Gene Kelly

Changed the face of dance on film

 

Kelly and Leslie Caron (whom he discovered) in An American in Paris
Gene Kelly was one of the original song-and-dance men from the movie-musical golden age, credited with introducing ballet to mainstream film audiences and encouraging masculinity in dance. Kelly had considerable influence behind the camera, where he sought to change the way dance was presented and framed in film.

Eugene Curran Kelly (1912–1996) was born in Pittsburgh, where his mother enrolled him in dance classes at the age of 8. He and his four siblings grew up performing as The Five Kellys, though his brothers soon quit dancing once the neighborhood boys teased them. As a teenager, Kelly managed to juggle sports and dance and eventually ran a dance studio in his hometown—where his future second wife, Jeanne Coyne, became a student—even as he pursued a college degree in economics. He attended law school briefly before dropping out to focus on dance.

He got his comparatively late start on Broadway (he was 26) as a specialty dancer in the Cole Porter musical Leave It to Me! He soon snagged the lead in Richard Rodgers’ and Lorenz Hart’s new musical Pal Joey, where he managed to charm audiences even as he played a sleazy anti-hero. His performance attracted the attention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film scouts, and he soon made his way to Hollywood. But his big break didn’t happen until a few years later, with 1945’s Anchors Aweigh, in which Kelly displayed his ingenuity as a choreographer during his duet with the animated mouse Jerry, of “Tom and Jerry” fame.

The next couple of years saw a string of small hits until Kelly made the three films that would cement his career as a film choreographer willing to think outside of the box: On the Town (1949), for which he insisted on traveling to New York City to shoot certain scenes on location; An American in Paris (1951), which ended with a then-unheard-of 17-minute ballet; and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time, featuring Kelly’s eponymous tap dance scene.

But the rest of his career was downhill. His left-wing politics got him in trouble during the McCarthy era, and several of his later films, including Brigadoon, Hello Dolly! and Xanadu, were flops, though the last has attained a cult following. DT

The ever creative Kelly with a mop as his partner in Thousands Cheer

The Style

Much of Kelly’s appeal was in his masculine, everyman persona. He was able to mesh several different forms of dance—tap, ballet, modern—into a hybrid form ripe with athleticism and vigor. Kelly once told interviewers, “I don’t believe in conformity to any school of dancing. I create what the drama and the music demand.”

The Legacy Lives On 

Kelly’s insistence that his 17-minute ballet be included at the end of An American in Paris gave many moviegoers their first real glimpse of ballet. He also experimented with split screens (It’s Always Fair Weather), double images (Cover Girl, in which he danced with his own reflection) and mixing live action with animation (Anchors Aweigh), forever changing the way dance was presented on film.

 

Fun Fact:

Kelly broke his ankle during one of the legendarily competitive volleyball games held at the home that he and his first wife, Betsy Blair, shared—making him unavailable to work on his next picture, Easter Parade. To collect unemployment, Kelly told MGM head honcho L.B. Mayer that he’d hurt his ankle during rehearsal for the upcoming film; he also managed to coax Fred Astaire out of retirement to take his place.

The Work

Gene Kelly had a hand in more than 40 films over the course of his career, whether as a star, choreographer or director—and sometimes all three at once.

Anchors Aweigh (1945) Given the freedom to create his own dance numbers for the first time, Kelly proved himself an innovative choreographer with his “The King Who Couldn’t Dance (The Worry Song)” number, which paired him with the cartoon mouse Jerry.

On the Town (1949) Kelly co-directed this remake of the Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green musical of the same name with Stanley Donen. In a push for authenticity, Kelly insisted on location shots of New York City—an expense previously not awarded to movie musicals.

An American in Paris (1951) Kelly’s unofficial role as director was so assured that the titular director, Vincente Minnelli, would often leave the set. The film’s 17-minute closing ballet helped earn it several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Kelly’s gleeful tap dance on a puddle-filled street has made this one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time. His unrelenting work ethic and quest for perfection was not lost on co-star Debbie Reynolds, who later said that childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain were the two hardest things she ever did in her life.

Resources: 

Print:

“Gene Kelly: How an American Icon Carved Out His Niche by Incorporating Athleticism into His Adopted Artform,” by Iris Dorbian, Dance Teacher, February 2005

The Films of Gene Kelly: Song and Dance Man, by Tony Thomas, The Citadel Press, 1974

Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams, by Alvin Yudkoff, Back Stage Books, 1999

WEB:

Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org

 

Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Dance Teacher Awards

Who knew that a virtual awards ceremony could bring our community together in such a powerful way?

Last night, we celebrated the annual Dance Teacher Awards, held virtually for the first time. Though it was different from what we're used to, this new setting inspired us to get creative in celebrating our six extraordinary honorees. In fact, one of the most enlivening parts of the event was one that could only happen in a Zoom room: Watching as countless tributes, stories and congratulations poured in on the chat throughout the event. Seeing firsthand the impact our awardees have had on so many lives reminded us why we chose to honor them.

If you missed the Awards (or just want to relive them), you're in luck—they are now available to watch on-demand. We rounded up some of the highlights:

Keep reading... Show less
News
Rambert artistic director Benoit Swan Pouffer had input on the new Rambert Grades curriculum. Photo by Camilla Greenwell, Courtesy Rambert

British dance company and school Rambert has launched a new contemporary-dance training syllabus. Rambert Grades is intended to set a benchmark in contemporary-dance training, focused on three strands: performance, technique and creativity. Moving beyond the Graham and Cunningham techniques that form the basis of most modern-dance training in the UK, it includes contributions from current high-profile choreographers Hofesh Shechter, Alesandra Seutin and Rambert artistic director Benoit Swan Pouffer.

Keep reading... Show less
For Parents
Getty Images

As studios in many areas begin to open up with safety protocols in place, dance students are, of course, itching to get back into class. But just because dancers can go back to in-person training doesn't mean all families are ready for their children to actually do so.

As a parent, it's understandable to feel caught between a rock (your dancer's will to attend in-person class) and a hard place (your concerns surrounding COVID-19). Yet no matter how many tears are shed or how much bargaining your dancer tries, the bottom line is that when it comes to issues of health and safety, you—the parent—have the final say.

Still, there may be ways to soften the blow, as well as best practices for setting or amending expectations. We asked Danielle Zar, a child and adolescent psychotherapist who specializes in parent education, to share some tips for this tricky situation.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.