Made in heaven: Hollywood's magic touch with dance.
Perhaps the single most eye-popping dance moment ever put on film arrives around halfway through the 1951 musical Royal Wedding, when Fred Astaire, as an American star in London, finds himself falling for one of the performers in his show. He filches her photo from the billboard outside the theater, dreamily props it up on a table in his hotel room, and falls into a reverie that propels him along the floor, up the wall, across the ceiling, and down the opposite wall before returning him right-side-up.
Even in our blase age of mind-bending, computer-generated special effects, watching this sequence, available again on a recent DVD from Warner Home Video, is simply thrilling. And it isn't just because we're looking at the most polished dancer who ever lived. It's thrilling because of the sublime way it marries the arts of dance and film.
Film is in some ways the salvation of dance. As Gene Kelly points out in the 1985 documentary That's Dancing!, which has also been recently released as part of Warner's "Classic Musicals From the Dream Factory, Vol. 2," until moving pictures arrived at the end of the 19th century, dance was the most ephemeral of the arts, transferred body to body from teacher to student, impossible to record for posterity. However many words and pictures were devoted to dancers like Anna Pavlova, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Rudolf Nureyev over the 80 years of this magazine, without film clips like the ones in That's Dancing!, what could today's audiences truly know about these stars?
But because film is so very good at capturing dance, it's always been tempting to let it speak for itself. That's Dancing! provides plenty of evidence for the greatness of the many dancers whose images flash across the screen: ballerinas like Moira Shearer and Margot Fonteyn, tappers like Ann Miller and Ray Bolger, originals like Bob Fosse and Michael Jackson. What's much less in evidence is a film imagination to match the soaring bodies. Often the camera sits back and lets them do their thing--which is fine until you watch the footage from Royal Wedding and wonder why there aren't more visionary dance-film pairings.
Stanley Donen, the director of Royal Wedding and several other Astaire classics, was equally at home in both media, and it shows. In addition to the famous climbing-the-walls sequence, Royal Wedding includes the scene in which Astaire dances with a coat-rack, the marvelously comic one in which he and Powell perform a shipboard ballroom routine while being pitched to and fro by angry seas, and the extended Caribbean production number, "I Left My Hat in Haiti."
In the extras that accompany both That's Dancing! and Royal Wedding, Donen explains how he filmed the dancing-on-the-ceiling sequence. While it's simple, it's far from intuitive. He built Astaire's room--floor, walls, and ceiling --inside a giant wheel. Like the tipsy shipboard and the endless "Haiti" set, it contains a dance that exists--that can only exist--on film.
The other master of such moments, of course, was Gene Kelly. Instead of slapping three-dimensional dances onto a flat movie screen, he played with the two-dimensionality of the medium. He even emphasized it, doing duets with Jerry the Mouse and other animated partners, and putting three-dimensional bodies into two-dimensional paintings in An American in Paris. That marvelous dance movie, a collaboration between Kelly and the director Vincente Minnelli, was preceded in 1948 by The Pirate, which can be seen as a dry run.
Also part of the "Dream Factory" package, The Pirate includes a fantasy ballet in which Judy Garland pictures Kelly aboard a ship, as the buccaneer he is pretending to be. He whirls a scimitar over his head and leaps about in tight black briefs, climbing the rigging, and cavorting among fiery pyres. Less successful than An American in Paris, The Pirate nonetheless demonstrates the same film-centric sensibilities.
But That's Dancing!, which was made as a follow-up to the That's Entertainment! movies, serves up another number from The Pirate that belongs strictly to the vaudeville-style hoofing that filled so many of the other dance movies it celebrates. And watching Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers trading licks and tumbling over one another in "Be a Clown," it's hard to regret that this is just dancing, pure and simple, with no camera tricks or special effects.
Nonetheless, the film flopped when it was released. Kelly once theorized that America didn't want to see him wearing a mustache. More likely America wasn't swift enough to pick up on the satirical intent of his baroque performance, which was meant to send up the Douglas Fairbanks style of swashbuckling.
Kelly's gift for insouciance keeps even the most ostentatious moments from going over the top. But over the top works too, as the Busby Berkeley excerpts in That's Dancing! clearly demonstrate. Swooping camera work with dizzying angles, acres of girls, enormous moving sets--who needs choreography? If many dance movies never let the film intrude on the dance, the Busby Berkeley tactic was never to let the choreography intrude on the film.
As it sweeps through nearly a century of filmed performances, That's Dancing! makes you wonder how they will make That's Dancing! Two a century from now, when choreographers routinely turn on video cameras at every rehearsal and amateurs can show their work on YouTube. There will be lots more footage (or digits) to cull through, for sure. But will there be anything to match what Donen and Astaire pulled off back in 1951? Meet me here in 80 years and we'll decide.
Sylviane Gold is Dance Magazine's On Broadway columnist.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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