In today’s Twyla Tharp cash-in Broadway, the debt modern dance owes to the African Diaspora is probably best left marginalized so as not to dilute its legacy with a commercial aftertaste. This seems to be the unspoken thesis—quite literally unspoken, as expository narration is wisely eschewed—of the documentary Carmen and Geoffrey, an intertwined video history of dancers Geoffrey Holder and Carmen De Lavallade that uses their devoted conjugal relationship as the whisper of a narrative arc. The film blends Betacam interviews and recent exhibition videos with a panoply of archival gems to offer a fairly representative, if incomprehensive, dual portrait; however, in its respectable desire to allow the magnetic couple’s protean body of work to speak for itself, Carmen and Geoffrey misses a crucial opportunity to cogently argue the significance of black diversity in the heritage of 20th-century dance.
This buried assertion is most indelible in the excerpts that trace Holder’s trajectory. The tall, muscular Trinidadian originally arrived in New York with an exotic troupe at once exploitative and educational: Early 1950s clips show him shrieking and writhing about the stage while donning a primitive loin cloth like a sideshow Baron Samedi. And yet this seemingly dim pandering to the tribal stereotype allowed black dancers to fuse their indigenous styles with current ballroom trends, as well as introduce America to the blithe rhythms of the steel drum (another Trinidadian import that followed Holder’s feral sexiness into the public’s attention). These energetic performances additionally laid the essential foundation of Holder’s later directorial projects, for which he would additionally choreograph and design costumes, in the same sense that an excruciatingly stifling socialization under Jim Crow and the Southern Baptist Church would inform Alvin Ailey’s Revelations (another racially resonant masterwork that Holder and De Lavallade toiled on). Holder’s 1970s Broadway excursions, such as the original Tony-winning The Wiz, represent a triangle trade of mingling influences: Cast members wear the erotically-charged, paint-streaked faces of voudou priests, or whirl in skirts and hats playfully fashioned to appear like a satirical chorus line of watermelons from the orchestra pit.
The documentary’s focus falters in De Lavallade’s interspersed half of the material, which is perhaps simply a product of her achievements’ dwarfing under the tower of her husband. Granted, this is woman who superlatively mastered the body language of directors such as Alvin Ailey, John Butler, and Martha Graham, but her contributions to the realized ideal of an integrated Broadway were decidedly less potent. And by fixating on the ethnic repercussions of Holder’s work, directors Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob cast a shadow of irrelevancy upon De Lavallade’s aesthetic-driven career—the camera does nothing aside from watch her dance in current and past troupes. This disparity in tone—racial revolutionary versus flesh-and-blood manifestation of beauty—leads to odd if daring transitions, such as when recent video of Holder’s yearly sabbatical to Paris somehow dissolves to vintage footage of De Lavallade on stage with Josephine Baker.
Of course, it’s hard to fault the filmmakers for the awkward juxtaposition, since it lucidly represents a genuine and symbiotic—yet funnily mismatched—connubial relationship. But the failure of Carmen and Geoffrey is that it uses the titular characters’ romance as the impetus for an exploration of modern dance history rather than affixing it as the discussion’s focal point. This misstep is felt strongest in the fact that there are curiously very few scenes showing husband and wife together, since even their paired appearance seems to possess magic. Holder is a sable monolith of a man with a basso, constantly joke-cracking voice, while De Lavallade is a willowy, fair-skinned princess with a practical yet smarmy manner of speech. The former is a concept-driven renaissance man; the latter a virtuoso who speaks most eloquently through her body. That they complement one another with ease is unsurprising. All but ignored, however, is that Carmen and Geoffrey collectively represent the balance between the irrepressible heterogeneity and yet universal communicability of African artistry, where the distinctions between Haitian culture and Trinidadian culture are about as consequential as those between black and white.