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Cyd Charisse in the “Gotta Dance!” Blogathon

GottaDance_CydGeneClassic Reel Girl is hosting the Gotta Dance! Blogathon today – which is the birthday of Bill Robinson as well as National Tap Dance Day – and I am thrilled to be participating in this celebration of the dance in film by offering a tribute and meditation on the unique talent and beauty of Cyd Charisse.

I have been reading about movie musicals recently and in one article Cyd Charisse was described as “stiff” and in a book she was called “cool,” two words that would never have occurred to me to use to describe her dancing (though perhaps her acting). Interestingly, both comments were made in relation to her dance partnership with Fred Astaire and I’ve discovered that devoted Fred Astaire aficionados are not always as enamored of Charisse as they are of some of his other partners (namely Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth).

The reason this is, I believe, is the nature of her dancing. Cyd Charisse is primarily a ballet dancer and although Fred Astaire didn’t care for ballet, it’s influences can still be seen in his dances with her. In ballet, often the man is there to hold the ballerina up and make her look good. Fred Astaire obviously does much more than that, but it is true that in a certain way Cyd Charisse complements Astaire less than say Ginger Rogers or Rita Hayworth. Rather, he complements her and her style of dancing.

Gene Kelly, on the other hand, was almost better at ballet than tap (as Brian Seibert, author of What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing argues convincingly) and he was interested in expressing himself balletically, making his dances with Cyd Charisse seem more natural to him, though I must confess that I still prefer her collaboration with Astaire, despite those films being less typical of his style. I think the reason is the same reason that Fred Astaire aficionados don’t care for her as much (apart from the fact that she didn’t do any tap dancing).

Usually, a Fred Astaire dance is how he does his wooing. Ginger Rogers resists him until they dance and then you knew her attitude towards him has changed. Not so much with Gene Kelly. He seems to have been more interesting in expressing himself through dance. This means that the lady he is dancing with is not doing as much besides helping him express whatever thought or feeling he is having. The big ballet sequence in An American in Paris has nothing to do with winning the girl (she already loves him, but she’s engaged). It’s more about him working out his internal conflict.

1953: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse perform a dance routine in the film 'The Band Wagon', directed by Vincente Minnelli for MGM.It’s the same with the dream sequence in Singin’ in the Rain, which he dances with Cyd Charisse. She’s fantastic as a Louise Brooks-type vamp, but you don’t get the sense you really know her. And that brings me to Cyd Charisse and what she often expresses through her dancing. As an actress, she is indeed somewhat “cool” and “stiff,” enigmatic, aloof and almost unknowable. But when she dances, she comes alive and suddenly, you feel, she is showing the real person inside.

As I said, I’m not sure Gene Kelly brings this out as much, even in Brigadoon (though their dancing is beautiful), but Fred Astaire does, especially in Silk Stockings, which is almost more of a showcase for Charisse than it is Astaire. “All of You” is not just about Fred Astaire wooing through dance, but drawing out the highly controlled Ninotchka and cajoling her into dancing. For her, it is a liberation, a coming alive and expressing herself in the way she is meant to instead of burying it under austere rhetoric and party solidarity. The film also features the lovely dance where Ninotchka has hidden silk stockings, a corset, a hat and other feminine items of dress around her room and it is a moment of self-discovery for her.

On a side note: it’s a testament to what a gracious and unassuming dancer Fred Astaire was – though a perfectionist and 100% committed to his art – that he could adapt himself to whoever his dance partner happened to be (even Burns and Allen or Joan Fontaine).

Another frequent dance partner for Cyd Charisse was Ricardo Montalban. They danced together in five movies, all of which had totally inconsequential plots, but nevertheless contained some real dance delights. Because the dances are not integrated into the plot, they don’t reveal much about the characters, but that doesn’t dint one’s enjoyment because Cyd Charisse and Ricardo Montalban really seem to be enjoying themselves and each other. Montalban was not a dancer, but he possessed a natural athleticism and grace and he and Charisse generate a good amount of spark.

