I grew up watching classic films, mostly starring Fred and Ginger, or musicals like Gypsy (1962) and West Side Story (1961). I remember being particularly taken with Fred and Ginger’s famous routine on roller-skates from the film Shall We Dance (1937) performed to Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off by Gershwin and Gershwin. I also vividly recall Marilyn Monroe singing, Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend (1955) whilst a chorus of girls enacted Busby Berkeley style choreography (see 42nd Street,1933) by hanging from and becoming chandeliers. At the time I couldn’t articulate why I enjoyed these films so much. Although now I suspect it has a lot to do with how movement and choreography facilitate a conversation between the performer and the stage design, and how this conversation can be just, if not more interesting than a scripted dialogue.
Picture Gene Kelly singing whilst holding an umbrella as he leaps effortlessly onto a lamp post, jumps lightly to and from a pavement curb and spins on the spot as he kicks up water from puddles. This performance from Singing in the Rain (1952) is vintage Hollywood musical at its best and showcases a famously successful dance partnership. Not the normal Fred and Ginger type of partnership but an equally pleasing duet between the performer and the surrounding objects and architecture. In this performance the body is in conversation with the everyday; a pavement, shop fronts, lamp posts, a mailbox and of course water. The film studios of that era created this type of scenographic duet well. Take a look at the special effects used to make Astaire dance on a ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951) and his hat rack dance from the same film. Compare the bin-lid stomping routine of Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) to contemporary theatre performances of Stomp (1990-present). Watch Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor transition from one dance space to another by climbing onto chairs, railings, stairs, tables and toppling a sofa as they sing Good Morning in Singing in the Rain (1952). And consider Cyd Charisse’s flowing white costume that moves with and around her in an architectual echo of the undulating set from Singing in the Rain (1952). Performances such as these have recently featured on the Youtube channel Nerd Fest UK as part of the creation of 66 (Old) Movie Dance Scenes Mashup, which re-frames vintage Hollywood choreography using Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk ft.Bruno Mars.
With over 40,000 likes, this re-mixed version of classic dance routines suggests that although contemporary film styles and cinematic content have changed we still appreciate the energy and athleticism of these older styles.
Perhaps today’s equivalent of the 1950‘s actor and dancer are performers such as the Freerunner, Sebastien Foucan. As Mollaka in Casino Royale (2006) Foucan seems to fly from one space to another as he traverses different obstacles to escape James Bond (Daniel Craig). It’s worth noting that even this cinematic and edited application of parkour is undeniably different from the big screen dance routines of the 1950‘s. However, even though this sequence features different movement styles and is made for a different audience with different expectations, the Traceur and the 1950‘s film actor/dancer cross paths when it comes to the ideas that underpin their training practice. For instance, whilst the cinema performances of the 1950’s were made to satisfy a public audience, the creative processes and developmental work that led to their success still reflect the personal styles, goals and methods of the dancers that performed them. In an interview with Dave Zeitlin (1965), Fred Astaire wrote (Levinson. 2009, p. 218);
‘I’ve never yet got anything one hundred percent right. Still, it’s never as bad as I think it is. I can remember when I was on the stage and I would say, “ I wish I could throw out tonight’s performance and forget it.” People would say afterward that they didn’t know the difference. But I did…When you’re experimenting, you have to try so many things before you choose what you want that you may go days getting nothing but exhaustion. This search for what you want is like tracking something that doesn’t want to be tracked.’
This personal and experimental approach to creating performance is similar to the approach used by the Traceur, who places an emphasis on explorative movement, failure (leading to success), repeated practice and a ‘never give up’ attitude. Astaire’s experimental approach might be attributed to a specific dance style like jazz, but as Astaire (Levinson. 2009, p. 219) comments, ‘I don’t know what my dancing style and techniques should be called. I just dance, but with a beat.’ Whilst this suggests a more improvised approach it’s been noted that Astaire would practice gesture and movement in a mirror before a dance number. It’s believed that this was because ‘he would not feel comfortable about them freeing himself unless all of the structure was first in place, and that was the liberating force that set him free.’ (Don Heckman in Levinson. 2009, p. 219). Astaire is certainly the embodiment of control, thinking through every movement, even making sure he could phrase his breath to the timing of the phrasing of the music. Kathleen Riley (2012, p. 40) writes of his training, ‘for him, punishing, repetitive practice was the only way to compensate for his perceived deficiencies and to cultivate what ability he knew he had.’
Being technically skilled and confident in order to achieve artistic freedom and flow is a key part of parkour training. Knowing where and how the body must move in order to accurately traverse a space or object prevents over-thinking and leads to intuitive movement where the natural flow of a performance takes over. However, whilst Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly both understood the importance of repeated practice and technical training, Kelly took his technical focus a stage further by connecting dance to athleticism. In many of his films he combined gymnastic skills with tap, ballet and even special effects such as double exposure (leading to a dance duet with himself). In a television special he both directed and performed in, called Dancing – A Mans Game (1958), Kelly ‘intentionally linked sports and dance from the opening shot. The sound-stage looks like a gym, although it is theatricalized,’ (Fisher and Shay. 2009, p. 99). Biographer, Alvin Yudkoff writes of Kelly’s show, ‘Gene directed stop-motion vignettes featuring…stadium heroes…and luminaries of the sports pages to underscore his theme: athletics is competitive and dance is creative, but both are rooted in the same balletic movements,’ (Yudkoff in Fisher and Shay. 2009, p. 100). Kelly’s collaboration with athletes certainly suggests he saw a connection between their highly tuned movement and repeated training practices and that of his own approach to dance.
The more I watch the Traceur the more I wonder if the dance greats such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly will become a more relevant and referenced part of contemporary parkour practice. I also wonder if parkour will play a greater part in the development of dance training; where the environment itself becomes the performer; where a performance created with the environment is viewed as both expressive dance and athleticism, and where as a result, athletic (and psychological) as well as creative training is required to teach us how to make space for creative flow.
Levinson, P. Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography.2009. St Martin’s Press. New York.
Fisher, J and Shay, A. When Men Dance: Choreographing Masculinities Across Borders. 2009. Oxford University Press. Oxford and New York.
Riley, K. The Astaires: Fred & Adele. 2012. Oxford University Press. Oxford and New York.