Gene Kelly: I never wanted to be a team


(ARHIVE)Gene Kelly came to town the other day to talk about dance – not exactly a foreign subject to him, and hardly irrelevant to ”That’s Dancing,” a new film for which he is the chief narrator and executive producer. Like the movie – an anthology of dance-on-film excerpts that opens in New York tomorrow – Mr. Kelly himself represents a wide range of dance over the decades.

If the entire world seemingly knows of Mr. Kelly’s contribution to film musicals, few of his fans may be aware of how far-reaching the dance background was that got him to the top and kept him there as dancer, choreographer and director.

Like Martha Graham, Mr. Kelly hails from Pittsburgh, and he too first attracted attention on Broadway under the sponsorship of the same noted producer, John Murray Anderson. Few balletomanes may know that his most influential ballet teacher, Berenice Holmes, was the original Polyhymnia in the commissioned premiere of Stravinsky’s ”Apollo,” choreographed by Adolph Bolm in 1927. One year later, Serge Diaghilev assigned the same score to George Balanchine.

A Diaghilev dancer and Bolshoi alumnus, Alexander Kotchetovsky, helped round out Mr. Kelly’s ballet education in the 1930’s, when he was also learning to do a mean Rumanian chain dance and Polish mazurka at dance teachers’ conventions. The tap and acrobatics instilled in Mr. Kelly as a child were, as he put it, ”a piece of cake,” by the time he found a mentor in the Broadway choreographer Robert Alton – an unsung innovator of the Broadway musical.

After Mr. Kelly himself did a great deal to change the Hollywood musical, he created – using ballet dancers – the first American all-dance movie feature, ”Invitation to the Dance.” He was also the first American-born choreographer to create a ballet for the Paris Opera Ballet, ”Pas de Dieux.” The ballet experiences have left him with a few scars. In a curious metaphor that suggests he sees himself as a knight pulling a magic sword out of the murky depths of misunderstanding, he refers to his attempt to popularize ballet in the 1950’s as a mission, ”part of my Excalibur ideology.”

Interviewed in his New York hotel suite and asked if he would like to choreograph a work for an American ballet company today, the 72-year-old Mr. Kelly replied, ”Yes.” At the same time, he sought to distinguish his own approach to dance as seen in films from those of stage choreographers in ballet.

”The thing that I do,” he said, ”is not the same as my friend Peter Martins or Jerry Robbins because they’re with dance companies and they use dance with music to express a certain idea in the context of a complete dance that includes music.

”The dancer in film for years has not done that. He takes a role. He gets a group of songs sometimes and interprets the role. If he is a truck driver, he cannot come out and dance in fifth position. Everybody would laugh. If he is a prince consort he would have to dance a certain way. If I played a pirate in the early 19th century, I certainly couldn’t tap dance.

”So the role of the dancer is subject to the role he’s playing and often very subject to the song that’s composed. This doesn’t happen in a dance company. The question is who has the greater freedom.”

Implicit behind his remarks is a dance philosophy that Mr. Kelly and a few other key figures did much to promote in the 1940’s and 50’s. The idea of the integrated musical – in which the dancing advances the plot – is now taken for granted on Broadway and on film (”Singin’ in the Rain” is a prime example).

But in ”Pal Joey,” the Rodgers and Hart musical based on John O’Hara’s stories that catapulted Mr. Kelly to stardom on Broadway in 1940 and then to Hollywood, his approach to dance was definitely novel.

Directed by George Abbott and choreographed by Robert Alton, ”Pal Joey” charted a rake’s progress. Mr. Kelly played the heel as anti-hero and in Mr. Alton’s choreography he found the means to effect characterization with dancing. ”A tap dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed to unique,” wrote John Martin, dance critic of The New York Times in 1940, about Mr. Kelly’s performance.

Paradoxically in ”That’s Dancing,” the extracted dance numbers resemble the set pieces that the integrated musical was meant to abolish. Is it possible, however, that the old show-stopping production number – inserted into a musical like an irrelevant divertissement – has some virtues after all?
‘Stopped the Show’

Mr. Kelly seemed genuinely startled by the question. Nonetheless, an old pro – in dance at least – he lost no time in replying. The integrated number can also be a show-stopper, he said. Mr. Alton’s choreography in ”Pal Joey” was an example. ”Anytime Bob Alton put on a dance number he stopped the show,” he said.

