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Michael Kidd: Creating character-driven choreography

Photo by Friedman-Abeles, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Michael Kidd reinvigorated dance in musicals with his character-driven choreography and energized style, blending jazz with ballet, gymnastics and gesture. As the heyday of the Broadway hoofer faded, he ushered in a new type of male chorus dancer, modeled after himself: short and dynamic, able to move seamlessly from dance to extraordinary acrobatics.


Kidd was born Milton Gruenwald in Brooklyn, New York. In high school, he saw a modern dance performance that sparked his interest. He received a scholarship at 22 to attend the School of American Ballet. After graduating, he first joined Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan (a precursor to New York City Ballet) and, in 1942, American Ballet Theatre as a soloist. At ABT, he thrived in athletic character parts that would come to define his own choreographic style.

While at ABT, he choreographed his first and only ballet on the company, On Stage! (1945). The ballet revealed Kidd's comic flair, and when he was invited two years later to choreograph the Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow, he jumped at the chance, eager to have a more well-rounded career than he could with ballet.

Kidd won his first Tony Award (of five) for Finian's Rainbow and went on to choreograph and direct many more well-received shows, like Can-Can (1953) and Destry Rides Again (1959). He also had success in film, choreographing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)—widely regarded as his masterpiece—and Hello, Dolly! (1969).

Kidd stayed active throughout his later years, choreographing for TV specials, acting in supporting film roles and directing music videos. He directed his last Broadway show, The Goodbye Girl, in 1993. He died in 2007 at the age of 92.

The Work

Kidd created character-driven choreography that incorporated everyday gestures and high-energy acrobatics.

Guys and Dolls (1951) Kidd captured the gritty world of this Broadway musical's crap-shooting gangsters by punctuating the shaking and rolling of dice with high-energy knee slides, hitch kicks and double pirouettes.

The Band Wagon (1953) For this romantic comedy film, Fred Astaire specifically requested Kidd choreograph because of his ballet background. The vivid “Girl Hunt Ballet" features Astaire dancing a sultry duet with Cyd Charisse followed by a hilarious bar fight.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) For the seven rough-and-tumble backwoods brothers of this film, Kidd combined what he called “work movements," like swinging an ax and carrying logs, with graceful turns and balances and daredevil leaps and flips.

Seven Brides featured rising jazz dancer/choreographer/teacher Matt Mattox (aloft). Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Fun Fact

Kidd was the first person to win five Tony Awards for Best Choreography. He was nominated for 10 Tonys in all and received an honorary Oscar in 1997 for his contributions to film.

Style

Kidd created movement that was accessible, enjoyable and closely tied to plot and character, by abstracting gestures from everyday life. His dance sequences were often comedic, highly energetic and physically challenging. His mix of classic jazz and ballet vocabulary—turned-in pirouettes, step-ball-change, tour jeté and chaînés—set him apart from the vaudeville style that preceded him. Kidd created highly characterized walks, shuffles and gallops to capture each character's personality.

The Legacy Lives On

Michael Kidd worked with many notable dancers and movie stars throughout his career, including Jacques d'Amboise, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Gwen Verdon, Lucille Ball, Barbra Streisand and Marlon Brando. Broadway choreographer and director Michael Bennett, best known for A Chorus Line (1975), danced in several Kidd productions in the 1960s before going on to have his own fruitful choreographic career. Matt Mattox, who starred as one of the brothers in Seven Brides, also went on to become a champion of jazz dance in the 20th century.

Resources

Print:

American Dance: The Complete Illustrated History, by Margaret Fuhrer, Voyageur Press, 2014

No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press, 2003

“Michael Kidd," by Rachel Straus, Dance Teacher, May 2012

Web:

“Michael Kidd, Choreographer, Dies," The New York Times, by Patricia Eliot Tobias, 2007


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