Michael Kidd

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

 

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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