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She may not have as well known as some of her counterparts such as Ginger Rogers, but for those who knew and appreciated her work, Cyd Charisse clearly left a mark. Here are a few touching tributes I’ve read.

She Put the Move in Movies (WP)

[I]t was what Charisse could do with her legs that set her apart from other musical stars of her era, the mid-1940s through the ’50s, and what distinguished her from those who came before or after. She was a dancing goddess on a very lonely pedestal. Charisse, who died Tuesday at 86, had no peers and few imitators.

 Sylph or Siren, The Legs Have It (NYT):

Some stars shine, others flicker, lingering in your consciousness and dreams in flashes, favorite scenes and frozen moments. Cyd Charisse, the long-legged beauty who in the 1950s gave Fred Astaire some midcareer oomph and Gene Kelly his match in pure animal vitality, wasn’t a Hollywood immortal. She never transcended the movies in which she appeared — her breakout musical, “Singin’ in the Rain,” could certainly have been produced without her. But it surely would not have been as magnificent without the erotic jolt she gives Kelly.

From Ballet to Movies, Cyd Charisse Was a Cool Classic (Boston Globe):

[She] expressed persona through movement rather than dialogue, and in her case that persona was smoky, sinuous, and cool: a quintessential ’50s mix of sex and poise. She was the choreographic equivalent of a classic Sinatra LP.

Beautiful Dynamite (The Guardian)

For me, there is a crucial test of the Charisse obituaries: it is whether or not they mention a film called Party Girl. The New York Times names it and refers to it as “a drama”. The Los Angeles Times does not seem to know about it. But it is the best work Charisse ever did.

Cyd Charisse: Some of her greatest numbers (The Guardian): Video highlights from the legendary actor and dancer from Hollywood’s golden era.

Finally, Turner Classic Movies has changed its programming schedule to show three of her best movies on Friday, June 27. Schedule is here.

 

I was very saddened to read that Cyd Charisse, an inspiration to me and a highlight of Hollywood’s golden age of musical cinema, has died at the age of 86 (link is to NYT article). From the moment I saw her in Singin In the Rain I knew I’d found my style and dance icon. She will live on on the silver screen.

She said her husband, the singer Tony Martin, could always tell with whom she was dancing. “If I was black and blue,” she said, “it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch.”

(from the NYT Obituary)

 

One Last Dance (2003) is truly a dancer’s dance movie. I’m surprised I’d never heard of it, and would have loved to see it on the big screen. I came across it when I was searching for clips of Patrick Swayze’s movie dance oevre for a post about him.

One Last Dance is about three aging dancers who are reunited after the death of a brilliant but demanding choreographer who drove them apart. The company is putting together a tribute concert and Travis (Swayze), Chrissa (Lisa Niemi), and Max (ABT alum George De La Pena) are the only ones who have enough memory of one of the pieces to recreate it. To go through with it, they have to confront their painful past.

Gorgeous camera work captured the concert and studio dance experiences in long interrupted shots, from not only the traditional audience’s point of view, but also the dancer’s point of view from the wings, and the techies’ perch from above. Using the artistic license granted by the film medium, scenes easily flowed in and out of reality and not-quite-real surreal and dream sequences.

Objectively, outside of the dancing, the plot and the acting were nothing to scream about. However, for me, the dance was the acting. It was quite effectively used as a metaphor for the relationships and unspoken feelings of the characters. The main thing I took away from it was that life is not about the performance, it’s about composing the dance.

The film brought together choreographers Alonzo King, Dwight Rhoden, Doug Varone, and Patsy Swayze (Patrick’s mother), as well as the incredible talents of some top notch dancers. These include a younger Rasta Thomas, Desmond Richardson, and truly making this a family affair, Patrick’s sister Bambi Swayze (did I mention that on top of mom and sis’s involvement, co-star Lisa Niemi is Patrick’s wife, as well as the movie’s writer, director, and co-producer?). The DVD has a nice “behind the scenes” feature that talks about how the fictitious company in the film was created and how each choreographer worked with them.

Above all, this is a beautiful showcase for some of the eminent choreographers and dancers of our time. Ballet and modern dance lovers alike will find something to love.

