I got re-energized about Fred Astaire—hence “Astaire Week”—through correspondence with my friend Latha Menon, who lives in Oxford, is pursuing a Ph.D in paleobiology, and is also the editor of the UK edition (Oxford University Press) of WEIT. Her emails about Le Fred were so enthusiastic that I asked her to write a guest post, and she’s kindly obliged. I’ve put at the bottom one of his finest dance sequences, from “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” and linked Latha’s discussion to a few of the videos she describes. You might not want to watch them yet, for I’ll be featuring a few in the week to come.
Astaire: song and dance man, supreme artist
by Latha Menon
Ok, I’m the one to blame for inspiring Astaire Week on the Coyne blog.* So, what’s so special about Fred Astaire?
I write as an unashamed fan. But I’m in excellent company. The most obvious point about Astaire has to be his supreme artistry as a dancer, praised in the most effusive terms by the likes of Balanchine, Baryshnikov, and Nureyev. Yet by all accounts he considered himself as a ‘song and dance man’, not a proponent of ‘high art’.
But such barriers are, after all, artificial. As a perfectionist famous for his intense concentration and hours of practice, constant striving for development and innovation, and, most importantly, performances that transcended effort and technical precision to achieve a sublime sense of ease, naturalness, and grace, he is, in my view, to be compared to any of the greatest classical dancers. These are the qualities of any true artist. The first and finest dancer of the silver screen, Astaire’s use of the new medium not only reached wide audiences but has enabled his influence to permeate dance for generations. It continues to do so.
There are the dance partners to be considered too, of course, and for many that means almost exclusively Ginger Rogers. Clearly they worked well on screen as a dance couple, and some of the most beautiful and tender pas de deux were performed with Rogers (my favourites include those performed to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” from The Gay Divorcee, and Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” from Roberta). But I agree with those critics who view their success as mainly due to Rogers’s excellent acting rather than her dancing abilities. No matter. Rogers had spunk and style, she learned and improved, and the pairing worked. It’s hard to beat the charm of those ‘30s films.
Other partners, trained in dance, produced some fine performances in later films, and allowed the incorporation of new styles: think of Rita Hayworth’s Latin touches, Cyd Charisse and jazz ballet, not to mention the hard virtuosic glitter of Eleanor Powell’s ‘machine-gun’ tapping in “Begin the Beguine” (Broadway Melody of 1940). (Note that Astaire’s performance shows his fluid, whole body dancing style, even in the fastest tapping, while Powell’s approach is much more focused on the feet with some standard arm movement, to maximise speed.) And let’s not forget the elegance and style he gave to his least obliging partner – a hatrack.
But to see his full abilities just look at Fred’s solos: the use in his tap performances of overlays of different beat cycles and counterpoint (no wonder a parallel has been made with Bach), and sudden changes of rhythm; the extraordinary ability to incorporate and control props, most strikingly the use of a cane; and the use of combined drumming-tapping to produce complex sequences, for example to the Gershwins’ “Nice Work if You Can Get It”, in Damsel in Distress). (A fine choreographer himself, Astaire devised most of his early solo sequences, before collaborating increasingly and highly effectively with Hermes Pan; their depth of mutual understanding seems to have been extraordinary.) Perhaps the most striking of his solos, setting aside the clever transitions from face to face of a revolving room in Royal Wedding, is the angry, stylish, glass-breaking dance to Arlen and Mercer’s One For My Baby in The Sky’s The Limit. Real glass.
And then there was the singing. What a period the ‘30s and ‘40s seem to have been for songs – the standards of Kern, Berlin, the Gershwins among them. Many of the greats were written for Astaire (including “One For My Baby”). And how he sang them! No crooner, he had a light voice but all his physical grace, charm, and musicality seems to have been poured into his singing, making him one of the most highly regarded interpreters of songs from this period.
And then there was the drumming and the ‘filthy piano’ playing (catch a bit of the jazz piano in the start of “I Won’t Dance: in Roberta). But I’ll stop there. Oh, except that I forgot to mention: it helps that he was kinda cute too.
*JAC: it’s a website!
Thanks to Latha for the post. To complement it, here’s Astaire, in Blue Skies (1946), tapping up a storm and deftly wielding his cane to the Irving Berlin tune “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” To me this is one of Astaire’s best performances on film, and he was 47 years old. As we’ll see, he was going strong well into his fifties.