Friday, 28 December 2018
Mean feet: the tap-dancing duo who were Fred Astaire's heroes
https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/oct/06/tap-dancing-fred-astaire-fabulous-nicholas-brothers Blending a floating grace with a fierce athleticism, the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers won fans from Gene Kelly to Michael Jackson. Now a cinematic retrospective celebrates their talents Judith Mackrell @judithmackrell Thu 6 Oct 2016 07.00 BST Last modified on Mon 10 Oct 2016 16.42 BST Astonishing … the Nicholas Brothers – Fayard, left, and Harold – in 1943’s Stormy Weather. Photographs: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest When connoisseurs of dance are asked to compile a list of the world’s greatest movers, Fred Astaire is nearly always close to the top. As a dancer, he brought a ballroom finesse and a loose-knit debonair grace to the grounded rhythms of tap. As a choreographer, he was remarkable for the puckish playfulness of his imagination: playing the drums while he danced in the 1937 film A Damsel in Distress; dancing with his shadow in Swing Time (1936); and revelling in the possibilities of trick photography as he danced up the walls and across the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951). Yet Astaire himself declared that his own tap heroes were Fayard and Harold Nicholas, two black dancers who became one of the most popular double acts of the mid 20th century. During the 1930s and 40s, the brothers toured the world and acquired an international public through Hollywood movies such as Down Argentine Way and Stormy Weather. Nor was it just Astaire who rated them professionally – over the years, dance luminaries such as Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Michael Jackson added their own accolades. Tap devotees still prize the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers, but to the general public their names have become less well known. Picturehouse Cinemas’ retrospective of their work should lead to a deserved reappraisal of their importance. Fayard (born in 1914) and Harold (born in 1921) grew up in Philadelphia, where their parents led the resident band of the Standard theatre. It was the heyday of black vaudeville in the States – a period when great African American performers such as Bessie Smith toured the country. And much like Josephine Baker, who learned to dance by imitating the acts she’d seen at her local theatre in St Louis, the brothers acquired their skills at the Philadelphia Standard, as Fayard studied acts including Willie Bryant and Bill Robinson, then passed his skills on to his younger brother. Stormy Weather (1943) Directed by Andrew L. Stone Shown from left: Fayard Nicholas, Harold Nicholas Fabulous Nicholas Brothers press image supplied by Gemma Cole Production Manager elevenfiftyfive.com 07794166846 Facebook Twitter Pinterest Natural mimics as well as naturally talented, the Nicholas boys also picked up tricks from the acrobats and comedians who appeared on the Standard stage. By the time they started performing themselves, around 1930, they had developed their own unique physical virtuosity, and by 1932 they’d moved up to New York, starring at the Lafayette vaudeville theatre in Harlem and at the Mecca of black dance and music, the Cotton Club. Sign up to our Film Today email Read more Given the brutal segregation that operated within the entertainment industry, it was hard for black entertainers to break into the white mainstream. But the Nicholas brothers were among the privileged few, like Baker and Smith, whose talent was too irresistible a commodity. In 1936, when Harold was still virtually a child, they were hired to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, where their dancing created such an uproar that the singer and comedienne Fannie Brice, who came on stage after the brothers, had to quiet down the theatre by cracking the line: “Do you think we can talk now?” The following year, ballet choreographer George Balanchine hired the brothers to dance in the musical Babes in Arms. Hollywood, too, came calling, and during the 1940s the two men featured in some dozen major films, their bravura skills showcased in sequences such as this Chattanooga Choo Choo routine, in the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade. The brothers did not make the transition on screen from dancers to romantic leads, as Fred Astaire had done the previous decade. Their skin colour was an obvious barrier, although Astaire himself would think nothing of blacking up his face to perform the “Mr Bojangles” number in Swing Time. But as dance artists the brothers pushed themselves constantly, absorbing new ideas and taking influences from ballet, a form they greatly admired. In performance they seemed both fearless and joyous. Baryshnikov declared they were the most “amazing dancers” he’d ever seen; and their most astonishing screen performance, the finale to the 1943 film Stormy Weather, was adjudged by Astaire to be the “greatest dance and music” sequence in the history of cinema. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Watching this clip, its striking how similar the brothers were to Astaire in certain ways; although physically chunkier, they brought the same quality of upper-body float to their dancing, the same easiness in their carriage and arms. It’s a lightness that informs their glissando slides (at 2mins 45secs) and the insouciant timing of their jumps – even when they’re leaping hazardously from table to table, over the band (0.32) or up a flight of stairs, the brothers work that special dance miracle of stretching out the seconds, of catching an impossible breath mid-air. Like Astaire their phrasing is impeccable, not least in the witty call-and-response section they perform with their pianist (1.30). Almost any other dance act would have milked this moment for much longer – Astaire certainly would have done so – yet here its only a glorious joke, a brilliant bagatelle before the brothers move on to other feats. The special hallmark of their act was its athleticism, however: the brothers’ ability to incorporate spins, kicks and flips into the middle of riotously fast and jazzy footwork; their special stunt of sliding down into the splits and back up again (1.36), as if friction and gravity were meaningless. The climax of this Stormy Weather clip almost beggars belief, as the two men make a leapfrogging descent of the staircase, taking it in turns to jump over each others heads, each time landing in the splits and rebounding back up. All this they manage in full evening dress, and without a moment’s hesitation flickering through the mega-wattage of their exuberance and charm. Gregory Hines, no mean dancer himself, said of the Nicholas brothers that it would be impossible to make a movie about their lives because it would be impossible to cast. No two dancers could ever be found to match their a skills, Hines believed, and the revelations of this three-minute clip suggest he may have been right. The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers season is at selected cinemas from 19 October–4 November as part of the BFI’s UK-wide season Black Star.