at Studio 54 back in the ’70s. Having experienced so much New York nightlife, what place did Studio 54 occupy for you versus other clubs?

It was a culmination of several years of partying — and the music. Always the music! There were all these incarnations of dance music. Initially, you would go to clubs and there would be DJs, or a jukebox if you’re really in the Styx. The songs might be in the same groove but it wasn’t a mix. You had the Sanctuary where the DJ was in the pulpit. I remember [Rolling Stones] “Sympathy for the Devil” with that intro. Then you had Merry Clayton singing on “Gimme Shelter”. There was that. Then there was Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, Dr. John, Sly & the Family Stone, you had all of that going on as well. It was also the beginning of the Jackson Five. It kind of crossed racial boundaries.

There was a club called the Tenth Floor, which was on the tenth floor, and very often the elevator was broken, so you’d walk up to the tenth floor in your three-inch heels, but it was worth it. The Tenth Floor I believe had a dance floor that lit up not unlike “Billie Jean”, if I remember correctly. I don’t think it’s because of what I was on — I think it really lit up! There was Le Jardin, which had the waiters in tank tops and shorts. Le Jardin is when I first heard some of Isaac Hayes and Barry White. You had the Three Degrees’ “When Will I See You Again”. The harmonies were beautiful, just really lovely. I consider all that early disco.

Then came the Loft, for me. Bob Talmage, who was one of the movers and shakers at the Joffrey company, was a member of the Loft. We would watch Saturday Night Live first, get our heads together — or apart! — and then we would trot on over to the Loft so by that time it’s 1:30 a.m., quarter to two. You’d approach and you would hear the woofers. The excitement would start. The line is around the block and then slowly you’d go inside the front door and then you’d have to file upstairs. There was a table on the first landing where you showed your membership card and they either stamped your hand or gave you a bracelet. The music’s getting louder and so then you’d get up to the actual level of the Loft space. There’s the coat check. If you were knowledgeable, you knew when you handed in your coat to ask if there were any “party favors” tonight. If there were party favors, they’d press something into the palm of your hand and you’d pop it into your mouth.

At around four o’clock in the morning, when the walls are sweating and everyone is just hovering up towards the ceiling, Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” came on. We’re all waiting for that [sings] “ah ha baby what cha ya say to that”! Everyone just screams and the whole place just levitates … what a moment!

That same record was also very much part of Paradise Garage. That was hardcore disco. The mixes were so deft. All of a sudden you’re hearing this melody: “Isn’t that …?” You just didn’t know what it was. When Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (1976) hit, that entire album was played at 12 West. You heard samples of “Whispering” on “Cherchez La Femme”. How many other people in the club would know what “Whispering” was? It was just fabulous. Cory Daye was the crest of that wave.

We were Manhattanites. We had our little Elsa Peretti hearts and our Elsa Peretti sterling silver razor blades that we’d use [for cocaine] in the bathroom. We had all that, especially when you went to Flamingo, which was mostly white gym bunnies but fabulous music. What would happen is that some of the guys would bring in female models or girlfriends, etc. You’d have that and then they would have straight guys who knew that there were girls there, so then they would come. Then it became “bridge and tunnel”, so the whole ambience would change. Everyone would sort of clutch their pearls and vanish and go to a different club because it was the hoi polloi.

By the time Studio 54 happened, it was the beginning of the end because then disco was commercial. Studio 54 was the place to be and it was fun and fabulous parties, extraordinary parties. I always got into 54, but by the time you had Saturday Night Fever, you knew it was the end. Punk had begun!

As I’m crafting these shows, the mind is sort of a computer and you have all these files. Some are on floppy discs! [laughs] The information is all there and it’s like revisiting old friends, people who have touched your life. It’s wonderful.