Geoffrey Holder, all 6 feet 6 of him, looks like an African prince as he strides ramrod-straight through the Les Champs Mall at the Watergate complex.
Holder, the director, choreographer and designer of "Timbuktu," the musical fantasy that opens tonight at the Kennedy Center, bounds into a boutique specializing in Uruguayan wools and leathers. He immediately begins rummaging through a rack of sweaters, looking for one that'll match his rust suit.
Does he like to buy clothes? "Too much," he mumbles. "I need clothes like I need a hole in the head. But I love colors."
Quickly selecting a rust sweater, scarf and cap, he changes into them in the shop and stuffs his old sweater, scarf and cap into a shopping bag.
Color is visual - and everything has to be visual, says holder, 47, who is also a painter. "When I started out designing the show I thought of how we forget the visual.
"I'm tired of dirty denims and jeans. I love beautiful people, beautiful clothes. Thank God, Yves Saint Laurent is bringing back fashion for women. Women are looking gorgeous again. Before they looked like dogs. Men are combing their hair, cutting their hair."
But color - or the visual - doesn't stand alone, says Holder. Line and movement are just as important. And he's blended all three in "Timbuktu." The stage is his canvas. Holder takes the influences of Africa - masks, robes, animal heads, crowns, ritual dance - and infuses them with a contemporary spirit. Song, dance and costume all bear a special Holder imprint.
Song, dance and costume all bear a special Holder imprint.
It's the same thing he did for "the Wiz," the long-running Broadway hit for which he won two Tony awards. He calls himself chef, cook and bottle washer for "Timbuktu."
"Doing a show is like cooking a meal," he says in an elegant British accent, flavored with the honeyed inflections of his native Trinidad (familiar from his series of Seven-Up TV commercials as the Uncola man). "You have to know how much salt, pepper, herbs to get the balance."
Culinary images are always popping up in Holder's conversation. He's a gourmet cook in the Caribbean style and has written a book on the subject.
Holder is now reclining on a sofa in his hotel suite. "You have a ham on your hands," he warns the photographer. And, without being told, he twirls his scarf and spins around so that he's in a better position to be photographed.
The conversation turns to a criticism that the show is not authentic - just a remake of an old musical called "Kismet."
"The show can't hope to be authentic," he stands up and laughs, while walking to the bedroom. "I hope you don't expect to see Ballets Africanes."
In a moment, he's back in the living room. "It's a fairy tale, a fable," he intones. "People want to get away to never-never land, to the land of Oz, to the land of Timbuktu.
"We've had a rough, nasty time politically. The world has been in an uproar. Let's get back to sanity. We'll take you to never-never land so that you can go home and look at the 11 o'clock news."
Holder only wants to do shows that contain magic, he says. "I want a man from Japan to come and enjoy it," Holder explains, bursting into a droning caricature of a Japanese rendition of "Stranger in Paradise."
"Fairy tales work - period," Holder says. "We are kids, regardless of whether you're 50. Have you ever noticed a 60-year-old man looking at a car. It's exactly as if he's looking at a little toy.
"Women are different. When they get rid of dolls, they don't look at them any more. They become the doll."
Holder is in constant motion, a sort of one-man multi-media force.
"I can do five different things at once," he explains "You're interviewing me now and I'm choreographing a ballet in my head. While you're painting, you can cook and while you're cooking, you're trying to solve a choreographic problem.
"And by throwing in the red beans, you say, ah that's it.They should be red. And I say to myself, if I get a piece of red fabric, which means danger, and I use it in this ballet, it will enhance the storyline."
Holder moves his 220 pounds about the room as gracefully as a gazelle. One moment he's pouring wine for-visitors. The next moment he's talking to his family in Trinidad on the phone.
His parents are there and so are an older brother and two sisters. He's close to all of them. On the television sits a photograph of Holder and his father. He goes into the bedroom and emerges with two framed photographs of his parents.
"The (Trinidadian) environment influenced me," he says. Boscoe (his brother) painted, danced, was a musician and designed costumes. My father dressed my mother. My mother was a seamstress and Daddy would buy fabrics for her.
"Mother and Daddy never stopped us from doing what came naturally. Daddy was a rare man. In a place as colonial as Trinidad, who would want their son to be a dancer? Every man had to be a government servant.
"I had my first art exhibit at 15. When I was 18, I said, 'Daddy, save your money. I don't want to learn about Latin or algebra.' He said, 'All right, boy, if you say so.'"
Holder came to this country in 1953, when he was 23. While appearing in "House of Flowers" in 1954, he met his wife, ballet dancer Carmen de Lavallade. They have a 20-year-old son, Leo, who's studying at the Hartford Conservatory.
Since his arrival in the United States, Holder has been a dancer, teacher, actor, theater critic, painter, author, Choreographer and director.
He is called upon to lecture a colleges, but doesn't accept many of the offers because he dislikes flying. "I want to be a in control of what I'm doing and where I'm going," he explains. "I don't mind dying from something like cancer, but I don't want a car or airplane accident.
"When I'm dying, I want to know it so that I can suffer - and play it out. Get nice new pajamas and make a great exit. My aunt told me I came flying into the world and I want to make a grand exit."
He'd also like to direct a movie, but before that he has a very specific plan. When "Timbuktu" is finished he's going to Paris - to sleep.