Here is the breathtaking opening scene:

patrick swayze dancingThose first actors a girl gets a crush on early in life will always have a special place in her heart. Thanks to his amazing role in Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze was one of my first silver screen loves, and may have contributed to my preference for bad boy types. Thus, the news that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer saddens me.

The vast majority of my traffic over the past week or two has been generated by people looking for pictures and news of Patrick (via this post)– so to all my new readers that found their way here thanks to him, and of course, for Johnny Castle himself, here is a little compilation of some of his finest dance moments.

One Last Dance: I haven’t seen this one but it looks like it’s got some great dance scenes in it, and of course, Patrick…

Patrick’s cameo in Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. His dance partner, Joann Jansen is also making a cameo– she is actually the film’s choreographer and the story line was based on her own life.

I could only find a crappy quality one but I could not omit the Silvia and Mickey scene from Dirty Dancing.

And of course, the Dirty Dancing finale, the scene we’ll never forget…

Finally, no dancing here, but I had to end with the most deliciously crappy scene in the history of cinema, co-starring Patrick and the stupidest, most beautiful man on earth (and my other first love, ever since Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), Keanu Reeves. I give you the final scene from Point Break

Vaya con dios, Patrick; may you get well soon!

I recently saw Silk Stockings again, a 1957 film starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. With a humorous script and countless great dance numbers, it’s one of my favorites. Since I first saw her in Singin’ in the Rain, Cyd Charisse has been my favorite dancer from the golden age of Hollywood musical films– my muse, if you will. Silk Stockings in particular showcases her dancing ability, and those gorgeous legs.

In this number, Ninotcha (Charisse), a Soviet spy, gives into her temptation to taste the decadent sartorial delights of Paris.

here is the second part of the number

In this scene, Ninotcha and her fellow former spies relive their love for the joyous Parisian life in their shared Soviet digs.

It’s a pity that there aren’t any musicals like this any more. By that, I mean that musicals from this time had long, uninterrupted shots of the dance numbers so you could really appreciate the choreography and the skill of the dancer. Dance movies today are edited MTV-style, with cuts every 5 seconds or so. As a result, the quality of the dance is less the ability of the dancer or the choreography, and more in the editing.

Everyone told me I would be disappointed, but I had to see El Cantante myself. Not so much to prove them wrong, but because I would always wonder about it if I didn’t. For the uninitiated, El Cantante is about the life and death of Hector Lavoe, a hugely influential salsa vocalist from the heyday of Fania (like the Motown of salsa in the ’70s and ’80s). Lavoe contracted HIV as a result of his drug use, and died of AIDS in 1993. The movie follows his rise to fame and events leading up to his death through the eyes of his wife, Puchi, who many saw as a bad influence in his life.

On the whole, I was disappointed by the movie, but I am glad I saw it. From the point of view of a dancer, it was a huge letdown. There was almost no depiction whatsoever of the dance culture that helped support musicians like Hector Lavoe. There were only a few short clips in the movie that depicted any dancing to speak of.

This movie fell into the formulaic trap of every other movie about a famous musical star who gets addicted to heroin and proceeds to self-destruct. Director Leon Ichaso tried to avoid the formula by mixing up the timeline a bit, but I just found it distracting. They were constantly cutting between JLo as Lavoe’s wife Puchi reminiscing, and the actual story. From the actual story they were also cutting all over the place– and to where, it wasn’t even clear at times.

The best part of the movie was Marc Anthony’s portrayal of Hector Lavoe the singer. Anthony’s interpretation of Lavoe is spot-on– his voice, mannerisms, eyes, way of speaking, and physical movement make for a very convincing transformation. As interpreted by Anthony, the soundtrack is excellent in its own right.

Here is one of my favorite Lavoe songs– Aguanile— as interpreted in the film. It’s also the best (and longest) dance moment of the movie with some gorgeous rumba dancing.

And the original by Hector Lavoe:

Here is some footage of Hector Lavoe (as himself) singing El Cantante, so you can compare those mannerisms I was talking about:

Related posts: 

The treadmill: not just for exercise anymore.

This music video for Here It Goes by the band OK Go has been very popular on the internet. I love that it is done all in one shot, and the choreography and use of exercise equipment as dance partner is pretty innovative.

