Who is Fred Astaire?
Fred Astaire (born Frederick Austerlitz; May 10, 1899 – June 22, 1987) was an American actor, dancer, singer, choreographer, and television presenter. He is widely considered the greatest dancer in film history.
His stage and subsequent film and television careers spanned a total of 76 years. He starred in more than 10 Broadway and West End musicals, made 31 musical films, four television specials, and numerous recordings. As a dancer, his outstanding traits were an uncanny sense of rhythm, perfectionism, and innovation. His most memorable dancing partnership was with Ginger Rogers, with whom he co-starred in a series of ten Hollywood musicals during the age of Classical Hollywood cinema, including Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), and Shall We Dance (1937). Among the other notable films in which Astaire gained further popularity and took the genre of tap dancing to a new level were Holiday Inn (1942), Easter Parade (1948), The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957), and Silk Stockings (1957). The American Film Institute named Astaire the fifth-greatest male star of Classic Hollywood cinema in 100 Years… 100 Stars.
Astaire was a virtuoso dancer, able when called for to convey light-hearted venturesomeness or deep emotion. His technical control and sense of rhythm were astonishing. Long after the photography for the solo dance number “I Want to Be a Dancin’ Man” was completed for the 1952 feature The Belle of New York, it was decided that Astaire’s humble costume and the threadbare stage set were inadequate and the entire sequence was reshot. The 1994 documentary That’s Entertainment! III shows the two performances side by side in split-screen. Frame for frame, the two performances are identical, down to the subtlest gesture.
Astaire’s execution of a dance routine was prized for its elegance, grace, originality, and precision. He drew from a variety of influences, including tap and other black rhythms, classical dance, and the elevated style of Vernon and Irene Castle. His was a uniquely recognizable dance style that greatly influenced the American Smooth style of ballroom dance and set standards against which subsequent film dance musicals would be judged. He termed his eclectic approach “outlaw style”, an unpredictable and instinctive blending of personal artistry. His dances are economical yet endlessly nuanced. As Jerome Robbins stated, “Astaire’s dancing looks so simple, so disarming, so easy, yet the understructure, the way he sets the steps on, over or against the music, is so surprising and inventive.”: 18 Astaire further observed:
Working out the steps is a very complicated process—something like writing music. You have to think of some step that flows into the next one, and the whole dance must have an integrated pattern. If the dance is right, there shouldn’t be a single superfluous movement. It should build to a climax and stop!: 15
Although Astaire was the primary choreographer of all his dance routines, he welcomed the input of collaborators and notably his principal collaborator Hermes Pan. But dance historian John Mueller believes that Astaire acted as the lead choreographer in his solos and partnered dances throughout his career. He notes Astaire’s dance style was consistent in subsequent films made with or without the assistance of Pan. Furthermore, Astaire choreographed all the routines during his Broadway career with his sister Adele. Later in his career, he became a little more amenable to accepting the direction of his collaborators. However, this was almost always confined to the area of extended fantasy sequences, or “dream ballets”.
Occasionally Astaire took joint screen credit for choreography or dance direction, but he usually left the screen credit to his collaborator. This can lead to the completely misleading impression that Astaire merely performed the choreography of others. Later in life, he admitted, “I had to do most of it myself.”
Frequently, a dance sequence was built around two or three key ideas, sometimes inspired by his steps or by the music itself, suggesting a particular mood or action.: 20 Caron said that while Kelly danced close to the ground, she felt like she was floating with Astaire. Many dance routines were built around a “gimmick”, like dancing on the walls in Royal Wedding or dancing with his shadows in Swing Time. He or his collaborator would think of these routines earlier and save them for the right situation. They would spend weeks creating all the dance sequences in a secluded rehearsal space before filming would begin. They would work with a rehearsal pianist (often the composer Hal Borne) who in turn would communicate modifications to the musical orchestrators.
His perfectionism was legendary, but his relentless insistence on rehearsals and retakes was a burden to some. When time approached for the shooting of a number, Astaire would rehearse for another two weeks and record the singing and music. With all the preparation completed, the actual shooting would go quickly, conserving costs. Astaire agonized during the process, frequently asking colleagues for acceptance for his work. As Vincente Minnelli stated, “He lacks confidence to the most enormous degree of all the people in the world. He will not even go to see his rushes … He always thinks he is no good.”: 16 As Astaire himself observed, “I’ve never yet got anything 100% right. Still, it’s never as bad as I think it is.”: 16
Michael Kidd, Astaire’s co-choreographer on the 1953 film The Band Wagon, found that his own concern about the emotional motivation behind the dance was not shared by Astaire. Kidd later recounted: “Technique was important to him. He’d say, ‘Let’s do the steps. Let’s add the looks later.'”
Although he viewed himself primarily as an entertainer, his artistry won him the admiration of twentieth-century dancers such as Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, the Nicholas Brothers, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Margot Fonteyn, Bob Fosse, Gregory Hines, Rudolf Nureyev, Michael Jackson, and Bill Robinson. Balanchine compared him to Bach, describing him as “the most interesting, the most inventive, the most elegant dancer of our times“, while for Baryshnikov he was “a genius … a classical dancer like I never saw in my life“. “No dancer can watch Fred Astaire and not know that we all should have been in another business”, he concluded.