Although Balanchine and Agnes de Mille are usually credited with pioneering the integrated dramatic musical, Mr. Alton has his champions as the leader in the field, and Mr. Kelly is clearly his prime supporter. ”As for choreography in the 1930’s and 40’s, there was no one who could top Bob Alton,” Mr. Kelly said.

Asked why he never teamed up with a steady partner the way Fred Astaire did with Ginger Rogers for 10 years, Mr. Kelly said quite simply, ”I never wanted to be a team.” Moreover, he said, the ballroom style of partnerships such as Mr. Astaire’s was not his, and was identified with the 1930’s.

”What I wanted was the role, and I think I brought those girls along – Judy Garland, Vera-Ellen, Cyd Charisse. I cast them in a role. Again, we’re not like the guys in dance companies. You could call me a song-and- dance man.”

Popularizer of Dance

As the great popularizer of dance in nearly every form, Mr. Kelly promoted an image as a dancer and choreographer that was always more ecumenical than eclectic. It is true that he could occasionally be spotted in a top hat and tails on the screen. But he chose to forgo that overt elegance early on. Americans saw him as a low-ranking gob – a sailor in ”Anchors Aweigh” or ”On the Town.” His trademark was specifically democratic: casual street dress, from rolled-up sleeves to slacks and loafers.

The deliberately masculine bravura style he cultivated for a dance- shy public in his early career could be traced to the ecumenism of his training. Berenice Holmes, with whom he studied ballet for several summers in Chicago in the 1930’s, had danced with Adolph Bolm’s companies in the United States. Bolm epitomized the kind of virile Russian male ballet dancer Diaghilev had unleashed upon Paris in 1909. As the ferocious warrior in the ”Polovetsian Dances,” Bolm remained unmatched in his bravura.

”Berenice Holmes was really remarkable,” Mr. Kelly recalled. ”Because she had been with Bolm, she knew how a man could dance. She could do double tours en l’air better than a man.”

Ballet was not the first type of dance that Mr. Kelly, his two sisters and two brothers learned when their mother sent them to ”a very polite dancing academy” in Pittsburgh in the early 1920’s when they were children. ”As second-generation Irish, we should improve ourselves, she thought,” Mr. Kelly said. The idea was so good that before he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1933, he had opened the Gene Kelly School of Dance and started a second branch in Johnstown, Pa. One of Mr. Kelly’s sisters taught beginning ballet, while his younger brother, Fred, performed with him in nightclubs and local shows.

Dominant Dance Esthetics

When Mr. Alton, who saw his stagings in Pittsburgh, encouraged him to come to New York in 1937, Mr. Kelly already saw himself as a choreographer rather than as a dancer. It is easy to take him at his word and view him only in a film context. Certainly his experiments with film technology, including animated-cartoon figures as partners, gave viewers a creative view of dance on film. Yet as a choreographer he was remarkably attuned to the dominant dance esthetics of his day. Even his dance with an alter ego in ”Cover Girl” was the counterpart of the psychological dance-drama dominant in the 1940’s.

When he recruited ballet dancers for ”Invitation to the Dance,” his first choices for male stars were Igor Youskevitch of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Ballet Theater and Jean Babilee from Roland Petit’s company in France. ”They were gymnasts, that’s how we all started,” he said.

The French ballerina Janine Charrat led him to Claire Sombert, a young unknown at the Paris Opera Ballet, and Mr. Kelly enlisted the ballerina Tamara Toumanova and a leading Balanchine ballerina, Diana Adams. The novelty of an all-dance film was so strange in 1956 that Life magazine referred to the movie at its release as ”a nontalkie entirely done in dance.”

The film died but Mr. Kelly went on to accept the Paris Opera Ballet’s invitation in 1960 to choreograph ”Pas de Dieux.” Claude Bessy, the rising French ballet star he had used in ”Invitation to the Dance” portrayed ”Zeus’s lady who is bored and comes down to the South of France for a fling.” It was good clean naughty fun and Mr. Kelly could use all the flying machines for clouds and chariots that a 19th-century opera house can provide. By his own account, ”the ensemble choreography was weak but the individual parts in the pas de deux were well done.”

”Now I feel I could do it better,” he added.


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