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White Nights (1985)

White_Nights-407191796-largeAfter reading the book What The Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, I became extremely interested in seeing tap dancer Gregory Hines in a movie or two. The first of his films that came my way was White Nights, starring Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov, a musical cold war thriller. It has massive plotting issues, but the music and the dancing is sensational.

Nikolai Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov) defected from Russian eight years before the movie opens and when he is on a plane that must make an emergency landing in Russia he suffers a slight injury, which the Russian authorities play up as a serious injury. Meanwhile, they won’t let Rodchenko leave or contact anyone else and want him to dance at the season opening of the Kirov. Colonel Chaiko (Jerzy Skolimowski) is our main villain in this and he asks (orders) Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines) to watch Rodchenko, make sure he doesn’t get in to trouble or leave or anything like that.

Greenwood defected to Russia around the same time that Rodchenko left Russia. Disillusioned by the Vietnam War and racism in America, he thought Russia might be better. Things didn’t quite work out the way he imagined, but one thing that did was that he fell in love with and married Darya (Isabella Rossellini). Now he and Darya are in Moscow, living in the Kirov with Rodchenko, who is doing everything he can to escape.

Meanwhile, Colonel Chaiko has enlisted the aid of Galina Ivanova (Helen Mirren), who used to be Rodchenko’s lover before he defected. She’s still angry with him for leaving her, but has managed to make a life for herself as head of the Kirov, though she still is not able to put on the shows she would like, such as an evening dancing to Balanchine (who was Russian and defected in 1924). In fact, one of the big reasons that Rodchenko gives for having left the Soviet Union is that he was being stifled artistically, that he could not breath while being so closely watching and “playing their games.”

But the core of the story is in the relationship between Rodchenko and Greenwood. Raymond Greendwood is initially just trying to make a life for himself and his wife. Stuck in Siberia (we’re not told why), he jumps at the chance to return to Moscow, where Darya grew up. He and Rodchenko frequently clash. Rodchenko resents him because Greenwood is supposed to be watching him and Greenwood resents him because he believes he’s spoiled and left for a bigger paycheck, not freedom at all. But as the two men get to know each other, they come to discover common cause. And when Greenwood discovers that his wife is pregnant, he decides that he wants their child to grow up in America and agrees to help Rodchenko escape, if he’ll bring Greenwood and his wife with him.

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Isabella Rossellini and Gregory Hines – he was just performing in “Porgy and Bess” to an appreciative audience in Sibera

As I said, the plot has a lot of holes. Greenwood’s reason for leaving America doesn’t quite seem convincing (and he’s never said to be a communist, which would have made it more plausible for him to choose Russia to live in). And it seems slightly mysterious why Colonel Chaiko would choose Greenwood to watch Rodchenko. But admittedly, plotting is rarely the strength of a musical.

Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov are two very different dancers and we get the scope to see both of them in their element, as well as a dance that finds a middle ground for the both of them to dance together. They are both dynamic and skilled performers and when they are dancing the film is at it’s best.

People have often wondered if White Nights sort of represents Mikhail Baryshnikov’s apologia for why he left the Soviet Union. I have read that he very much wanted to dance for the new choreographers and was frustrated with the tradition-bound Soviet approach, which is also the primary motivation for Rodchenko in the film. As a result, the majority of dancing that Baryshnikov does is modern, though he does demonstrate a few traditional leaps and spins (eleven pirouettes, in a bet with Greenwood).

Gregory Hines offers an entirely different dancing approach. He would improvise his own dancing, which he called improvography. He does one dance in “Porgy and Bess” as Sportin’ Life and even does some singing. He also uses tap dancing to tell his story to Rodchenko and express his frustration with America, as well as a dance he does near the end of the film.

They are dancers, but I never sat there and thought, “Oh, you can tell those guys are not real actors.” They were more than convincing. I also thought Isabella Rossellini brought warmth and feeling to her role as Hines’ wife. She bears a strong resemblance to her mother, Ingrid Bergman, and even the way she talked sometimes reminded me of Bergman. It is also fun to see Helen Mirren in an early role. Her father was Russian (her grandfather got stuck in England when the Russian Revolution occurred) and she has the accent down well. This is also the film where she met her future husband, Taylor Hackford, who directed the movie.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Helen Mirren

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Helen Mirren

Because the Cold War was still on, director Taylor Hackford was unable to shoot in Russia, though Isabella Rossellini and Gregory Hines were able to visit (Baryshnikov would not have risked going back). What they did instead was send a team in to film a “travel movie.” They used the footage – such as of the outside of the Kirov – and combined it with what they’d filmed around Europe, as well as the bits filmed in the studio. The result is actually quite seamless.

White Nights produced two hit songs: “Say You, Say Me,” by Lionel Ritchie, and “Separate Lives,” by Phil Collins. Both songs were nominated for Best Original Song, with “Say You, Say Me” winning the award.

In this dance sequence, choreographed by Twyla Tharp, a compromise is reached between the two dancing styles of Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Notice the karate kicks incorporated, since Hines once taught karate. Twyla Tharp actually choreographed a number of dances for Baryshnikov and represents a blend of ballet, jazz and pop. The random guy boxing in the clip is Colonel Chaiko, with his surveillance camera.

“Say You, Say Me,”  by Lionel Ritchie.

“Separate Lives,” by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin

 
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Posted by on February 10, 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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