Energizing the golden age of musical theater

When approached to choreograph the 1954 film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Michael Kidd read the screenplay about woodsmen looking for wives and thought, "Surely, those guys would never dance." His solution was to use a barn-raising competition as a jumping-off point for a number in which the brothers fought for the townswomen's attention by scaling planks and doing flips over sawhorses. This acrobatic tour de force married seamless movement and slapstick humor, and the dancers (including Jacques d'Amboise, Marc Platt and Matt Mattox) excelled in conveying the woodsmen's masculinity.

This combination of athleticism and comedy epitomizes Kidd's overall choreographic style. For his work, including film and stage productions of Finian's Rainbow, Guys and Dolls, Can-Can and The Band Wagon, Kidd drew from the vocabularies of ballet, modern, social dance and acrobatics. But above all, his choreography stemmed from realistic movements and gestures. Following in the tradition of Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, who developed the integrated musical, Kidd created dances that helped to carry the plot and flesh out the characters. He put the story first, communicating it through dance.

Born Milton Gruenwald, Kidd grew up in immigrant neighborhoods of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York. While in high school, he saw a modern dance performance that inspired him to take lessons. As it turned out, Kidd was naturally gifted, and he received a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, where he caught the eye of director Lincoln Kirstein. From 1937 to 1940, Kidd performed with Kirstein's Ballet Caravan, which was dedicated to presenting American-themed ballets.

A year later, Kidd performed with Eugene Loring (who had been one of Ballet Caravan's choreographers), and after dancing to great acclaim in his Billy the Kid, Kidd became choreographic assistant to Loring's company, Dance Players.

Kidd also performed with Ballet Theatre from 1942 to 1947. But he wasn't the ideal premier danseur. "I was never cut out for being the Swan Prince," he once said. Instead, he triumphed in athletic character roles, such as in Robbins' Fancy Free and Leonide Massine's Three-Cornered Hat.

It was at Ballet Theatre that Kidd's talent for choreography first came to attention. His first (and only) work for a ballet company, On Stage! (1945), revealed his comic flair, and two years later, he was offered his first Broadway production, Finian's Rainbow. Though he had never been in a Broadway show before accepting the assignment, his choreography in Finian's won a Tony. Kidd never returned to the ballet world. "I wanted a more rounded, more outgoing career than I could have with ballet," he reflected in a 1954 interview with The New York Times. He was drawn to musical theater's collaborative approach, in which each production element synthesizes with the others.

Yet Kidd's reputation as a former ballet dancer held him in good stead. Fred Astaire requested that he choreograph the 1953 film The Band Wagon, which starred Cyd Charisse as a ballerina. (Astaire also wanted a ballet-trained choreographer to help expand his talents beyond tap and ballroom.)

After The Band Wagon's success, Kidd consistently worked with great dancers and a score of celebrities, including Gene Kelly (whom he danced alongside in It's Always Fair Weather), Danny Kaye, Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith and Barbra Streisand. He created numbers in Can-Can (1953) for Gwen Verdon, which made her a Broadway sensation. For the film Guys and Dolls (1955), Kidd worked with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra.

In the musicals Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), L'il Abner (1956) and Destry Rides Again (1959), Kidd choreographed scenes of an upbeat America. His subjects were con artists, frontiersmen and their girls, and they all moved in ways that seemed plausible for their characters. "My dancing is based on naturalistic movement that is abstracted and enlarged," he said. "All my movements relate to some kind of real activity." He wanted dance to serve the story. When beginning any new work, he would write a scenario, explaining how the circumstances of the plot drove the characters to dance.

As the popularity of Hollywood movie musicals began to give way to television, an aging Kidd adapted. He directed and choreographed TV specials for Julie Andrews, co-choreographed "Baryshnikov in Hollywood" (1982), and directed several episodes of "Laverne & Shirley."

By the time of his death in 2007, Kidd had been working as a choreographer on Broadway and for films and television for half a century. But no matter the medium, he was a storyteller: He used dance to catalyze the plot, describe a relationship and reveal a time period. "Every move, every turn should mean something," he said. "Dancing should be completely understandable." DT

Did You Know?

  • Michael Kidd worked with Janet Jackson to create scenes for her music videos "When I Think of You" and "Alright."
  • Kidd often gave dancers nicknames—Jacques d'Amboise became Jacques Dem Bones.
  • Kidd was the first choreographer to win five Tony Awards. He also received an honorary Oscar for choreography at the 1997 Academy Awards.
  • Robin Williams spoofed Kidd's energetic choreographic style in the 1996 film The Birdcage (along with the styles of Bob Fosse, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp and Madonna).

RESOURCES

Books/Articles:

  • Coleman, Emily. “The Dance Man Leaps to the Top.” New York Times (19 April 1959)
  • Delamater, Jerome. “Michael Kidd.” International Encyclopedia of Dance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Delamater, Jerome. Dance in the Hollywood Musical. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981.
  • Eichenbaum, Rose. “Michael Kidd: Man with the Midas Touch.” Masters of Movement: Portraits of America’s Great Choreographers. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004.
  • Jamison, Barbara. “Kidd from Brooklyn.” New York Times Magazine (June 13, 1954)
  • Kisselgoff, Anna. “Dance View; for Michael Kidd, Real Life is Where the Dance Begins.” New York Times. (March 13, 1994)
  • Segal, Lewis. “An Appreciation; Choreographer of the common; Comfortable in any genre; the graceful Michael Kidd turns everyday tasks into physical art.” Los Angeles Times. (Dec. 27, 2007)

Filmography:

  • Guys and Dolls (choreography)
  • Band Wagon (choreography)
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (choreography)
  • It’s Always Fair Weather (dancer-actor and choreography)
  • L’il Abner (choreography)
  • Smile! (actor)
  • Baryshnikov in Hollywood (director of TV special)
  • Hello Dolly! (choreography)

Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.

Photo courtesy of the Dance Magazine Archives

 

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