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Article 3

For Dancers, A Peerless Model

by Alan M. Kriegsman, Washington Post Staff Writer

The Washington Post, 23 June 1987 page D1

No one ever better fit Fred Astaire in the dancer's scheme of things than Mikhail Baryshnikov, opening the tribute on the occasion of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1981:

"I have been invited to say something about how dancers feel about Fred Astaire," Baryshnikov said. "It's no secret. We hate him.

"He gives us complexes, because he's too perfect. His perfection is an absurdity that's hard to face." Classical dancers could deal with legendary rivals from the past, such as Nijinsky, because their accomplishments were known from books and from photographs that don't move, Baryshnikov said. With Astaire it was another story:

"The problem with Astaire is that he's everywhere -- moving. You know, you give your own performance and receive applause and you think maybe, just maybe, it was successful, and you go home ... and turn on the television to relax and there he is. Making you feel nervous all over again.

"You remember the remark by Ilie Nastase about Bjorn Borg: 'We are playing tennis, he is playing something else.' It's the same with Fred Astaire -- we are dancing, but he is doing something else."

Part of Astaire's power over the public had to do with the uncanny ease of his dance mastery. It made him the envy of dance professionals everywhere, who knew that Astaire must be killing himself just as they all had to, but that in Astaire's case it just never showed, even to the merest degree.

It also made him the despair of eligible males of any calling, whose sweethearts expected them to be as agile, as suave, as fleet, as gallant, as ardent and attentive on the dance floor and off as Astaire always appeared to be. Anything as easy as Astaire made dancing appear to be could obviously be picked up instantly, by even the clumsiest of men -- wasn't it so?

Because the silver screen made Astaire automatically the most widely seen dancer in history, he unquestionably inspired more dance careers than can ever be accurately tallied. As any dance journalist can tell you, nine times out of 10 the answer to the question "What led you into dancing?" turns out to be "Seeing Fred Astaire pictures."

But Astaire's place in dance history will rest on far more than his unprecedented efficacy as a role model. He created a uniquely versatile fusion of tap and ballroom dance, and revolutionized the filming of choreography with the riveting intimacy and concentration of his movie duets and solos.

His celebrated series of black-and-white film classics with Ginger Rogers as his partner in the '30s helped Americans dance their way, even if only vicariously, out of the Great Depression and into fantasies of carefree romance. He turned the dance duet from stylized courtship into a miniature dramatic form -- a love story told with amazing succinctness and emotional punch. He gave the public license to roam freely through any social milieu, with popular dances as the universal passwords. Astaire looked perfectly at home in the top hat, white tie and tails he privately loathed, but he looked just as comfortable in a sailor suit.

Who but Astaire could have had every woman in America longing to change places with a hat rack? And who but Astaire, in the mass medium of the movies, could have gotten away with a dance monologue as full of bitterness, anger and frustration as the glass-smashing bar-top solo, "One for My Baby," in "The Sky's the Limit"?

Unquestionably, Astaire owed much of his craft, style and step vocabulary to the great black jazz tap artists of his time, such as Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, to whom Astaire paid tribute in "Swing Time." But tap was not central to Astaire's art as it was to theirs, and purely as a tap virtuoso, Astaire was nothing special. As Charles (Honi) Coles has often put it, "Astaire was the greatest dancer in the world -- I didn't say tap dancer."

Dance critic Arlene Croce made a similar point in her matchless "The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book" of 1972, which had much to do with the latter-day revival of enthusiasm for Astaire films. "Nor could Astaire have won an international tap-dancing contest," she wrote, "but who looks for mere technique from him? His 'peerlessness' is a legend; it means, not that there were no other tap-dancers, but that there were no other Astaires. Above everything else, he was a master dramatist. Drama clings to every move he makes and to every move that Rogers makes with him. And yet they do not act, they dance ... At the core of their professionalism was a concentration upon dance as dance, not as acrobatics or sexy poses or self-expression."

If one were asked to choose the single most highly developed, intensely focused and sublime example of this concentration in Astaire's career, one could scarcely do better than the rapturous, brink-of-suicide fantasy with Rogers to the Irving Berlin number, "Let's Face the Music and Dance," in the film "Follow the Fleet."

It was this concentration, perhaps, more than anything else, that made Astaire the object of such unreserved adulation within all corners of the dance profession. Edward Villella once called Astaire "the personification of neo-classicism within a popular American art form." Margot Fonteyn spoke of Astaire's "magic of magic," which made "dancing look easier than walking, more natural than breathing."

In his recent, wonderfully comprehensive "Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films," John Mueller recalls George Balanchine (who shared the first round of Kennedy Center Honors in 1978 with Astaire, as well as Marian Anderson, Richard Rodgers and Artur Rubinstein) saying of Astaire:

"He is terribly rare. He is like Bach, who in his time had a great concentration of ability, essence, knowledge, a spread of music. Astaire has that same concentration of genius; there is so much of the dance in him that it has been distilled."

Mueller also tells an anecdote about Jerome Robbins, whose 1983 ballet "I'm Old-Fashioned" actually incorporates film footage of Astaire dancing (with Rita Hayworth) in its staging. During a trip to the Soviet Union, a reporter asked Robbins to name the dancer who influenced him the most. "Oh, well, Fred Astaire," Robbins replied. The journalist looked very surprised, so Robbins asked what the matter was. The reply: "Mr. Balanchine just said the same thing."

It is our very good fortune that Astaire's dance legacy will remain far less perishable than most that history has bequeathed us. In Baryshnikov's apt words:

"We are, of course, very lucky. His gift, captured in the movies, is one we can all share forever. He was, he is, and he always will be, our never-ending legend."

1987 The Washington Post

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