Monday, May 12, 2008
Is this a dance which I see before me? Or, Dance as Soliloquy
The Siren has always mentally divided Hollywood dance sequences into different types. There is the first kind, the dance as staged interlude.
There's the type that Busby Berkeley perfected for all time, Dance as Spectacle. As a girl this was not only the Siren's favorite type of dance, it was her favorite type of movie, period. If she could switch on the television and spot showgirls with marcelled hair making big flower-blooming patterns, the Siren's week was made. Since these were always backstage musicals she was convinced for at least the first decade of her life that somewhere there was a stage big enough to accomodate "The Lullaby of Broadway."
Later on the Siren became acquainted, through Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with dance as courtship ...
... and, when she was old enough to get the idea, with dance as consummation.
Astaire and Rogers did this brilliantly but they were far from the only ones. Over at Raymond de Felitta's place you will find him posting a Cyd Charisse number with James Mitchell (later to be Palmer Cortlandt on All My Children) that is indescribably lustful.
But it wasn't until fairly late in the Hollywood musical's flowering that we got what is perhaps the purest form of film dancing, dance as soliloquy. There were few dancers who could carry this off, and in fact Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly have this category almost to themselves, with at least one exception noted below.
In essence, the character's emotions reach such a pitch that he's gotta dance. It's romance that pushes him to this point, usually, either from pure happiness or despair. The most famous dance-as-soliloquy of all time is "Singin' in the Rain," which the Siren adores as much as anyone else but won't discuss here since what's left to say? Another favorite from Gene Kelly is this one, "I Like Myself" from It's Always Fair Weather.
In some ways this is the perfect example of what the Siren is talking about--Kelly is not only ecstatically in love with the ravishing Cyd Charisse, but also celebrating a new outlook on life, after a depressing afternoon in which he discovered that not only can you not go home again, as Thomas Wolfe told us, you also can't go back to the Army or its comradeship. I suppose you could look at it as a re-run of "Singin' in the Rain," which has an almost identical set-up for its centerpiece soliloquy, but in this as in the rest of the film, IAFW is darker and more complicated. The breathtaking impossibility of Gene's dancing around on roller skates is matched with the point in the plot--this kind of happiness is also impossible, fragile and won't last, any more than the giddy trash-can-dancing camraderie in the first part of the movie has lasted.
It's Always Fair Weather was, as de Felitta notes in this splendid write-up, just about the last gasp for the Freed unit. And the Siren completely agrees with Raymond that it's a great shame, because Kelly was poised to take the musical in even more varied and unexpected directions. If you ever get a chance to catch it on TCM, the Siren highly recommends Invitation to the Dance to her readers who are true dance addicts.
But in this category, as in so much, it has to be acknowledged that Astaire got there first, as in this snippet from the spellbinding "One For My Baby" number in the otherwise not-terribly-interesting The Sky's the Limit.
This is a number to savor. There's the perfection of Astaire's take on this type of "romantic" drunk--the way maudlin self-pity alternates with the compulsion to fight anything, up to and including the bar glasses. As in "I Like Myself," there's the fact that while the movements look organic and natural and seem to flow from the character's mental state with great ease, Astaire is expressing it all with steps no mortal man can equal.
Astaire could do that with other soliloquy dances too, including an early example such as "No Strings" from Top Hat, with Astaire singing about the joys of being a bachelor (since before Shakespeare's time, a sure way to mark yourself for Cupid's arrow), then turning it into a sand dance when fate, oopsImean Ginger, intrudes. There's the immortal "Dancing on the Ceiling" from Royal Wedding, where the gimmicky-ness of the turning room actually distracts a bit from how tender the moment is. Or there's the short but lovely number "Yolanda" from the criminally underrated Yolanda and the Thief, where Fred dances with a harp.
The final example the Siren is posting here is Cyd Charisse's exquisite solo from Silk Stockings. This musical is highly regarded by some, including de Felitta and David Thomson, but the Siren finds it pretty thin gruel, perhaps because she treasures every moment of Ninotchka, and while Garbo was a lousy ballerina, Cyd was no Garbo. But this snippet is one of the loveliest parts of the movie, expressing not just love, but the joy to be had in savoring your own beauty. That's definitely a part of all the soliloquies--for a few minutes, these dancers draw the audience, no matter how pudgy, flat-footed or hopelessly arrhythmic, and let us share the way they move. I like myself, indeed.
NOTE: The Siren tried hard to post the video clips in here and failed, utterly, so you'll have to follow the links. This post is a humble and (very) belated offering in Ferdy on Films' Invitation to the Dance blog-a-thon.