Fred Astaire Perfected a New Art Form
by Anna Kisselgoff
The New York Times, 28 June 1987 page II 20
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN every American boy wanted to be Fred
Astaire - even Fred Astaire.
The magnitude of his achievement is as great a social
phenomenon as it is a chapter in the history of art and entertainment.
Mr. Astaire, who died last Sunday at the age of 88, made
dancing more than respectable in a country with a Puritan heritage. He became a
Ask any foreigner to name one of the great movie stars of all time and "Fred
Astaire," more often than not, will be the reply. The point is that this image
dancer's image. Should Fred Astaire be appraised specifically from the "dance"
point of view? What other point of view is there? Would we be honoring him
today for his singing, for his acting - that is, if he had never danced or
choreographed the brilliant set pieces that fortunately film has preserved for
Fred Astaire entertained through his art. The continuous
inanity of commentators who claim he made it all look easy never ceases to
amaze. A professional
dance watcher can testify to the complexity of attempting to analyze the phrases
and steps of every Astaire solo and duet. As Ginger
Rogers has remarked,
she and Mr. Astaire would rehearse for six weeks straight before the filming of
any of their movies would even begin.
Like all great dancers, Mr. Astaire was a professional with
solid training. The son of an Austrian brewery employee who settled in Omaha,
Austerlitz had a stage mother, Ann Geilus Austerlitz. In 1904, she enrolled her
children, Fred and Adele, in Claude Alvienne's dancing school in New York. As a
child act, the brother-sister team was launched in vaudeville in 1905. Young
Fred then attended Ned Wayburn's well-known dance school on Columbus Circle,
where he learned more ballet than he later acknowledged. As John Mueller notes
in his comprehensive and excellent study of the Astaire films, "Astaire
Dancing" (Knopf, 1985), Mr. Astaire considered another vaudeville dancer -
Aurelio Coccia - as the most influential man in his dancing career. Mr. Coccia's
guidance facilitated the Astaires' transition to stage musicals. When Adele
retired and Mr. Astaire arrived in Hollywood in 1933, he was an established
At a time when Anna Pavlova and Martha Graham toured in
vaudeville, it was natural that Mr. Astaire's viewpoint on dance would be shaped
by a variety of
influences. By his own account, these included John Bubbles, the tap dancer,
Adeline Genee, the Danish ballerina, and the dance teams of Vernon and Irene
Castle, and Bert Kalmar and Jessie Brown, as well as
Rita Hayworth's parents,
Eduardo and Elisa Cansino.
Mr. Astaire came to film prominence in the 1930's - the era of
the ballroom teams. The astoundingly inventive and virtuosic Astaire solos
remain in the mind's
eye - jumping around the furniture ("Needle in a Haystack") in "The Gay
Divorcee"; the tap brilliance ("I Won't Dance") in "Roberta"; the
unsurpassed class act
of "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" in "Top Hat"; the fantasy and whimsy of
the clothes-tree number ("Sunday Jump") in "Royal Wedding."
The irony of the dancer's career is that this exceptional
soloist, a polished technician in every sense, achieved his success as a member
of a team - first with
Adele and then with Miss Rogers. There is no doubt that
Rogers and Astaire
captured the public imagination because they acted out a continuing romance in
chapters. The world they inhabited in their best duets consisted almost always
of empty ballrooms and empty stages. Two special people, nothing real about
them, a pair whose keynote was Mr. Astaire's super-real dancing.
The ballroom team as a genre fell out of favor in the 1940's.
Gene Kelly was among the first to profit from this shift and to emerge as a
soloist, attached to no
specific partner. It was no surprise, however, that Mr. Astaire still gave a
younger generation a run for its money.
His technique, incorporating tap, ballet and ballroom, was
impeccable in terms of the dance image he invented for himself. "Top Hat" and
"Swing Time," the
quintessential Astaire films, define his special contribution: Mr. Astaire never
lost sight of the fact that he was dancing on film.
His movies should be seen then as dance films with plots - not
as story films that contain dances. Merce Cunningham once made a telling point
when he said it
didn't matter whether one had seen Mr. Astaire live on stage: "I'm not sorry
that I saw him only on film," he said. Mr. Astaire's use of the film medium
be divorced from the dancing and choreography. He perfected "film dance" as a
new art form.
What of Mr. Astaire's influence on the dance world? It was
chiefly one of inspiration. Imitating the inimitable was impossible, although in
recent years there
have been many overt tributes to him. The most recent is Rudolf Nureyev's
clothes-tree number in the Paris Opera Ballet's "Cinderella," seen recently in
York. Jerome Robbins's "I'm Old Fashioned" starts out with an actual film clip
of Mr. Astaire and Miss Hayworth before the New York City Ballet swings into
variations on their duet.
Last month, Mr. Cunningham presented one of four special
Capezio Awards to Mr. Astaire in absentia. It might be fitting to close with one
dancer's appraisal of
another. Mr. Cunningham singled out some special Astaire qualities - "His wit
and play with steps, going slightly ahead of the beat and again delaying to
stretch something of a fraction . . . the sheer pleasure of his dancing - a
quality that makes us lose track of mental gymnastics. It gives the mind a rest
the spirit a big boost."
© 1987 The New York Times Company