OK Go were not the first to conceptualize a treadmill dance, however. Take the opening song to The Taming of the Shrew in the play-within-the-movie Kiss Me Kate. The gondola-rowing action is particularly masterful.

(I apologize for the craptastic quality on this video. I couldn’t find any existing clips and have no idea how to properly transfer video from DVD so I videotaped the DVD playing on my laptop. Someone please let me know if I’m violating all sorts of copyright laws.)

As with so many of these dance crazes that rise to popularity via youtube, an astonishing number of people have tried to recreate the OK Go treadmill dance and posted to youtube. Of course, it’s kind of lame when you only have one treadmill. However, some even managed to secure the appropriate number of machines at a healthclub for their own youtube shoot. None of them are worth showing (though you can view two examples via the links in the previous sentences).

The most successful recreation did not employ actual treadmills. Here is a swing dance piece which incorporates the Ok Go choreography quite effectively.

This, on the other hand, was too wierd not to share. Yes. It’s a shrimp. Running. On a treadmill. To the music of OK Go.

For an amusing take on dances with another type of inanimate object, check out Move the Frame’s blog post on Chair Dances.

Patrick Swayze - the original dance host

CNN.com has an article today about Men Who Dance Ladies Around the World, otherwise known as “cruise hosts.”

It reminded me of Patrick Swayze’s character in Dirty Dancing— the original dance host. He was the guy who gave dance lessons by day to the lonely wives whose working husbands left them at a resort in the Poconos. By night, he got the festivities going with a hot mambo performance and then he and his partner would coax the reluctant vacationers onto the dancefloor.

Going back to the article, my favorite thing about the CNN webpage redesign is the “story highlights” which insult our intelligence by summarizing the story into a couple bullets, just in case you weren’t able to read a page of text on your own. Occasionally, with the more banal or bizarre topics, the bullets make for hilarious reading (and in this way you can avoid reading the badly written article):

Story Highlights

  • Cruise ships hire male hosts to dance or chat with single ladies
  • The men can take to dance floor up to 60 times in one night
  • No hanky panky allowed between host and guests
  • Host: One special dance changed a lady’s outlook on life

We all know that Johnny Castle pretty flagrantly broke the rules on bullet #3!

Cruise hosting seems to be a job dominated by retired men (the article doesn’t mention women, but I imagine they’re out there too) who are good ballroom dancers and conversationalists. It sounds like it would be a pretty sweet gig to have in retirement– a free cruise, all the dancing you can bear, and a little income on the side from lessons, tips and stipends.

When I watched The Children of Theatre Street the other day (which I wrote about here), I had no idea that PBS would be airing a documentary called Nureyev: The Russian Years just a couple days later.

Rudolf Nureyev was a ballet dancer– many say the best of our time– who studied at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute (aka the Kirov School) in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and danced with the Kirov Ballet. In 1961 he defected to the west in a dramatic escape from the KGB in the middle of the Paris airport. He went on to have a very successful career (though the PBS documentary leads us to believe that he would forever feel heartbroken on some level about his decision) and died in 1993.

The Children of Theatre Street is a documentary about the Kirov School. Kirov defected in 1961 and Theatre Street was shot in 1977– easily the height of Nureyev’s career in the west. At that point his name had been smeared and then erased from the history books in Russia. In Theatre Street, they do make a very brief mention about his notable absence– along with Baryshnikov’s– from the school’s gallery of notable alumni, but do not go into detail. I wonder if they did not really mention it so as to not make the Russians angry, or if in 1977 Nureyev’s story would have been such common knowledge that they felt no need to go into it.

At any rate, I’m glad to have had the happy coincidence of seeing The Children of Theatre Street and Nureyev: The Russian Years within the space of a few days. Knowing more about daily life at the Kirov school gave me a greater depth of knowledge with which to appreciate Nureyev’s story.

I discovered The Children of Theatre Street at my local library. It was made in 1977 and nominated for an Oscar. The subject of this documentary is the Vaganova Choreographic Institute in St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time), the school of the Kirov Ballet. The movie is narrated by the late Princess Grace of Monaco, a.k.a Grace Kelly. from an excellent text by Beth Gutcheon.

