DanceView Times, New York edition
"I Am, and Will Always Be, a Hoofer"
DANCE! - A DANCE TRIBUTE TO HOLLYWOOD
Coherence is not usually a term one associates with gala evenings, with their hodge-podge of specialty acts and their dominance by star turns. But this year's Career Transition for Dancers annual gala took the theme of paying tribute to dance in Hollywood films and stuck to it in a smooth-running, intelligently organized program that covered all the bases—without showing a single film clip.
The clever premise was to introduce each program segment with a Hollywood veteran (or two), whose career had a connection to the ensuing number . This worked very well when, for instance, Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris—the Riff and Bernardo of the 1961 West Side Story film—came out to reminisce about the making of the film, leading into an excerpt of from New York City Ballet's dynamic West Side Story Suite.
For the record, Tamblyn (who spoke vibrantly of his experience on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (and the awe in which he, as a 17-year old back then, had viewed star Jane Powell, who was also on hand for the evening) looked grizzled and burly, while Chakiris looked like he could step right back into his slinky Bernardo persona. While it might have been more appropriate, given the presence of the film's two gang leaders, to offer one of the men's numbers, it was instead "America" that was chosen. Jennifer Ringer repeated her vivacious, sassy Anita, with Amanda Edge as the forlorn Rosalia who longs for Puerto Rico. Chakiris pointed out that unlike the original stage version (which the NYCB Suite preserves), for the film Robbins opted to stage "America" as a face-off between the men and the women.
The speeches, an inevitable part of any gala evening, were kept to a minimum. It was left to Mary Tyler Moore (who noted she once had dreams of becoming a dancer until she switched to acting) to offer the necessary platitudes about dance on film ("dance gives the movies wings, and the movies give dance immortality"), which she did in a most gracious manner before introducing an excerpt from "The Red Shoes," as choreographed by Lar Lubovitch for the ill-fated 1993 Broadway musical version. It seemed unusually generous when American Ballet Theatre took the show's main production number—the fantasy ballet about the magical red shoes carrying the heroine away—into its repertory for only a few seasons, but on this occasion, since it represented a meeting ground of film, Broadway and ballet, the excerpt fit well into the evening's theme.
And the exceptional Sandra Brown and Keith Roberts (who was in particularly fine form, back in more other-worldly milieu than he is on most evening's as the denim-clad Tony in "Movin' Out") made this impassioned duet of escape worth watching. The unbecomingly-costumes gypsyish ensemble that surrounded them with aimless clunky gamboling brought things back to reality, but there was also a magical moment when ABT's young Craig Salstein delivered a remarkable Massine-ish cameo as the shoemaker.
In trying to cover all the bases of dance on film, the evening touched on Carmen Miranda, with Rosie Perez as the appropriate and articulate introducer of the segment. Perez called Miranda "a 1940s fashion icon" and a ground-breaking figure in terms of Latina women in film. The good-natured drag number which followed, "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat," performed by ten members of Les Ballets Grandiva, both acknowledged and sent up Miranda's tropical goddess image. Wearing tight, shiny green and yellow outfits, they brandished inflatable bananas with sweet suggestiveness. It evoked the era with just the right degree of campiness.
The Nicholas Brothers' enormous and unique contribution to dance on film was honored, with Fayard Nicholas on hand to receive one of the evening's three CTFD Awards. Maurice Hines, another surviving half of a dynamic tap-dancing brother team, presented to Nicholas—who then, spry and affable at 89, launched into a deft little song-and-dance rendition of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" alongside his much taller and younger wife, a Broadway chorus performer whose singing was a few levels below that of the NYCB dancers.
Also as part of the Nicholas Brothers segment of the program, two contemporary brother acts, the Willams Brothers, danced a Nicholas Brothers tribute that the late Gregory Hines (in whose memory in was performed) had choreographed for the 1984 Cotton Club film. Since it had been cut form the film, it was receiving its first public performance. The engaging Williams brothers—one slinky-slender, the other more robust—performed with more energy than finesse, and gamely ended with the trademark jump-into-split move that the Nicholas Brothers patented.
The program included two numbers performed by the National Dance Institute Celebration Team, a large ensemble of gifted, exuberant child performers. They were the first ones out onstage, starting the evening off with a bang with a massed number to Gotta Dance, the evening's theme. The mix of boys and girls was dressed uniformly in red vests, white shirts and black pants, and Randy Skinner's deft ensemble choreography evoked Gene Kelly's casual grace, and the kids did him proud with their precision and gusto.
A smaller group from the NDI Celebration Team performed Jay Ledford's Appalachian Clog Dance, a charming theatricalized version of the real thing, to music from the "Seven Brides" film score. Since Jacques D'Amboise, founder/director of NDI, was one of the film's brothers, the selection was especially apt. He was supposed to introduce the number alongside Jane Powell, who ended up doing the honors alone, since D'Amboise had sustained an injury.
Two ballets pas de deux one might find on any opening-night gala were included on this program but fit into the Hollywood theme. Both were performed to taped music (while the rest of the evening featured a lively pit orchestra) Leslie Browne recalled her own Hollywood break in The Turning Point, as she introduced the Macmillan Romeo and Juliet balcony pas de deux that she and Mikhail Baryshnikov danced in the film. On this occasion, it received a rapturous, impetuous performance from ABT's Ashley Tuttle (managing to transcend a set piece that had her on an ugly ledge rather than a balcony) and Angel Corella.
Lynn Redgrave, while not known for dancing in movies, recalled her many youthful trips to see the Royal Ballet as she introduced two of the company's current leading principals, Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, in the Black Swan pas de deux (Adagio and coda only). One could not help noticing the slight irony of someone so British introducing two distinctly non-British stars of the Royal. Cojocaru displayed her phenomenal technical control and was a convincingly flashy temptress. Kobborg partnered her well but his dancing was cautious.
In addition to Nicholas, two other veterans of many Hollywood musicals were on hand for awards presentations. Bebe Neuwirth, one of today's best slinky vamps, was an inspired choice to present the award to Cyd Charisse, whose famous long legs were smashingly showcased in an elegant white pantsuit. While there is no direct connection between Bob Fosse and Charisse (except that they must have passed each other on some MGM lots during the 1950s), no one could complain. This high-octane cast of dance-ha;l hostesses, all wearing little black dresses, was led by those "Chicago" leading ladies Neuwirth and Reinking, and included such leading Broadway dancers as Elizbaeth Parkinson and Caitlin Carter.
Esther Williams, also resplendent in white, if not as agile as Charisse (she is gamely recovering from a serious ankle injury which doctors said would not allow her to walk again) was escorted onto the stage by two hunks in tiny red Speedos, and seemed to love every moment. She was there as an award presenter rather than recipient; this one went to Turner Entertainment Co. for its work in the restoration and reservation of vintage Hollywood musicals.
One other award was the occasion for a moving moment, since it went to the late Donald O'Connor who had known about the honor and had planned to attend. Arlene Dahl reminisced about O'Connor as man and performer, and touchingly read a letter he had written when he realized that illness would prevent him from being present, in which he said, "I am, and always will be, a hoofer," and signed off with "remember, keep dancing."
Editor's Note: If you missed it, you can read an interview with the late Donald O'Connor, by Mindiy Aloff, here.
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