In another film – actually a Margaret O’Brien film, The Unfinished Dance – the entire arc of Cyd Charisse’s character is how she discovers that dancing is her life (and consequently her identity) and she dumps her fiance at the end so she can become fully committed to ballet. In another film – Meet Me in Las Vegas – much of the conflict between her and Dan Dailey is that she cannot give up ballet and he cannot give up his ranch. Ultimately, they compromise. But these are examples of how closely her characters are identified with dance. Without it, she almost doesn’t exist as a character.

cyd-charisse-in-silkesstrumpan-(1957)-large-pictureMy sister did ballet for many years and she has a lot of opinions about what constitutes good dancing. For her, one of the signs of skilled dancing is control. Buster Keaton had perfect control (though not a dancer). His body never did anything he didn’t want it to do and it’s the same with Cyd Charisse. As marvelous as Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth are as partners for Fred Astaire, you don’t want to look too closely at their arms, leg kicks or spins (which is a move that always gives the show away –  I took tap for seven years and profoundly sucked at spins).

But control is not “stiff.” There were few dancers more sexy than Cyd Charisse and in her case, perfect body control merely indicated reserves of sexiness, making her dances all the more potent. There never was anyone quite like her. She could do ballet and jazz (how she could do jazz!) and was so sensational, I’d watch an inferior movie, just to see her in one dance.

Be sure to read all the rest of the entries in today’s celebration of dance. Thanks again to Classic Reel Girl for hosting this wonderful event!

Below are some examples of Cyd Charisse. I tried to pick dances that were less known, which is why I omitted the sublime The Band Wagon.

“All of You” is the first dance between Astaire and Charisse in Silk Stockings. They discuss love (she maintains it’s a chemical reaction) and he can’t seem to make any headway until he starts dancing. The dance begins around the 5:30 mark.

And here is the lovely dance where she first puts on silk stockings in Silk Stockings.

From On An Island With You – the plot is barely there, but there are two lovely dances with Montalban and Charisse, as well as a few aquatic dances with Esther Williams.

Another example of a fun dance stuck in the middle of a film (Fiesta) for no other reason than it is fun.

Once again, in It’s Always Fair Weather Cyd Charisse loosens up through dance – though her love interest, Gene Kelly, is not present (how did those two not have a dance together in this film!). When Kelly first meets her, she seems like the ultimate, stereotypical career woman ice-queen and here she reveals herself to be far more accessible and grounded than he supposed.

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2016 in Movies

 

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What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing – Brian Seibert

11/15/2015-Cover of the book ìWhat the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancingî written by Brian Seibert. Published by Ferrar, Straus and Giroux. NYTCREDIT: Sonny Figueroa/The New York TimesI have become addicted to watching tap dancing clips on youtube. It’s owing to Brian Seibert’s fascinating book, What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. What makes it so addictive is that virtually all the tap dancers – not to mention the specific dances – that Seibert writes about can be found on youtube. The other affect the book had on me is to change the way I watch a tap dance. I’m now trying to listen as well as watch.

Seibert writes of how difficult tap dancing is to trace as a developing art form, partly because the early practitioners of tap dance were minstrel performers – white and black men – in blackface and it was their assertion that they were presenting an authentic representation of dancing done by slaves on the plantation, of which we have some written accounts, but not a lot of details. The question Seibert asks is how representational it really was. We don’t know. All history of tap dancing is inescapably mired in racial politics and issues of identity and imitation. Tap dancing both reinforced and sometimes slyly challenged racial attitudes. We do know that tap dancing is a blend of African dancing and Irish clogging, though no one knows exactly how or when the two traditions blended. It could have even been as early as the slave ships, were many of the sailors were Irish who brought black slaves to America and forced them dance on board ship for exercise.

There is so much in the book, it’s almost impossible to summarize. It’s comprehensive and covers history, appreciation, social commentary, mini-biographies. I learned a lot about American minstrel shows, vaudeville, even Hollywood. I learned that most dancers did not dub their own taps. When you watch Gene Kelly dance his iconic “Singin’ in the Rain,” you see him tap, but you are really hearing his dancing assistants. There were people who actually worked at Hollywood dubbing tap (often black dancers without the same opportunities as white dancers).

Bill Robinson doing his famous staircase dance

Bill Robinson doing his famous staircase dance

He talks about how tap is unique in that it is both dancing as a visual art and as an aural one. It is both dance and music and came to be intricately related to jazz, with dancers using their feet like a drum in interaction with the music. It is also an art form of “stolen steps.” Dancers would watch each other dance and try to “steal” a particular step they were doing, often putting a twist on it to make it their own. There was trading steps, too.

He also refers to the wit of someone’s tapping, the musical intelligence, skill, musicianship and range of their steps and dancing. For example, dancers like Fred Astaire and Bill Robinson had great wit. He’s not as much of a fan of Gene Kelly as a tap dancer, who he considers to have a limited number of steps which he does not use sufficiently creatively.

