Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Classic Dancer: Gene Kelly

Our classic dancer for today is the fabulous Gene Kelly. Many of us know him from his famous outdoor dance scene from Singin' in the Rain. But the man has done so much more in his career. Especially in the field of filmed dance, Kelly is one the biggest influences as he arguably took up where Fred Astaire left off. For hip hop and street dancers, we can look at his cinematic accomplishments as possible inspiration for our creative endeavors. (Photo above is from his Wikipedia entry.)

You can see a clip of Gene Kelly from Singin' in the Rain here:

Born from humble beginnings near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Kelly came from a dance background and graduated to being part of the stage scene and then the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s and 1950s. His innovation onscreen ranged from breaking from the use of static cameras that Fred Astaire favored to dancing with an animated Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh. He used different lighting styles, split screens, and inspired the film camera to move more freely with the dancers onscreen. While Astaire preferred to keep the camera focus on the dancer by limiting camera movement, Kelly fashioned a partnership between the dancers and the camera that almost had them in a dance. Embracing the moving camera allowed for a more fluid background, which invigorated the cinematic image and further translated some of the dancers' energy onto a two dimensional film frame. Kelly's choreography made use of his athletic sensibilities, creating multiple directions in which the dancer could move on a film set or location. This led to a greater integration of dance and real locations. Now, we were moving out of studio sound stages and experiencing Kelly and his dancers in live locales.

Kelly is also known for seeking to break the stereotype of an effeminate image for male dancers. His broader athleticism led him to remake his own self-image on screen. Instead of tuxedos, he wore everyday casual clothes of a sailor or a businessman. His work suggested a more relevant connection to a mainstream audience who wasn't wearing the tuxedos and fine evening wear of the 1930s and 1940s musicals. What's interesting to see in retrospect is that Kelly had an underlying philosophy to how dance is interpreted even by our social context. There was a revolutionary spirit in his work and he sought to change preconceptions of dance whether it be through tap to modern or classical ballet. He understood how powerful and influential filmed dance could be as we were becoming a more visually-defined society through the rise of film and television. What would Gene Kelly have done today with the Internet and viral online videos? Imagine the possibilities.

Like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly had the ability to draw from various dance influences and hybridize them for his own approach. In theory, the same can be said for many hip hop choreographers today as they can draw from contemporary, bboying, popping, and locking. But in his time, Kelly stood out for having strong convictions on his philosophy and approach. He worked with one of the largest visual communication mediums of the day - the Hollywood studio musical - and set the tone for how future audiences would understand the relationship between the audience, the camera, and the dancer. Can we as dancers learn from his example today? We're working with even more visual tools than was present in the 1950s including computer-generated imagery, motion capture, and smaller, more powerful cameras. We can place cameras in places that Gene Kelly couldn't because of our present technology. He and his collaborators set a foundation for us to build on so why don't we build on it?

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