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The moving image: dance and television.

In its March 1953 issue, Dance Magazine began decades of reporting I on network television with this statement, "Television dance is not the art it could be. In fact, today it is not as interesting or imaginative as it was in the day of the seven-inch screen and the miniscule one-camera television studio with its extravagantly experimental choreographers, unpaid dancers, and accommodating cameramen." Such pessimism was based on awareness of the past. In 1944, when there were only 5,000 television sets in New York City homes, the short-lived Dumont network telecast Sketch Book, a program that included original ballets on which were lavished electronic know-how, montage, superimposition, and cinematic ingenuity. In CBS hired Pauline Koner and Kitty Doner to supply fifteen minutes of original choreography for its fledgling network and minuscule audience. There were other pioneering choreographers and dancers who had donated their time and talent for short-lived programs, but most are now forgotten, unrecorded in the history of television.

Television had been hailed as the savior of dance -- it would take the art to unbounded spheres, to regions oblivious of time and space. By 1952, however, the three major networks were devoting large-scale financing almost exclusively to meeting the taste of the masses. (The Ford Foundation-backed Omnibus on CBS-TV was a notable exception.) The big bucks went to vocalists and comedians who ushered television into what is referred to as television's "golden age." It was a time of variety show -- your Show of Shows, Your Hit Parade, Toast of the Town, Hollywood Palace. Soon programs were identified by their stars -- The Kate Smith Show, The Perry Como Show, The Dinah Shore Show. And some frankly admitted their commercial connection -- The Voice of Firestone, The Bell Telephone Hour The Colgate Comedy Hour.

These variety programs had voracious appetites for specialty numbers -- singers, musicians, comedians, acrobats, and dancers were in demand. It was not the art of dance that was sought, but the need for dance acts and dance numbers -- solos, duets, and group -- did provide a living for scores of dancers.

All this activity has had little influence on the direction dance has taken and has barely been noted by historians. Books about early television tell of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on Your Show of Shows, and of the vocalists who warbled the hit songs week after week on Your Hit Parade. Little mention is made of choreographers James Starbuck, of Your Show of Shows, or of Tony Charmoli, of Your Hit Parade, yet these prolific artists created several dances every week for many years. Charmoli's ingenuity was enormous -- it had to be, because week after week he had to make a new dance for the same hit song. Dance Magazine often reported on Your Hit Parade dances and dancers in its pages, particularly lovely Virginia Conwell. Charmoli often made use of such electronic possibilities, as the ability to multiply images, once he turned three cancan dancers into a swarm of ruffled, high-kicking flirts.

Dance groups that appeared regularly on shows included the Toastettes (on Sullivan's Toast of the Town), the Kateds (The Kate Smith Show), and the June Taylor Dancers (The Jackie Gleason Show). The Toastettes appeared weekly in the same routine at the introduction and the sign-off. The June Taylor Dancers are remembered as "living linoleum," geometric patterns made as they did their routines lying on the floor for overhead shots. These groups made careers possible for choreographers, as well as providing jobs for many dancers, Herbert Ross, for example, was an imaginative choreographer who wasn't given much leeway with the dance group of the All-Star Comedy Show, but he would adapt what he learned for his later films.

And then there were the numerous guest spots where experienced dancers performed numbers from their own repertories or dances created for the occasion. Unknowns had their chances, and some well-known artists brought their creations made for the concert stage to the masses. Mata and Hari, alumni of the Trudi Schoop company of the 1930s, made frequent appearances on Your Show of Shows because their mime suited its satiric style. Later they were seen on other shows in their Carnegie Hall skit, The Fox Hunt, and in Marionettes. On many a show Bambi Linn and Rod Alexander were staples in duets of young love; they danced this theme in scores of setting -- Central Park, the Eiffel Tower, a tidy backyard. Marge and Gower Champion, another imaginative pair, were seen often, as were the Szonys, and Nelle Fisher and Jerry Ross in their American-themed Ballet Ballads. Valerie Bettis danced often, one memorable time with Duncan Noble and another in the lovely solo, Wings on My Feet. The Hamilton Trio, which began as regulars on Your Show of Shows, later danced its rhythmic numbers on various variety shows. Geoffrey Holder and his Trinidadians, and the Cabots (Marian Saunders, Dick Beard, and Frank Sabella) were familiar to television audiences.

Choreographer Starbuck of Your Show of Shows, an alumnus of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, often invited Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief, and Frederic Franklin to guest on the program. But high art had to follow television's rules, such as "no men in tights"; when Starbuck danced the pas de deux from Les Sylphides with Markova, he wore trousers. Another TV no-no was bare feet; when modern dancers tripped into America's living rooms, they wore sandals.