If you listen, it’s actually true. I still like Gene Kelly (who was more than a tap dancer – Seibert admits he could have been successful in ballet, too), but he’s not as interesting to just “listen” to as other dancers.

But this brings up an interesting aspect of tap dancing. Tap dancers can tend towards either focusing more on their tap, the sound they are making, or more on the visual aspect of dancing. The first is more musically interesting to hear and the second is more visually compelling. This is why Fred Astaire was such a success on film: without sacrificing the tapping element of his dance, he was also wonderful to watch, using all of his body or props as an extension of his body. There is also the tension between emphasizing improvisation versus choreography.

Brian Seibert is extremely thorough, exploring the origins, the era when tap reigned on Broadway and Hollywood, it’s relative demise in the late ’50s, it’s revival in the ’70s – largely brought about by persistent women who coaxed many dancers to pass on their wisdom. These women – Brenda Bufalino, Jane Goldberg – are largely overlooks now, though through their efforts, many men – masters at their art – who had never been hugely famous before were now celebrated and  were able to pass their tradition on, with dancers like Gregory Hines making tap more popular in the 1980s and his chosen successor, Savion Glover, still going strong today.

Star HooferThe entire book was interesting, but because of my interest in classic movies I couldn’t help but be most fascinated by his section on tap dancing in Hollywood. One of the great thing about the book is that I learned about the people who you see in movies, but never really know. For example, I knew the Nicholas Brothers. They show up in movies, danced amazingly, did incredible splits, but now I know who each brother is, Fayard and Harold, and can appreciate them as individuals. It really makes all the tap dancing teams come alive as real people.

Here is a sample of some of the dancers through history.

Peg Leg Bates: He lost the bottom half of his leg in a machine accident while working as a child, but this did not prevent him from becoming an accomplished dancer and going to New York City. He never appeared in any movies, but appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show nearly twenty times. Because of his wooden leg, he was able to create a unique sound, contrasting the deeper, stronger resonance of his wooden leg with the lighter sound of his other leg.

Bill Robinson might have been the most famous tap dancer in the 1920s and was certainly the most successful and famous black entertainer of the era. He was known for his staircase dance, which he perfected on vaudeville and taught a version of to Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel. He style was often compared to smooth, running water – he mostly tapped on his toes and not his heel – with a brilliant regularity and symmetry of rhythm.

John Bubbles is one of the great tap dancers, though not as well known since he didn’t appear in many movies (he was the original Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”). He is not the first dancer to use his heel, but he definitely used it more and brought more syncopation to tap dancing. He wasn’t a solo act, though. He was part of the duo, Buck and Bubbles. Ford “Buck” Washington played the piano and he danced and sang and they often did comedy bits together.

The Nicholas Brothers were never given a part in any film, but they appeared in quite a few, enough to make them one of the more famous tap duos in history. Fayard Nicholas was the eldest (he is the taller brother), who taught his brother, more conscious of his arms and elegance and who did more choreography. Harold is the youngest who learned quickly and had a natural charisma that tended to overshadow his brother slightly.

Fred Astaire, of course. This is a great example of how he used props and interacted with his surroundings to create a highly visually compelling and original dance, while still tapping great (this is one of the examples Seibert cites).

Gene Kelly from An American in Paris.

Baby Laurence (Laurence Jackson) was almost really a jazz musician and worked as a floor show with some of the great jazz musicians: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, was inspired by Art Tatum, Charlie Parker. We don’t have any video recordings of his younger tapping days, but he did record this album.

Gregory Hines brought tap to a wider audience again in the 1980s and also made  a number of movies, showing he could act even when he wasn’t dancing. For his films he did what he called improvogrphy, a combination of choreography and improvisation. This dance is from White Nights, which he starred in with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

I was not familiar with Savion Glover before reading this book, but he is the most famous tap dancer of our era, a supreme dancer who made tap cool again, though Brian Seibert seems to both admire him and have some reservations about the direction Glover has taken tap dancing…perhaps a little too inward, a little to protective of tap dancing as he sees it and not as inclusive of people who see tap dancing differently. This clip doesn’t appear inward, though I’m not sure how typical an example it is. But he looks like he’s having a ball.

 

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2016 in Books

 

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Revisiting “Singin’ In the Rain”

singin-in-the-rain-half-cut-web-9862In looking back, I am quite sure that my lifelong obsession with rain began with Singin’ In the Rain, a movie I loved so much as a child that I used to watch it before I was even old enough to understand what the plot was because the dancing so much captured my imagination.