The movie opens on the school’s entrance examination. Of course, ballet has a glorious past and a passionate following in Russia, and in communist Russia, becoming a ballet dancer seemed to be an ideal way to do set oneself apart. Thousands of children from all across the USSR turn out for the audition, despite the knowledge that they will not see their families for months– or even years– if they are accepted. The selection process seems largely focused on body structure and ability, rather than talent. The turnout is scrutinized, body proportions and measurements are taken to see if they meet the exact criteria for ideal proportions. They also look at the arch of the insole and the height and lightness of the child’s jump. As the narrator says, “Talent is only worth considering when it occurs in the right body.”

The Children of Theatre Street follows four students– eleven year old Angelina, thirteen year old Alec, and graduating seniors Lena and Michaela. The movie really examines all facets of what life and education entail at the school. It is this aspect that I found most interesting. I knew that ballet training was quite rigorous, and the school certainly rises to that standard– but I saw no signs of cruelty, humiliation (outside of the entrance examination), or sternness that one sometimes hears of about communist-era training schools. The students generally seem quite happy, and the instructors (former Kirov company members themselves) compassionate. You meet the various fixtures of the school– the little old lady that has played the piano there for as long as anyone can remember, the voluminous masseuse that has massaged the muscles of every single dancer that passed through the school. Little details such as a creaky globe in geography class and a room full of portraits of illustrious graduates give life to the portrayal of the school (it is mentioned only in passing that Nureyev and Baryshnikov’s portraits are notably absent, but not why).

The rigor of ballet training is made quite evident, with the students’ learning process is shown in various vignettes of the different class levels. In one scene, a boy is shown practicing his leg extensions with a strained face as Princess grace intones, “A good dancer learns to extend his leg thoughtlessly; a great dancer learns to do it without making faces.”

Lena and Michaela, the seniors, are followed as they prepare for their graduation performance. The pressure is truly on, as the graduation performance is a major event in St. Petersburg– the ballet aficionados want to be there when the next Pavlova or Balanchine makes their debut. You see the fruits of their training, but also the frustrations they feel as their bodies and nerves are pushed to their limits. Says Princess Grace, “Ballet is concerned with expanding natural limitations, with expanding the body to do what it cannot do naturally.”

One interesting thing I learned as the seniors learn a Petipa choreography is that the Russian school uses no notation; rather, choreography is preserved in living memory by the instructors themselves. It is fascinating that the human brain and muscle memory could preserve full-length ballets with no written record or video footage (technology that was certainly not available in Petipa’s time).

The film, initially so focused on the classical technique taught to the students, took an interesting turn when it follows Lena to a performance by a contemporary ballet troupe, founded by a former Kirov student. Maybe it was the anachronistic vibe I got due to the setting in communist Russia, but at first I caught myself thinking how bold and ahead of the times were being, but then I realized that this was 1977– not exactly too long ago in the history of modern dance. The school’s graduation also featured an avant garde piece set to pop music.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed The Children of Theatre Street. It gave me a deeper understanding of ballet, and certainly a deeper respect for the dancers. Whether or not you know much about dance, you will find it to be both interesting and entertaining.

~~

This video contains the first nine minutes of the movie, and includes the entrance examination I talked about above:

~~

Where are they now?

I was curious to know what has become of the students featured in the documentary, thirty years later. I was only able to track down information about Angelina Armeiskaya, (the eleven year old), who is actually teaching at the US branch of the Kirov school, right here in DC after a successful performance career. On a totally random tangent, Danny Tidwell of So You Think You Can Dance fame went to Kirov (I wonder if he studied with Angelina), and there are two pictures of him on the alumni page from before all the madness (update: when I say before all the madness, I mean before SYTYCD– Sorry if I started any wild speculation about any other types of madness!), including one of him at Rasta Thomas‘ wedding…

NYT’s Mirta Ojito writes a profile about Leon Ichaso, director of El Cantante, the forthcoming film about Hector Lavoe. Here is the link to the article: The Scorsese of Salsa.