The super host for dancers was Ed Sullivan. On his Toast of the Town (later called The Ed Sullivan Show), he introduced the American public to Margot Fonteyn, Nora Kovach and Istvan Rabovsky, Jean Babilee, Jose Greco, Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris, and the Royal Danish Ballet. Hosted by Sullivan, the Sadler's Wells Ballet danced Les Patineurs for an audience of eighteen million. A Sullivan coup was securing the Moiseyev Folk Dance Ensemble for his entire one-hour show. To satisfy public demand, he soon repeated the whole show -- an unprecedented encore.

Television devoured material and was ever on the lookout for more. Ballet dancers had a source of inexpensive material, the many available fragments of the classics, which together with their music were in the public domain. Pas de deux from Don Quixote and Swan Lake and the solo variations from The Sleeping Beauty were danced often.

Kate Smith brooked no vocal rivals on her popular show but happily gave her stage to dancers, mostly from New York City Ballet. Andre Eglevsky, Melissa Hayden, Janet Reed, and Patricia Wilde could be seen in excerpts from the classics. On a special show in 1954, Tanaquil Le Clercq was luminous in Aurora's first-act variation from The Sleeping Beauty.

Ray Bolger slipped into television as a comedian on his own show, and when he moved it was dance. Popular and long-lasting was "Polka-Go-Round," for which choreographer Felix Sadoski arranged two character dances weekly for the Chaine Dancers.

Anna Sokolow and Pearl Lang adapted several of their works for Lamp Unto My Feet and Look Up and Live, Sunday morning dance-dominated, non-denominational religious shows. John Butler often created pieces with a group of excellent dancers, headed by Carmen de Lavallade, Glen Tetley, and Buzz Miller. Youngsters who substituted these programs for Sunday School probably cherish memories of Biblical women, from Queen Esther to the Virgin Mary, all looking like de Lavallade.

CBS's Omnibus presented several prestigious dance programs. Gene Kelly originated and directed the memorable "Dancing Is a Man's Game" (1958), in which Edward Villella proved that ballet dancing could outstrip ice skating athletically as well as artistically. Another Omnibus program presented an ideal way for beginners to see ballet when choreographer Eugene Loring, as host for a performance of his Billy the Kid, explained in voice-over what he intended specific movements to impart. One Omnibus made-for-television dance program was based on Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, choreographed by John Butler with dancers Tetley, Jose Limon, Mary Hinkson, and Kasimir Kokich. Leopold Stokowski was commentator. In spite of all the contributing artists, it was not a success.

Ballet came off second best, however, in one of Omnibus's more ambitious television collaborations, where a ballet and a play, both based on Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Capital of the World," were presented in juxtaposition in The ballet was choreographed by Eugene Loring to a score by George Antheil with TV decor by Henry May (Esteban Frances designed the subsequent Ballet Theatre production that premiered three weeks later); the cast was headed by Lupe Serrano and Roy Fitzell. The central character was a young waiter who is accidentally, and fatally, stabbed while pretending to be a bullfighter. Unfortunately, the play performed immediately afterward proved much more theatrically effective.

George Balanchine, intrigued by television, realized that choreography for the medium had to, take a different course than dance for the stage. In collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, he created the ballet Noah and the Flood for CBS-TV in 1962. An expensive try, it was not a success, but Balanchine is to be praised for his recognition that choreographers must experiment to present dance effectively on TV. He collaborated so wholeheartedly with Dance in America producer Merrill Brockway that he actually revised the ending of The Four Temperaments for its 1977 taping.

PBS became the main source of televised dance in America, once the networks were taken over by talk shows, game shows, sitcoms, and soap operas. While rarely commissioning original work or providing regular programming, PBS has presented the work of such leading choreographers as Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp and such companies as Dance Theatre of Harlem and San Francisco Ballet. Credit must be given to its knowledgeable and imaginative producers and directors -- Brockway, Jac Venza, Judy Kinberg, Rhoda Grauer, and the late Emile Ardolino. The quality of their best work is much higher than that in television's golden age. But are the masses who regularly tuned in to Your Show of Shows and The Ed Sullivan Show now watching?
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Title Annotation:70th Anniversary Issue
Author:Barzel, Ann
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jun 1, 1997
Previous Article:Education: going beyond classical tradition.
Next Article:The Young Dancer: 70 years of the Young Dancer section.

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