I even took tap dancing lessons for seven years. I wanted to dance like Gene Kelly, which didn’t exactly happen. I didn’t like taking ballet lessons and it really helps to know ballet. It teaches you grace and body control (unless you’re Fred Astaire – he always said he hated ballet and had very few lessons and somehow it never affected his grace or body control).

But I watched Singin’ In the Rain so often as a child that inevitably I burned out on it. It began to seem a bit routine, a bit old hat, and since I was simultaneously discovering what seemed to me the much fresher Fred Astaire (and his sublime The Band WagonSingin’ in the Rain inevitably fell by the wayside, un-watched for years.

But then Andrea Lundgren and I saw Gene Kelly in the 1948 The Three Musketeers and we recognized certain scenes, in their original technicolor, that were later used as footage for Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont’s The Royal Rascal. Suddenly, we both had a keen desire to revisit a movie that felt like an old friend.

The experience was like wrapping myself up in a warm blanket and looking at pictures of a happy childhood. It remains, after who knows how many viewings, an eternally happy, energizing film that makes you feel certain you can get up and dance; I think I must have grinned like a goofball the entire time.

So, did I notice anything new after all these years? Nothing world-shaking, but a few things stood out to me.

That dress is really green

That dress is really green

1) The dress Lina Lamont wears to the opening of The Royal Rascal is green! Her shoes are green, too! Most people probably already know this, but I never did, which is a testament to how bad my TV screen is. Seeing it on a new screen was revelatory, at least in a sensory way.

2) Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont’s careers appears to be co-dependent…or at least, he is dependent on her. Lina Lamont was a star before Don Lockwood broke into the industry as a stunt man, so she didn’t need him to get started. But at the point the movie starts – in 1927 – they appear to be a brand name: Lockwood and Lamont. The way they talk about saving Lockwood and Lamont, you would think they sink or swim together. Do they make movies on their own anymore? Can he be a success without her? Is there any guarantee that people will like Lockwood and Seldon as well as they did Lockwood and Lamont?

3) Don Lockwood and Cathy Seldon totally climbed over the dead wreckage of Lina Lamont’s career to forge a new career of their own. Supposedly, they change The Dueling Cavalier to a musical in order to save Lockwood and Lamont, but since Lina Lamont neither sings nor acts, how could they possibly suppose that they were doing anything other than saving Don Lockwood’s career while jettisoning Lina Lamont’s. Lina was right to be worried about her career. Perhaps her methods were crude, but she definitely had a point.

4) Cosmo Brown seems to be the only truly smart person around (and how did R.F. ever get to be head of Monumental Pictures?). And as Andrea Lundgren observed while we were watching, he seems such a talented comedian and performer that it seems incredible that he isn’t in movies, too. But since he’s apparently also a composer, a fair hand at plotting movies, good at dancing as well as singing, perhaps he’s simply too talented for his own good and can’t fix on any one thing to do. But seriously, he ought really to be the one running the studio.

Wheee! That looks like so much fun! Can I do it, too?

Wheee! That looks like fun! Can I do it, too?

5) Although I always assumed that Singin in the Rain was spoofing silent movies, I’d like to offer a new theory. At least in the case of the Royal Rascal, they are spoofing adventure films. Considering that much of the footage of The Royal Rascal was taken from when Gene Kelly played a seriously over-the-top and spoofy D’Artagnan in the 1948 The Three Musketeers and that anything that was added to The Royal Rascal (those scenes featuring Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont) would hardly have been out of place in The Three Musketeers, it could be seen as laughing more at the kind of ultra-heroic, swashbuckling adventure films with dashing heroes and swooning ladies than any specific silent film.

6) This last point is not an observation so much as speculation about what happens after the film ends. Lina Lamont clearly has a very smart lawyer, considering that he got her a contract where she controls all her own publicity so that the studio is responsible for any publicity that reflects badly on her. My theory is that her lawyer has her sue Monumental Pictures after the whole Dancing Cavalier debacle. Since he’s a smart lawyer, she would win and then I figure that she then marries her lawyer and the two of them became seriously wealthy powerhouses in the movie industry. Either that or he arranges for her to make a comeback as a comedian. All she’d have to do is play it straight and she’d be a hit! I’d totally go to see Lina Lamont in a comedy.

In closing, just because it always makes me so happy, here is that song and dance that never gets old. It makes me wish it would start raining right now.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2015 in Movies

 

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