“Carmen & Geoffrey,” Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob’s journeyman docu about dance legends Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, proves too slight to encompass the innovative artistry of its celebrated subjects. Rare archival footage samples the terps’ show-stopping brilliance in their prime, while Holder’s larger-than-life gusto and de Lavallade’s graceful serenity still register onscreen today. But the filmmakers bog down in the formless minutiae of present-tense reality: pedestrian footage of book launchings and church dedications cannot compete with imagery of their groundbreaking bare-stage balletics. Docu, which bows March 13 at Gotham’s Quad Cinema, could still wow cognoscenti and philistines alike.
Docu culls clips from various phases of de Lavallade’s illustrious resume, as she collaborated with dance masters who radically reshaped ballet in the ’50s and ’60s, from Agnes de Mille, Lester Horton and John Butler to, perhaps most famously, Alvin Ailey, whom she introduced to the art (luring her high school buddy to his first class). A stunning excerpt features a sensually charged Ailey/de Lavallade pas de deux from “Porgy and Bess” (dance-directed by Joe Layton and broadcast on NBC in 1961), hot enough to melt the black-and-white kinescope.
Many clips with de Lavallade also feature hubby Holder, whom she met on Broadway in Herbert Ross’ staging of Truman Capote’s “House of Flowers.” One lengthy segment finds the two sharing a Paris stage with none other than Josephine Baker. Docu freely accesses de Lavallade’s ongoing work as a choreographer, and sits in on current productions by Paradigm, the performance ensemble she formed with Gus Solomons Jr. and Dudley Williams. Absent are sidelights from her Hollywood career, both as a dancer and later as an actress (including a soap stint on “Another World”).
Lack of film or TV representation rankles more egregiously in Holder’s case, since the striking 6-foot-6 dancer is instantly recognizable to those completely unfamiliar with ballet, thanks to his memorable villain turn in “Live and Let Die” (not to mention his “Uncola” ads). But myriad examples of electrifying classical hoofing are on display, as well as the bold, West Indies-influenced choreography and costume design that alchemized ballet and rebooted Broadway (he helmed and dressed “The Wiz” and “Timbuktu”).
Endearing contemporary glimpses of the couple sharing a dessert or chatting with admirers read as anticlimactic. The subdued, uninflected palette sometimes unintentionally dilutes the glow of de Lavallade and Holder’s septuagenarian creativity with their 47-year love affair.