Wednesday, March 11, 2009

CARMEN & GEOFFREY by Linda and Nick

From what we're able to observe in Linda Atkinson's and Nick Doob's new documentary CARMEN AND GEOFFREY, neither Carmen de Lavallade nor Geoffrey Holder is a "great" artist, merely a very good one -- impressive, beautiful, talented and entertaining. The documentary isn't great, either, but because it lives up quite nicely to the standards set by its two subjects, the artistic "marriage" of dual filmmakers to their dual dancers proves a felicitous one. There's plenty of dance here, along with history, nostalgia and fun.

Much of this fun comes from seeing lengthy segments from the early work of these "legends," who began as dancers and have now branched out to choreography, directing, costume designing and even painting. (Holder's work with a paintbrush is -- like the fellow himself -- a fine example of oversize, entertaining, popular art.) Seeing Holder (who's lately become something of the "stunt" voice) as a lithe young dancer is a revelation, while de Lavallade's exquisite combination of class, beauty and reticence has simply grown more impressive over the decades. Their "love story," which appears to have begun around "first sight," makes a nice handle on which to hang this short film (79 minutes, including credits).

Along the way, we meet Holder's Trinidadian brother Boscoe, the couple's son Leo, their friends and co-performers such as Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison, Dudley Williams and Gus Solomons Jr., whom we hear and see performing in grainy but nonetheless wonderful old clips. Once Holder began experimenting with other art forms, he moved on to projects such as the original Broadway productions of The Wiz (for which Holder won the Tony Award, presented to him by Ray Bolger!) and Timbuktu. There's even a marvelous section in Paris, as the duo performs with Josephine Baker.

Paris figures later in the film, as well, as the couple (both are now 78) returns more recently to one of its favorite cities. Atkinson and Doob don't push for a lot of depth here, psychologically or culturally, though snippets emerge now and again. Dance critic Jennifer Dunning talks about the deep but platonic relationship between Ailey and de Lavallade, and how Holder must have felt about this. Regarding the twosome's being in the vanguard of black artists in America during a time when this was not easily accepted, Holder explains, with his usual combo of ego and wit, that whenever he entered a room in which he was not wanted, he always assumed there was something wrong with the people who were already there.

Not every documentary must be groundbreaking. Spending time with a couple of fine old performers and their crowd can be a tonic, as Carmen & Geoffrey -- the people and the movie -- make delightfully clear. The film, via First Run Features, opens this Friday at NYC's Quad Cinema.

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