Saturday, February 27, 2010

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: Barnraising Dance

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If you're not into musicals then you've probably never seen MGM's 1954 movie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Starring Howard Keel and Jane Powell, the movie is especially known for its robust dances, choreographed by Michael Kidd, whose Broadway and Hollywood credits are about as impressive as you can get.

The famous and acrobatic barnraising dance (video, below) took three or four days to film, according to director Stanley Donen. In fact, they shot two versions, widescreen Cinemascope and one at normal aspect ratio, which necessitated reblocking much of the dance. Both are available on the 2004 DVD release.

While it doesn't seem to show up in its entirety online, you sure can find a lot of versions of this dance (sans acrobatics) from high school productions! In the movie, the brides-to-be were played by professional dancers and the brothers, who have the more acrobatic roles, were played by dancers, gymnasts, and athletes. These included Jacques d'Amboise, principal dancer with the NYC Ballet; Tommy Rall, who danced for Kidd in Kiss Me Kate and in the Danny Kaye vehicle, Merry Andrew; and Russ Tamblyn, who seven years later played Riff, leader of the Jets gang, in the movie version of West Side Story.

Some elaboration from Wikipedia:

To perform the electrifying dance numbers and grueling action sequences, choreographer Michael Kidd cast four professional dancers, a gymnast and even a baseball player as Adam Pontipee's six rough and tumble brothers. Adam: Howard Keel appeared as "Adam," the romantic lead and eldest of the seven brothers. Benjamin: Jeff Richards, who played "Benjamin," was a former professional baseball star. Dancers: The actors playing Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim and Frank were all professional dancers - with Jacques d'Amboise (Ephraim) appearing on loan from the New York City Ballet. They balanced on a beam together during their famous barn-raising dance. Gideon: Russ Tamblyn beat Morton Downey Jr. for the role of youngest brother Gideon. Tamblyn showcased his gymnastics training throughout the action sequences.

I've included the setup for the dance so you get a feeling for the context. The basic story is that one of the ladies has married a rough-and-tumble mountain man and, unhappy with her life amongst his six crude brothers, has set out to civilize them so she can marry them off and be rid of them. To that end she sets out to educate the brothers— they're lumberjacks but they're okay — in manners and social dancing so they'll have a chance in the courting game. An early confrontation between the fine gentlemen found in town and these country yokels comes at a barnraising dance that turns into a competition for the attention of the six available ladies.

This rivalry allows the dancers to showcase an impressive repertoire of acrobatic stunts as each side tries to top the other. For exuberance alone you'd have to give the dance high grades, but I also love its partner moves, its blend of ballet and more naturalistic movement, and its imaginative use of all the visual elements you'd associate with building a barn. As for the ladies, they no doubt enjoy the company of the townies but — surprise! surprise! — their dancing sure does loosen up when they take flight with the less refined backwoodsmen.

And, yes, I am assuming that Tommy Rall was attached to wires when running in place atop that well bucket crank.

And apologies for the small version but right now Blogger is balking at uploading anything wider than 320 pixels; so much for CinemaScope. I settled for the 320 then stretched it to column width, which creates some blurriness. Of course you can rent it on Netflix or buy either a single-disc or two-disc version of the movie on Amazon or elsewhere.

1 comment:

Hank Smith said...

One of my favorite film dance numbers. The film is not only choreographed by the great Michael Kidd, but directed by Stanley Donen who co-directed "Singing In
The Rain" with Gene Kelly. I got to meet Donen a number of years ago and talked with him about these films and the dancing around the room scene done by Fred Astaire in "Royal Wedding", which Donen also directed.