“In this commonplace world a romantic is one who either admires a finer thing or does one.” ALEXANDER POPE
Over the years I have always been fascinated about artists in every walk and in every station: how they perceive themselves, their art, and their place in it. Painters, sculptors, musicians, authors, composers, performers, athletes, chefs, and short order cooks (I have a special fondness for short order cooks). This fascination led me to read dozens of biographies and autobiographies about people who express themselves artistically. The one thing that they all seem to have in common is their mutual endeavor for excellence; for doing a finer thing in whatever they choose to practice. The flourish of a spatula as it leaves an omelette, or the trash man as he flips the container back to the ground in a graceful arc.
Inarguably, one of the greatest performing artists of all time was Fred Astaire. To watch him dance is to see an artist at the very peak of his craft. By seeing him we have the rare opportunity to see a work of art in progress: a painting being made, a thousand brush strokes or chisel hatches before our eyes in the form of a whirling cascade of sliding, tapping, shoes; so precise in step and rhythm that they, like any great work of art, defy our imagining. What would any of us pay to look over the shoulder of our favorite painter, sculptor or photographer. To see how Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Sargent, or Van Gogh went about their crafts. What would it be worth to you? By watching Fred Astaire on film we are witnessing a Master at work.
Fred Astaire choreographed most of his own dance routines and insisted that most of the scenes be filmed in one take which often resulted in countless takes and bleeding feet for he or his partner. By doing this, he was not only able to preserve the continuity and spontaneity of his work for the medium of film, but also the sanctity of the finished work of art for himself. He might not have done this purposely, it’s hard to say, for only he could see the blank canvas and the final steps- but I think he did. So, it is the journey that we enjoy here- not the destination. It’s not the final flourish and tuxedoed bow with top hat and cane in hand that he wishes us to recall, but the exhilaration of taking the dance with him; all of us in a suspended state of awe, step by step, wishing that we could dance like that, even if we never ever wanted to dance before. That’s what Art should do to all of us: impart the desire to be alive in some new way. In this way we are truly romantics.
And yet, Fred Astaire had a very unique perspective on himself and his place in his art. He maintained a forward-looking attitude and kept a very foggy rear view mirror, not only of his talents and accomplishments, but of himself. From all I’ve read, and others report who knew him, he was amazingly nonplussed by it all and had a humble and extremely self-effacing attitude that was very genuine and, in the end, as rare as his extraordinary talents. Of course he worked hard, beginning as a child in vaudeville dancing with his sister, and perfecting his craft on stage and on screen. Working hard, like every great artist does. But Astaire had a different quality than most . . .
Astaire avoided seeing his pictures again; rarely viewing them more than once. He preferred instead to move on to a new phase of creativity. He was appalled by the idea that someone would be watching Top Hat a hundred years from now.
Astaire worked with some of the greatest composers of all time: Ziegfield, Gershwin, and Berlin, to name few. And the list of leading ladies was beyond compare: Ginger Rogers of course; Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn, and Judy Garland to name a few. All of whom he had only good things to say. Genuine and generous.
In Fred Astaire’s autobiography entitled Steps In Time, Astaire said: “I am often asked to expound on the history and the philosophy of the dance about which I have disappointingly little to say. When you come to the evolution of the dance, its history and philosophy, I know as much about that as I do about how a television produces a picture, which is absolutely nothing. I don’t know how it all started and I don’t want to know. I have no desire to prove anything by it. I have never used it as an outlet or as a means of expressing myself.
I Just Dance.”