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Fred Astaire

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Article 2

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 national symbol: 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 is a 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 posterity?

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, Neb., Frederick 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 Broadway star.

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 cannot 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 New 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 and the spirit a big boost."

1987 The New York Times Company

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