BWW Interview: Christian Holder Gets Ready to Bring AT HOME AND ABROAD to Laurie Beechman Theatre
Christian Holder is heading to the Laurie Beechman Theatre!
On Friday, November 1, the venue will welcome the star for an intimate and elegant evening spotlighting Christian's vivid theatrical life in London and New York. His autobiographical performance features songs by Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Paul McCartney, Sting, Annie Lennox, and Al Green. These are interwoven with personal and surprising anecdotes and stories that illuminate the musical material. Christian was a star dancer with The Joffrey Ballet in New York in the 60s and 70s. He has choreographed and designed costumes for ballet companies across the US and Europe, as well as designing stage wardrobe for Ann Reinking and Tina Turner.
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BroadwayWorld's Richard Ridge chatted with Holder ahead of his show to find out what audiences can expect. Find out below!
You are about to return to New York with your show At Home and Abroad. How did the concept originally come about?
Well, I have been on stage since I was four, and music has always been at the center of my existence. When I began my cabaret performances four years ago in London, people only knew about my having had a career as a dancer with The Joffrey Ballet. So, I devised an autobiographical way to introduce myself, through song and narration, to my new audience.
How did you choose the great songs that you use?
They are songs that my father, Boscoe Holder, played; or that my mother, Sheila Clarke, sang. Or songs that are evocative of certain periods of my life. They are all songs that have a personal resonance for me.
What can the audience expect?
There will be songs by a vast cross-section of composers: Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Sting, Annie Lennox, Al Green, Stephen Sondheim, Vernon Duke, Paul McCartney, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. A couple of them have been personalized to further the narrative of my story.
You have quite a varied career working onstage and behind the scenes. You were a star dancer with The Joffrey Ballet here in New York in the 60's and 70's. You got to work with some of the greatest choreographers including Jerome Robbins and Agnes De Mille. What were those years like and how did those great masters help shape you into who you have become?
They were fabulous, seminal years. When I arrived in New York from London Gwen Verdon was about to open in Sweet Charity, Sammy Davis Jr was in Golden Boy. There was Motown at its peak, and the English Invasion (the groups I loved as a Mod in London were now there in New York with me). I was on scholarship at the Martha Graham School whilst attending the High School of Performing Arts (in the Dance Department's ballet group) - all this before being invited to join the Joffrey Ballet. I took jazz class with Jaime Rodgers, Jo Jo Smith, Lester Wilson and Miguel Godreau. I wore bespoke bell-bottom jazz pants and Cuban heels for class, no less. We turned it out in those days!!
At the Joffrey, working with Jerry Robbins was by far the most profound and influential experience. I had idolized him since West Side Story came to London in 1958, so to have him walk into our midst at the Joffrey studios eight years later was beyond thrilling. There was always "danger" in the air, but he liked me!!! Working with Jerry was exhilarating. I learned about the power of focus and concentration, stillness, and the use of weight in movement. Economy of gesture. Huge theatrical and communicative skills.
Will you be dancing in your new show?
Yes! I won't dance the way I did forty years ago, of course, but I can still move. It's funny, when my career as a singer was looming on the horizon, Donna McKechnie (whom I've known since the 70s) insisted that I incorporate movement into my performance; I was prepared to just stand and sing in this new arena. Donna wasn't about to have any of that, though, "But, Christian! You have to move! That's who you are!" She was right.
This season, 'Tina', the Tina Turner musical is coming to Broadway. You got to work with the goddess herself designing her stage wardrobe throughout the 70's and 80's. How did that happen for you and what was Tina like and what did you learn from her?
Tina! How many definitions of "Fabulous" are there! I knew three Tina's: the wild one we all know on stage together with the acute business woman; the warm, mellow and maternal Tina (she cooked for me on two occasions); and the wise and very spiritual Tina. She introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism.
I first saw her at Carnegie Hall in 1971. I had begun designing and sewing by then, when my Joffrey schedule would allow. I became a mega fan, and in August 1973 I was able to get a dress I had made for her (the first of the ripped rag dresses) to her dressing room - in Philharmonic Hall, now Avery Fisher. I passed the package to a tour manager, who passed it on to someone else, etc. There was no label or clues to my identity, because I thought I would have the opportunity to introduce myself personally. I had no idea if she had received it. There was no way for her to contact me.
