Dance Magazine Recommends: From Sparkle to Sparkle

January 10, 2007

Astaire & Rogers Collection Volume 2

DVD; set $59.92; each $19.97.

“The new fast-stepping dancing pair!” announces the trailer for Flying Down to Rio before showing a snippet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers doing the Carioca in a glamorous nightclub. It was 1933, and Flying Down to Rio was only the second film that Astaire had made in Hollywood. The movie is part of Astaire & Rogers Collection Volume 2, released by Warner Home Video, and a welcome complement to Volume 1. This volume contains their first three movies (Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta) and their penultimate two (Carefree, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle). And like Volume 1 (see “DM Recommends,” Dec. 2005), it offers the enthralling possibility of watching the development of their extraordinary collaboration.


This second collection may, indeed, offer a better glimpse of that development: While the gaps between the early and later films span only five years, the collection shows the way in which the slightly tentative Astaire and Rogers of Flying Down to Rio develop into “Fred and Ginger”—possibly the most beloved pair of dancers in history.


Astaire came to Flying Down to Rio fresh from a successful stage career, in which he had been the less acclaimed part of a partnership with his sister, Adele. The 34-year-old dancer hoped to redress the balance in Hollywood, but in the movie he is billed fifth, after Rogers, who was better known to audiences. The film was nonetheless a triumph for the pair. They are not the romantic leads, and they don’t quite take over the movie, but the sparks of their scintillating partnership are already evident in their first dances together.


Astaire’s easy transition to leading man is apparent in The Gay Divorcee, made just one year later. In the nonchalant solo, “A Needle in a Haystack,” Astaire sings and dances with the insouciant grace that was his instant trademark, flipping his dressing gown to his manservant and lightly ascending a chair. Later in the film, he dances with Rogers to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” This duet (above) is the real start of their partnership, still a revelation in the way its two stars transforms the steps into a conversation that seems to reveal even more about what they feel than they know of themselves. But as in all their subsequent films, Astaire and Rogers never seem to be acting while they dance; their movement simply shows us the deeper, truer side of their characters.

The Gay Divorcee
is an enjoyably silly film, with its French farce plot and supporting cast of absurdist characters (an eccentric waiter, an over-the-top Italian fop, and the heroine’s dithery, yet purposeful aunt. “You must eat,” she tells Ginger. “You can’t have a divorce on an empty stomach.”) But it is the dancing that gives the film immortality—“Night and Day,” and a 17-minute cast-of-thousands extravaganza, “The Continental,” which concludes with Astaire and Rogers waltzing down a flight of stairs as if they were walking on water.


The dance material in all of these films is mostly Astaire’s own (Hermes Pan began to choreograph the group scenes from The Gay Divorcee on, but wasn’t credited until Roberta), and the remaining films in this series show that he was as inventive and ingenious a choreographer as he was a dancer. In Carefree, he performs a solo on a golf course, incorporating fencing gestures, Scottish dancing, golf-club twirling, and a series of putts that sends each ball into the air between a syncopated tattoo of footwork. Any—let alone all—of this might be gimmicky in someone else’s hands. But Astaire structures it with such impeccable musicality—sometimes working against the rhythm and creating percussive countercurrents with his footwork—and performs with such low-key showmanship that he is utterly persuasive. The same is true of a dazzling solo in Roberta, full of wheeling turns and rattling, incredibly fast footwork, delivered with a cool, almost dry wit.


Watching the films in chronological order also shows the development of the Astaire-Rogers partnership. The apparently improvised sequence in the off-hours of a café in Roberta demonstrates not just their tapping skills, but their growing complicity as dancing partners: Although they must have rehearsed the number over and over again (Astaire’s perfectionism was legendary), its apparent spontaneity is enchanting. And by Carefree, the erotic glamour of their partnership is clear in the beautiful duet to “Change Partners.” Rogers, in a backless, black chiffon dress, is hypnotized by her pyschotherapist, Astaire, and the swooning backbends and final circling, horizontal lift tell us everything about her character’s feelings for her partner. “Change Partners” is far from the most spectacular or intricate duet of the Astaire-Rogers partnership, but it has a surprising sensuality not common in much of their work.


That work might be defined by the seriousness that they bring to their dancing—what might be called a joyous seriousness—and that is in part the theme of the final film in this collection, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. A biopic about a pair of professional dancers who rose to fame in Paris before World War I, the film’s content echoes many aspects of the Astaire-Rogers phenomenon. But the tighter, more stylized dancing of the earlier period provides less of the sheer rapture in movement that is the glory of their partnership.


This second volume of the Astaire & Rogers Collection provides plenty of that rapture, and suggests that the pair’s enduring appeal may have to do with the purity of purpose with which they approach their task. There are no extraneous gestures, no courting of the audience, no exhibition of technical tricks. At a time when television is pervaded by highly popular dancing shows, it’s a reminder that Astaire and Roger’s enduring glamour is related to romance and mystery. We may have reality; they don’t need it.


Roslyn Sulcas covers dance for
The New York Times.