Talk about a passion for filmmaking:

Then in 1972 Mr. Ichaso was fired from an advertising agency. In retaliation, he said, he went back to his office one evening, opened the door with his own key and proceeded to vandalize the agency. He dropped file cabinets out the windows, urinated on the vice president’s desk and ripped the water cooler from the wall.

“I wanted to burn my bridges, to make sure no one would ever hire me again, so that I could make movies, which is what I really wanted to do,” he said.

Dance stuff I found from around the internet:

  • from Infinite Body shares a video celebration and tribute to black dance. I love the diversity of dance styles, the diversity of people, the editing, and the spirit of the whole thing.
  • Gray on Fame or Famine pays tribute to Baryshnikov, and shares stunning opening dance sequence from White Nights (must rent! choreography by Twyla Tharp!(Correction: though Tharp is the main choreographer for the movie, the opening sequence seems to have been choreographed by Roland Petit)).
  • NYT’s Gia Kourlas explores Danny Tidwell and the SYTYCD phenomenon. As an aside, I had no idea that he and Travis Wall were brothers. Their mother should be proud of herself for producing the rightful winner of last season and the probable (and probably also rightful) winner of this season. What is it with family dynasties on this show? Travis and Danny. Faina and that other Russian ballroom dude. Lacey and Benji.
  • Anthony from Addicted2Salsa gives a primer on my favorite musical and dance style– cha cha cha. He makes two key points: that it must be danced on the 2 (thank you Anthony! please send this memo to all the salsa dancers in DC!), and that cha cha gives us more space to play around with the music. You just can’t get into styling with a fast mambo as much as you can with cha cha.
  • And finally, I leave you with another random photo from the Winger. What can I say, I’m a huge sucker for cute.

More info on Mano, the salsa movie, from IndySalsero. Apparently it is currently a short movie to be presented at the Toronto Film Festival, and they hope to make it into a feature-length film.

I just came across a YouTube promo for a new movie, Mano. I saw a lot of familiar salsa scenesters in there, including Magna Gopal, Psyon Mauricio, and Tony Nardolillo (who appears to be the star), to name a few. Given those names I just mentioned, I know the dancing in this film is going to be top-notch and authentic. I’m not sure how the plot will stack up to the dancing–there were no less than three guns pointed at heads over the course of the 98 second preview, so I’m guessing a focus on guns and violence.

I tried searching google and IMDB for this movie, but was not able to find anything about it; therefore, I’m not sure if it is going to be on the big screen, or just released on the internet. At any rate, I can’t wait to hear more about this film. Tony– one of DC’s most talented dancers– headed out to Hollywood awhile back and I am glad to see he is doing well for himself. I’ll post more as soon as I hear anything, and I’m sure that StuckOnSalsa (which is where I learned about this in the first place) will as well.

No doubt you answered Ginger Rogers, and you would be partially right. However, in my book the correct answer is: Cyd Charisse.

Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly - Singin in the Rain

Who? you ask… I had never even heard of her until about a year ago when I was watching Singin’ in the Rain with my Grandma A. Who was that silent, long-legged beauty that Gene Kelly danced with in the dream sequence? Cyd Charisse, Grandma said– she was famous for her legs and dancing ability. After Ginger, there was Cyd.

Cyd Charisse - BandwagonI have since become fascinated by Cyd, and have since come to know her through films such as The Bandwagon and Silk Stockings. I love the slightly gangly way she danced and of course she always looked fabulous.

One of my favorite dance scenes from the golden age of Hollywood musicals is the Dancing in the Dark sequence in The Bandwagon, starring none other than Cyd and Fred Astaire. I love how they seamlessly transition from walking to dancing– you can’t quite figure out where to draw the line. You know when you are walking with someone that you really like and you fall into the same rhythm of walking together, and draw just a little bit closer to each other, without touching? Well, wouldn’t it be great if the two of you happened to be in Central Park, and came to a clearing and just spontaneously broke into an extended ballet sequence? Here’s what happens…

By the way, Cyd Charisse is still around and she is still looking beautiful. In 2006 she was awarded the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities at the White House, honoring her contributions to the world of cinema and dance.

Links: Cyd Charisse on Wikipedia , Cyd Charisse on IMDB

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