Well, in January 1974 the Joffrey happened to be on tour in Kansas City, and Tina and the Revue were going to be appearing there on our day off. So, I went to the show, and she walked onto the stage wearing the dress I had left at her dressing room door six months before! I was a chocolate mess! After letters back and forth, I met up with her in LA in the summer of 1974. We became friends. I made about 19 outfits for her from 1974 to 1984. The rags became her trade mark. Those were the dresses whose look Bob Mackie commandeered and took to another (Vegas) level. The original creations began with me designing and sewing for Tina in my apartment on West 75th Street as her music blared from my record player. I was on fire with passion and dedication. The rags and strips were designed to reflect and compliment the movement of her long wigs. It was all about movement. There was also the influence of L'il Abner's Daisy Mae in there, but going into that will make this saga too long to tell here!
I have learned wonderful life-lessons from observing Tina, being in her orbit, and watching her craft her life. Also, I learned many lessons about clear-sightedness, tenacity, and professionalism. She is the consummate professional.
In 2010, you were given an exhibition of your designs and paintings in London. How thrilling was that? What did the show consist of? And, what inspired you to draw and paint?
Because my father painted, I have painted and sketched since childhood: osmosis. The exhibit presented a tapestry of artists.' connections. My father, Oliver Messel, and me. Messel, the pre-eminent English set, costume, and interior designer, was a friend of my father's, and Messel's designs for the Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty inspired me immensely as a child. He was a sweet gentleman. I remember him well. Rosenstiel's, the art publishers in London who represent my father's prints, had several costume designs by Messel, so they connected the dots, so to speak. My father's drawings, my costume designs for ballet and celebrities including Phylicia Rashad and Tina, and then our connection to Messel and his designs. An artistic triangle.
You are the son of Boscoe Holder and the nephew of Geoffrey Holder, two of the greatest artists of their generation and if I may say, 'You look just like your uncle'. What was it like growing up alongside the two of them and learning from them? What are the greatest life lessons you learned from them?
My father began it all. He was self-taught in all his disciplines - piano, painting, and dance and design. He made sure that I had the formal education in the Arts that he didn't have. Geoffrey was his younger brother by ten years, so he followed in my father's footsteps as did I. All my theatrical gifts can be traced back to my father, Boscoe. Through his talent, flair and artistry he was accepted in English society all the way to the very top. Many doors still open for me to this day because of the long shadow my father cast.
Geoffrey was not an influence on me. I was already formed when I got to know him in New York. Dad went from Trinidad to London. Geoffrey went from Trinidad to New York. I went from London to New York. People assume that Geoffrey was instrumental in my success, or that we were close, or that I was his son. But no, it was just that we both had careers in the same city. And, yes. I do resemble him. That's because we both look like his, and my father's, mother - my grandmother, Louise.
You will be featured in the closing night of The New York Cabaret Convention on October 31st. Are you excited?
All these wonderful occurrences and opportunities still manifest for me! The grand dame of cabaret, KT Sullivan, invited me to appear at the Convention, and she and Sondra Lee were instrumental in setting up my appearance at The Laurie Beechman Theatre. At the Convention I'll sing one of my opening numbers, then return for a duet with the superb Amra-Faye Wright - the quintessential Velma Kelly in Broadway's Chicago.
Finally, what are you looking forward to the most on Nov. 1st when you return with your show to The Laurie Beechman Theater?
I do a segment in my show that is a tribute to Chita Rivera. She changed my life when I saw her in West Side Story in London in 1958. I still haven't recovered from the impact! Her artistry touched me deeply and she continues to be a huge influence and inspiration. She is now a friend (it's such an out-of-body experience when someone you hold in such high esteem becomes a friend!), and so hopefully she will be in attendance. Apart from Chita, it will just be terrific to appear in New York once again. I made a name for myself here, and I see now that I am infused with New York energy and passion. - for life. London is home, New York is home - At Home And Abroad!