Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley and his dancing girls

Dozens of beautiful chorus girls strumming neon-lighted violins and twirling in double-tiered translucent Chinese silk hoop skirts slink around an enormous curving staircase. An overhead camera captures the constantly moving silver-wigged chorines in concentric circles before they glide in and out towards the giant circle’s center—the image, a pulsating sunflower.

This is the famous “The Shadow Waltz” scene from Gold Diggers of 1933, and the genius of choreographer-director Busby Berkeley (1895–1976), the man who delivered new and intriguing ways of experiencing song and dance productions. Turning hundreds of dancing bodies (oftentimes with whimsical props) into complex human kaleidoscopes, Berkeley made cinematic history during the Great Depression, creating indelible numbers for almost every musical Warner Bros. produced from 1933 to 1937.

His work has been called everything from brilliant, miraculous and extraordinary to vulgar, sexist and camp, but Berkeley was essentially a purveyor of dreams and moods. Less concerned with his showgirls’ actual dance technique than their ability to maneuver into geometric figurines, Berkeley used only one movable camera on custom-built booms, monorails, cranes and holes drilled into the studio’s roof to capture his whirlwind visions; it was, in fact, the camera that did the dancing.

“Some of Berkeley’s ideas came from Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who liked to have lots of chorus girls in lines,” says Richard Schickel, film documentarian, author and Time magazine movie critic. “But Berkeley’s work really requires the camera to realize that. He didn’t just burst the fourth wall of the theater—he burst all the walls.”

Born in Los Angeles the son of theater director Wilson Enos and actress Gertrude Enos, William Berkeley Enos began performing with his family at age 5. He later christened himself Busby Berkeley by combining the surname of actress Amy Busby with his mother’s maiden name, Berkeley. At 12 he attended military school, eventually enlisting in the army during World War I. While stationed in France and Germany, Berkeley directed military exhibitions and parades. He also served as an aerial observer with the Air Corps.

These unique jobs, coupled with his theatrical upbringing, undoubtedly shaped the untrained choreographer’s future cinematic vision and earned him the position of dance director for nearly two dozen musicals, including the 1927 hit A Connecticut Yankee. It wasn’t until 1930, when Broadway star Eddie Cantor suggested Berkeley create the dance routines for the film Whoopee!, that Berkeley found his calling behind the camera.

In addition to Gold Diggers of 1933, four classic musicals made for Warner Bros. sealed Berkeley’s immortality: 1933’s 42nd Street, starring tapper Ruby Keeler in the famed “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” routine, set the tone for future backstage musicals; Footlight Parade (1933), is known for its extravagant “By a Waterfall” dream sequence, where scantily clad showgirls form a cascading human waterfall (the glass-lined pool was the largest soundstage ever built); in Fashions of 1934, 20 to 30 dancers fashioned as harp columns join 200 girls dancing with white ostrich plumes to create prismatic floral designs; and in Gold Diggers of 1935, 56 white grand pianos come to life performing with 56 girls in “The Words Are in My Heart,” and Berkeley’s masterpiece, “Lullaby of Broadway,” involves a mass dance sequence of 150 tappers.

Moving to MGM after the decline of outlandish musicals in the late 1930s, Berkeley worked on four films with the young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Disagreements with Garland caused Berkeley’s removal from Girl Crazy, but his number “I Got Rhythm” remained. During this time, he also created Eleanor Powell’s epic “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” finale in Lady Be Good.

Berkeley’s surreal style resurfaced in 1943 when Carmen Miranda wore a towering fruit headdress and showgirls danced with giant bananas in “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” from The Gang’s All Here. In all, Berkeley staged and directed over 50 Hollywood musicals, choreographing seven films in the 1950s, including Esther Williams’ exotic water ballets in Million Dollar Mermaid, before his final credit on the 1962 film Billy Rose’s Jumbo, starring Doris Day.

By the end of the decade, Berkeley had been virtually forgotten, until a ’60s camp craze renewed interest in his work. He toured the college lecture circuit, returning to the Great White Way in 1971 as production supervisor in a successful revival of No, No, Nanette. Five years later, Berkeley passed away of natural causes at his home in Palm Springs, CA, at age 80. His influence is still felt today, from the “Be Our Guest” sequence in Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to “Miss Piggy’s Fantasy” swim number in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper.

“Berkeley’s moment was the 1930s. But the numbers are timeless,” says Schickel. “With 100 people getting together as a gigantic team and doing a routine in which everybody is perfectly unified—that’s what people were trying to say about the United States. We had to pull together. It wasn’t about individualism. These are perfect statements of collectivity—100 people working together to create a gorgeous effect.” DT

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and freelance dance critic for The Los Angeles Times. She teaches dance history at USC and Santa Monica College.

Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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