‘Dougla’ a heartfelt revival for artistic family

April 7, 2018 GMT


“These are very simple moves,” Carmen de Lavallade told members of Dance Theater of Harlem recently. The young women gathered around her, soaking up every word and gesture that she had to offer, were transfixed by her hands.

For this moment in “Dougla,” Geoffrey Holder’s celebrated 1974 ballet that she is helping to revive for the company, she fanned her elegant fingers — in the mesmerizing way that she does most everything.

“Simple things are the hardest,” said de Lavallade, the 87-year-old dancer, actress, choreographer and widow of Holder. “You think, ‘Oh, it’s just there.’ No. It’s not. It’s very difficult. Everything has to speak. You have to be precise. The more you stretch your fingers, it looks like they’re blossoming.”

The dancers tried it a few times until their wrists softened and upturned fingers splayed and danced like hers. “Oh, my gosh,” de Lavallade said approvingly. “What a difference.”

“Dougla” is a ballet that blossoms too, a kaleidoscope of costume, color and choreography that depicts the ritual and beauty of a wedding ceremony of a Dougla couple — a mixed couple in which one partner is of African and the other of Indian descent.

In “Dougla,” sweeping skirts for both women and men, designed by Holder, matter as much as the choreography. “We don’t see pageantry very often,” de Lavallade said before a recent rehearsal. “Geoffrey was a master at it. It’s like watching a painting move.”

Holder, who was born in Trinidad and died at 84 in 2014, was a force in the form of a dancer, choreographer, actor, composer, designer and painter. (You might also remember him from the Uncola 7-Up commercials of the 1970s and ’80s.) He met de Lavallade when they were cast in Harold Arlen’s “House of Flowers,” a Broadway musical that featured a wealth of important figures in the dance world, including Alvin Ailey, Louis Johnson and Arthur Mitchell, who was a founder of Dance Theater in 1969. “Dougla” hasn’t been performed by the professional company since 2004, the year that the company went on hiatus because of financial difficulties.

Reviving “Dougla” for Dance Theater’s season at New York City Center, beginning Wednesday, has been a group effort, masterminded by de Lavallade and her son, Leo Holder, 61, who is supervising the production. Former Dance Theater members have helped: Along with Kellye Saunders and Keith Saunders — ballet masters with the company — Donald Williams and Charmaine Hunter have worked with the cast.

Tania León’s shimmering, percussive score, created with Holder, will be performed live, and Dance Theater will be joined by guests from Collage Dance Collective. There are soloist roles — namely the bride and the groom — but the ballet, featuring 25 dancers, achieves its power through unison scenes in which the classical body must become more grounded by using fluid hips and an open chest to dig inside the music’s driving pulse.

In “Dougla,” a grand and earthy mainstay of Dance Theater’s repertory for years, repetition is used in abundance as dancers — and their costumes — spin in sync. There are details from Indian dance that crop up, in facial expressions and in vibrating fingers, and the dancers possess a sense of majesty. “There’s nothing like a big group that is just absolutely together,” de Lavallade said. “You cannot be yourself. You have to be like one person.”

De Lavallade wasn’t involved in the creation of the ballet, but she said: “I remember him working on this and running out and getting the materials. Just like when he worked on ‘Timbuktu.’ There wasn’t a piece of lamé left in New York City.”

Geoffrey Holder directed, choreographed and designed the costumes for “Timbuktu,” a 1978 musical. (He also directed and designed the costumes for “The Wiz,” which won him Tonys in both categories in 1975.) In the case of “Dougla,” de Lavallade said: “There were different versions. It kept changing. Things do that. We’re putting back certain things from the first and rearranging. Not that much — just little bits and pieces. It’s like a hunt to put it back together.”

Despite those nips and tucks, Leo Holder said the revival is completely derived from his father’s ballet. “There’s nothing there that isn’t of him,” he said.

Holder, who designs graphics and scenery for movies and television, has been consumed with organizing his parents’ archives in recent months. “I’m basically here to provide context and to make sure that the choreographer is still in the house,” he said with a laugh.

He didn’t want “Dougla” to be seen as a museum piece. In order for it to live for a new generation of dancers, Holder brought a hefty object for each of them to hold: a silver-and-turquoise ring that belonged to his father.

“I wanted them to understand what kind of force created this particular piece,” said Holder, whose father was a towering 6-foot-6 with a melodious, booming voice. “The person who wore that ring was not 5-foot-2 and sitting in a corner. When those lights go up, they have to be that grand.”

The show-and-tell worked. “The ring was huge,” said Anthony Santos, who plays the groom. “The first thing that came into my mind was, how was this man walking around with this big ring on his finger?”

It helped him both to imagine Holder and to grasp the majesty of the ballet. “The groom has a solo and he comes out and the first thing he does is flip the cape off of him,” Santos said. “It lets you know that he’s a warrior. He knows he deserves his bride.”

Ingrid Silva, who plays the bride, performed “Dougla” as a member of the Dance Theater of Harlem ensemble in 2008. She said she knows there’s expectation in presenting such a large ballet that is so closely connected to the original Dance Theater, but she sees it as a way to reach future generations. “That gives it a lot of weight,” Silva said. “I didn’t have that before.”

And de Lavallade, as a coach, is trying to make it personal for the dancers. After a rehearsal, Santos recalled that she told him, “‘This is your solo. So when you’re dancing it, yes, you’re dancing it for us, but we’re here to watch you.’ She’ll say something and it’s so simple but it resonates throughout the room — everyone gets back up and it’s like, all right — let’s do this for real this time.”

She helps them with focus, with projection — qualities that are essential in displaying Holder’s pageantry. “It’s a different kind of energy,” de Lavallade said. “You have to sustain the movements — to make them reach the back of the hall or to fill the space, you have to work together. You have to put yourself in the position of where are you? In your mind, you’re in this village or wherever you want to be. It’s like an actor: You can’t just say the words.”

But bringing the choreographic machine that is “Dougla” to life depends on more than projection. It’s everything working together at once. “The costumes are talking, too,” de Lavallade said. “They’re dancing, you are dancing, the music is just divine and it’s very exciting. I love dancing costumes. The skirts are singing, and everybody’s got to be on the same note.”

— (The New York Times)