The choreographer who reinvented Broadway dancing
“I have exactly six minutes in which to raise the customer out of his seat. If I cannot do it, I am no good,” Robert Alton (1902–1957) once told a reporter. For three decades, the choreographer created hundreds of colorful, sexy and funny dance numbers for the stage and screen. He fused existing ballet, tap, ballroom, modern and jazz steps together, creating the breezy dance style of the American musical still seen on Broadway today.
Most importantly, Alton moved chorus dancing into a new era, by featuring soloists and small groups, and requiring the chorus to be adept at both ballet and tap. He made screen stars like Judy Garland move effortlessly, discovered Gene Kelly and worked with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Marilyn Monroe and the Nicholas Brothers. His Hollywood legacy includes iconic scenes from movies that have become classics: the rain-soaked afternoon in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), where umbrella-toting couples twirl in ever-growing puddles; the wedding cake amassing of white-costumed singers and dancers atop a floating ziggurat in Ziegfeld Follies (1945); and the pitch-perfect satire of Martha Graham’s choreography in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (1954).
As a youngster, Alton tried to join the circus to be a contortionist. (His flexibility remained extraordinary well into his 50s, says Luigi—the famous jazz teacher who Alton encouraged to take up teaching). But his father made the runaway go back to school. The Bennington, Vermont, native began his formal dance training with Ralph McKernan in Springfield, Massachusetts, and he spent his summers in New York City studying with Mikhail Mordkin, formerly of the Bolshoi Ballet and Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, at Mordkin Ballet and Dramatic School. Mordkin taught him a beautiful port de bras and an expansive use of the upper body. In 1919, Alton made his performance debut in Mordkin’s Take It To Me.
Alton met his second mentor, John Murray Anderson, while dancing in the chorus of Anderson’s Greenwich Village Follies in 1924. An all-around theatrical professional (producer, choreographer, director, lighting and costume designer), Anderson inspired Alton to learn all aspects of stagecraft. In 1927, Alton married fellow choreographer and dancer Marjorie Fielding. The couple later moved to St. Louis, where Alton was appointed dance director of the Paramount-Publix theater circuit. St. Louis served as Alton’s laboratory: He taught dance classes and experimented with new ideas, like breaking up the chorus line, varying the choreography and featuring groupings.
In 1933, Hollywood offered Alton his first shot at making dance for film (Poppin’ the Cork). That same year, he made his Broadway choreographic debut (Hold Your Horses) and became dance director for NYC’s Paramount Theatre. His first gig as a film dance director was for Strike Me Pink (1936), in which he nodded to Busby Berkeley by shooting the performers from above in kaleidoscopic fashion.
For the next quarter century, Alton split his time between Broadway and Hollywood, creating dances for the stage and MGM productions. New York Times dance critic John Martin jokingly wrote that Alton was “going to have to be investigated for a monopoly” because of the number of musicals and films that bore his name in their credits. Some of his most notable works include: Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1934); Panama Hattie (1940); Rodgers and Hart’s post-Balanchine shows, including Pal Joey (1940); Easter Parade (1948); Show Boat (1951); and The Harvey Girls (1946).
Despite the fact that Alton only directed one film, Merton of the Movies (1947), he possessed a directorial eye. Each of his dances unified the lyrics, steps, costumes, lighting and camera angles to create a singular atmosphere. Unlike his younger contemporaries Agnes de Mille and Jack Cole, who labored to expand their choreographic vocabulary, Alton became known for synthesizing dance material already popular at the time, and he wanted performers to distill their personalities through their dancing. These techniques led Alton to develop the careers of celebrated film stars Ray Bolger, Betty Grable, Don Crichton and Vera-Ellen, among others. “The dancers adored him,” wrote de Mille.
Alton died of a kidney ailment at age 55, while working on the film version of his 1952 Tony Award–winning Broadway revival of Pal Joey. A devotee of entertainment, he loved administering to its marvels. DT
Freelance writer Rachel Straus is based in New York City. She holds degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
Photo courtesy of Larry Billman/Academy of Dance on Film