Legendary Artisan Geoffrey Holder, the Prodigal Prince and Steelband ‘Firsts’ - UpClose!

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

Global - Recently, When Steel Talks (WST) had the opportunity to speak with larger-than-life, celebrated choreographer, dancer, designer, and two-time Tony Award-winner, Trinidad & Tobago national Geoffrey Holder.  He is also a director, singer and author.  The venue was the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Alvin Ailey Place (West 55th Street), New York, where Mr. Holder was soon to be in the throes of rehearsals bringing to life once more his 1968 original work, the ballet ‘Prodigal Prince.’

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A grand production, its dramatic and riveting color meshes with soulful, spiritual and hypnotic rhythm, corralling the flurry of body movements of the dancers, illustrating both real events and conceptualized depictions. The work showcases the life of the renowned Haitian painter and Vodou priest Hector Hyppolite, as birthed in ballet through the vision of Geoffrey Holder. “He [Hyppolite] is the Picasso of Haitian Art,” declares Holder - himself a renowned painter - with quiet passion.

Geoffrey Holder outside the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Geoffrey Holder outside the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Holder tells of the inspiration behind his creation of The Prodigal Prince - the story of Hyppolite’s own attendance of an affair at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hyppolite was grandly attired; Holder recounts: “….he [Hyppolite] attended, all dressed up. Here’s this purple, black man - so black, that he is purple, you know? Handsome! In a white suit, and a crown on his head. And he [Hyppolite] said to everybody, ‘Well you know, I dreamt I went to Africa, and John the Baptist – as we get there – gave me a feather, with which I painted my paintings.’” Holder went on to explain: “I thought that would be a good idea for a ballet, and I called it “Prodigal Prince” (instead of Prodigal Son, you know, ha ha ha).”

Alvin Ailey said to Holder soon after, “why don’t you do something for Judith Jamison?” Jamison is a living legend, a global dance phenomenon without parallel, choreographer par excellence and now outgoing artistic director of the AAADT. In that first staging of the Prodigal Prince in 1968, Jamison would be cast as the goddess of love, Erzulie – like the Virgin Mary, with Miguel Godreau as Hyppolite. “He [Godreau] is one of the greatest [male] dancers I know in life; he could fly like a bird!” stated Holder emphatically. Urged to revive the ballet after playing to audiences worldwide over the years Holder has done just that, and for five nights the Prodigal Prince is part of the 2010 Alvin Ailey season of stunning performances running from December 1 through January 2, 2011 at City Center in New York. The choreography, music, sets, and costumes are all the visions and creations of the illustrious Holder, and have been since the work’s inception.


When approached to be part of the 2010 season, Holder believed it was the right time to have Haiti once more in the spotlight. The veteran artist bemoaned that “people know nothing about Haiti; they know nothing about the folklore. Haitians are wonderful people, they are wonderful survivors; I mean, the more crap you throw at them, the more they’re going to rise.  They - they inspire me.”

Alvin Ailey Place, New York, NY

But the story of how Geoffrey Holder came to New York, and the seeds sown that mushroomed into a tree of artistic life which branched out into critically-acclaimed works in the arts - such as the Prodigal Prince, and many more - are intricately interwoven with how Holder brought the first steelband to the Broadway stage in 1954 via Truman Capote’s House of Flowers. The multi-faceted artisan shared with WST the background and events which led up to this historic “first.”

Geoffrey Holder
Geoffrey Holder

Holder subsequently whittled his troupe down from twenty to five performers. To remain viable and self-sufficient, he has always vehemently advised artists to hone additional skill sets. In line with this mindset, Holder ensured that his group also learned to play the steelpan. “I could always sell paintings, and sell photographs, and make ‘a bread,’ make some money. You should always have more than one talent,” counseled Holder. “Why don’t you all go and study to play the steel drum?” To which the men lamented “Well, we don’t have any money….” Holder deftly trumped their protests of not being able to afford instruction, by himself taking care of the expense. “…I paid the guy in Belmont [Trinidad] to give them steelband lessons. Nine dollars each man, to learn.” Here, Holder spontaneously breaks into the rhythms synonymous with the steelpan of that period.

Shortly thereafter, the dance troupe performed at the US Virgin Islands’ Hilton Hotel. Geoffrey Holder and his troupe caught the eye of Dr. Eldra Schulterbrandt, the very first psychologist in the Virgin Islands, and who at the time was single-handedly responsible for instituting humane care for the mentally challenged. Dr. Schulterbrandt “loved us so she invited Agnes de Mille who did Oklahoma [the musical] to see us dance, and hear us play this ‘strange instrument’ [the pan].”  De Mille was so impressed, that, Holder said, “Through her we got our visas to come to this country [the USA].” For the record, Judith Jamison would also ‘catch the eye’ of De Mille years later in 1964, and the latter would be the reason Jamison left Philadelphia to dance in New York.

House of Flowers album cover image

Once in the United States, the group audition arranged for Geoffrey Holder and his company with Sol Hurok did not result in the anticipated performance contract. In 1954, opportunity came knocking in the form of “House of Flowers” which was set in Haiti and written by Truman Capote.

The role of the Duke of Darkness, Baron Samedi, was offered to Holder, who also did his own choreography, after ensuring he was going to get billing. His ability to command, lead and create came to the fore. ‘Calling the shots’ at a mere twenty-two years, he smoothly stipulated in addition, that to do the show he needed ‘his own musicians’ for the piece. They beat the natural Vodou drums for his performance, and then played the steelpans, a melody written for them by no less than Harold Arden, renowned American composer who also created music for the Wizard of Oz. As the steelband played, Geoffrey Holder in the persona of ‘the Duke of Darkness’ made his entrance.

The steelband performing in the play “House of Flowers” created history – it was a first on Broadway. And that inclusion led to another ‘first.’  Holder explained:  “…For me to get these gentlemen into the Broadway show, they had to join the union.” In so doing, they were the first steelband to become members of the American Federation of Musicians’ union, a must for any musician to work. House of Flowers’ cast included Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Holder and dancer Carmen de Lavallade - now his wife of fifty-six years.

It was the “calypso period” where everybody was ‘discovering’ and visiting the Caribbean, Harry Belafonte was well-known in America, and Geoffrey Holder’s older brother Boscoe was essentially replicating the same successful and artistic accomplishments as his younger sibling, but across the waters in London, England.

And with those words, Geoffrey Holder was off to his private, hour-long rehearsal of the Prodigal Prince on the sixth floor of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with When Steel Talks sitting in to witness a scintillating, superb interpretation of his vision by the company’s dancers.

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