Plugged In

March 25, 2012

The latest in all media




The Astaires: Fred & Adele

By Kathleen Riley.

Oxford University Press. 272 pages.

50 photographs. $27.95.

He said “tomAHto” while she said “tomAYto,” but their contrasting personalities and sublime dancing made them the toast of the town. No, it wasn’t classy Fred and sexy Ginger in Hollywood, it was suave Fred and bubbly Adele in London, and their less-known story is recounted in a fascinating new book by theater historian Kathleen Riley.

Because she married and left the stage in 1932, and he went on to decades of greatness in movies, Adele Astaire never became an icon. But when she performed with her younger brother, first in a kiddie dance act in vaudeville and then in musical comedies, she was always the bigger star.

While her goo-goo singing can be heard on scratchy old recordings (and, of course, on YouTube), Adele’s dancing can only be imagined, mentally reconstructed from still photographs and contemporary descriptions. But in The Astaires: Fred & Adele, Riley builds a compelling portrait of a high-spirited charmer whose ebullience and impish humor blazed across the footlights along with her stylish dancing. She was apparently irresistible offstage as well, gaining entrée to the loftiest reaches of high society, hobnobbing with royalty, and marrying the son of an English duke.

When she took up residence in his castle in Ireland, she worried over how poor, abandoned Fred would fare as a solo. But as Riley makes clear, their hardscrabble years rising through the ranks on the vaudeville circuit had given him the dance instincts, the perseverance, and the polish that would stand him in such good stead in the movies.

Their rise had been far from meteoric. Riley points out that the Astaires spent 12 years perfecting essentially the same three vaudeville numbers. By the time he was 16, she writes, “Fred supplied the team’s creative energy, choreographic brilliance, and discipline.” His famous perfectionism was rooted in his professional insecurities—Adele’s pet name for him was “Moaning Minnie”—but also in his professional experience.

Drawing on unpublished letters, diaries, and interviews, the book follows the pair from their early years in Omaha to their relocation to New York—Adele was 8 and Fred was 5—and tracks their climb to stardom. Among its pleasures are Riley’s thumbnail sketches of people they encountered—celebrities like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, celebrities-to-be like Ginger Rogers (who dated Fred in New York), and less famous but crucial mentors. There was the dance teacher Aurelio Coccia, who overhauled their cutesy vaudeville routines. There was the Broadway producer Charles Dillingham, who took them under his wing and moved them from revues into real musicals.

Australian-born and Oxford-educated, Riley devotes much of her narrative to the extraordinary impact the Astaires had when they took their Broadway hit For Goodness Sake to Britain in 1923 (as Stop Flirting). She makes it sound as if they single-handedly lifted the country out of its postwar funk. The Astaires returned to New York in triumph the following year, to spend the rest of their joint career singing and dancing the tunes of George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, and Arthur Schwartz, in some of Broadway’s most legendary shows.

Then Adele called the whole thing off. And you know the rest. —Sylviane Gold


Adele and Fred returning to NYC in June 1927. Photo by Photofest, Courtesy OUP.




Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Opus Arte. 120 minutes, plus 30-minute BBC documentary Being Alice. $29.99.

If you can’t make it to London this month for The Royal Ballet’s reprisal of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, there’s good news—Opus Arte has released a DVD of Christopher Wheeldon’s whimsical, eye-popping ballet. Co-produced with the National Ballet of Canada, Alice enjoyed sold-out runs at its premieres last year in Toronto and London, where filming took place last March. Lauren Cuthbertson, onstage for nearly the entire two-hour ballet, shines as Alice, with her elegant extensions, buoyant jumps, and smooth renversés.

Nicholas Wright, who wrote the scenario, has made some changes to Lewis Caroll’s brilliant story in order to give the plot some romantic intrigue. Alice and Jack, the gardener’s son, are in love, but separated by Alice’s mother (who tranforms into the Queen of Hearts after the fall down the rabbit hole). The outstanding Sergei Polunin as Jack/The Knave of Hearts isn’t given much to do—a shame, especially because he has since left the Royal. Other characters prove more memorable, including the crazed, tap-dancing Mad Hatter from Steven McRae and the White Rabbit, embodied with jittery precision by Edward Watson. Zenaida Yanowsky takes the cake for her campy Queen of Hearts, with a pasted grin that verges on a bared-teeth growl. Wheeldon’s send-up of the Rose Adagio for her and four quivering cards is a high point. Matching the Queen’s bloodlust is the Cook, Kristen McNally, who stomps and slashes her shining cleaver with relish.

While the set design by Bob Crowley (who also designed the costumes) and the projections by John Driscoll and Gemma Carrington bring many of Lewis’ classic scenes to life—Alice’s falling down the rabbit hole, her monstrous growth spurt, then shrinking—they can unfortunately overshadow the dancing. But there are moments where dance and design strike the right balance, including an unrelenting petit allégro for the trio of gardeners attempting to paint the roses red, and the disembodied Cheshire Cat, manuevered by a team of dancers. The two pas de deux for Cuthbertson and Polunin are full of Wheeldon’s signature unfolding lifts. The choreographer punctuates the couple’s budding romance with quick changes of direction and shifts of weight, both tender and joyous.

With an enchanting score by Joby Talbot, this stylish Alice is one for both young and old. —Kina Poon


iPhone apps


Heard about the great Carmen De Lavallade but never seen her dance? Read Deborah Jowitt’s writing but never met her? Ever wanted to see the floating port de bras of Christine Redpath, ballet mistress at NYCB, or the torquing shoulders of Molissa Fenley? Now you can watch some of our most glorious dance artists in action, with the Dances for an iPhone app. It’s brought to you by Richard Daniels, who has choreographed small bits tailored to each dancer. In a studio setting with natural light, we see each revered artist glide through Daniels’ choreography or staging. Right now there are about 10 dancers we can hold in the palm of our hand, but Daniels plans to add more. At a talk at Jacob’s Pillow last summer, De Lavallade effused, “This one little dance has gone around the world, and I’m just in awe of that.” Download the app for free at the iTunes store. —Wendy Perron