Michael Kidd is the man at the back of this photo, the one behind, from L to R, Dan Dailey, Cyd Charisse, Dolores Gray and Gene Kelley. The picture is a publicity still from one of my all-time favorite movies, "It's Always Fair Weather," a positively brilliant musical comedy about postwar America told through the lives of three ex-GIs who reunite in New York City ten years after the war's end.
Playing one of the GIs was Michael Kidd. It was his debut in front of the camera. But he made his remarkable career behind the scenes, both on the stage ("Guys and Dolls," among many others) and on the screen ("The Band Wagon," among many others), as one of America's most inventive and inspiring choreographers. He died over Christmas at age 92.
In reconsidering his work, preserved in a string of A-list 1950s musicals, a palette of full-blown Technicolor fills the eye as unforgettable set pieces play: the famous Mickey Spillane-inspired tough-guy ballet danced by Kelley and Charisse in "It's Always Fair Weather"; the less-famous, but no less inspired riff on the absurd side of corporate America danced by Dan Dailey in the same movie; the hilarious "ballet" performed by Danny Kaye in "Knock on Wood"; and, of course, the dance sequences performed by the back-woodsmen (including Jacques D'Amboise of the NYC Ballet) in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
The Los Angeles Times recounted Kidd's thoughts on undertaking that landmark 1954 Stanley Donen project:
"Here are these slobs living off in the woods," Kidd, recalling his reaction, said in 1997 interview in the Los Angeles Times. "They have no schooling, they are uncouth, there's manure on the floor, the cows come in and out--and they're gonna get up and dance? We'd laughed out of the theater!"
The story continued to describe how he found a way to animate the characters without them looking ridiculous. "He told Variety that his strategy was to base the men's movements on activities that an audience would find believable." These included chopping wood--the rhythmic basis of the "Lonesome Polecat" dance--and barn-raising, the organizing motif of the still-astonishing climactic ensemble number.
This attempt to root gravity-defying grace and athleticism in "normal" activities characterizes much of Kidd's choreography. It surely helps the chair-bound viewer to identify with it and be moved.
Son of an Russian Jewish barber, Kidd was born Milton Greenwald in Brooklyn, NY, in 1915. "Dance entered Kidd's life somewhat late," the LAT reports, adding it was a New Dance League performance he saw while a student at New Utrecht High School that changed the course of his life.
How fortunate for all of us.