Sunday, March 10, 2013

Busby Berkeley - Dance Until the Dawn

Sometimes it's the dancers that are famous, sometimes it's the choreographer. Busby Berkeley was in all likelihood the first choreographer to fully recognize the potential of film as a tool to showcase dance in new ways. "Dance Until the Dawn" is from the 1931 musical Flying High, with Bert Lahr and Charlotte Greenwood. It wasn't first Hollywood production Berkeley choreographed (that would be 1930's Whoopee) and it certainly wasn't the last. Most of his signature moves are all here: the chorus girl "parade of faces", the synchronized precision line dancing, and of course the hypnotic bird's-eye-view kaleidoscope shots.

It's interesting to note that Berkeley wasn't credited as a Director on any film until 1933's She Had to Say Yes, despite having served as choreographer on 11 films before. He was apparently given a degree of independence in the direction of his musical numbers; they always have a very distinct style almost completely separate from the non-dance scenes in those early films. Did Berkeley's style come from the directors of those early pictures, or did it come from within? The general consensus seems to be that it all came from him, and I find it hard to disagree. The man was a genius. He was a visual artist using human bodies in motion to create a living work of art in a way that had never been done before.

This is from one of his earliest films, so some of it is a little rough (the dancers are notably not as tight as usual for Berkeley), but it's still hugely enjoyable in a way that only Busby Berkeley numbers are. He really showed off as much of the work of putting the film together as he could - look at those costumes on full display as the chorines enter, and later when they spin around! look at that multi-level set! look at each of these girls' faces! - which makes him even more unique among choreographers, who really do tend to be all about the movement.

Not that Berkeley didn't care about movement as well. Quite the contrary. After establishing the ensemble, the costumes, and the set, he goes about creating some great images - images that audience members couldn't possibly see if this number were performed on stage in a theater. I'm not just talking about those famous bird's-eye-view shots, either. There's one moment in particular (it comes at around 2:41 in the clip) that would be almost completely lost on theatregoers, and might have even been lost on the cinema patrons of 1931. While that line of men coming through the wheels of girls may have evoked gears to most, and might have received applause onstage as such, looking at it from this angle - one much higher than even the balcony seats in the theater - it's near-impossible to not see the sexual subtext.

Can't un-see it now, can you?

But moving on to those kaleidoscope shots. They really are unlike anything else on film. Pure poetry. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was special effects - completely animated, or each layer shot separately - but it's all done for real, in camera. There is something about bodies moving in unison that never fails to evoke wonder and amazement in human beings. It's one of the reasons why the Rockettes are still getting standing ovations for their kicklines after nearly 90 years. It's sublime, really.

If I can get a little serious, in intellectual circles "the sublime" is defined as the terribly beautiful. Watching a large group of human bodies in complete synchronization is beautiful, wondrous, even, but also unnatural and scary - we are creatures of free will, after all! Think about it: Other than chorus girls, what group of people most often march in strict, synchronized formation? Soldiers.

But enough with the serious, high-falutin' stuff. Busby Berkeley numbers are eye-popping in a way you just don't see anymore. Using the human body and the camera in perfect harmony, he created some of the most amazing sights you'll ever see. He really was the first person to conceive of dances almost exclusively for the camera, and even our greatest choreographers (Gene Kelly, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse) couldn't match his ingenuity with a lens. What he did was so singular, even those later geniuses knew not to touch it. Dance on film has come a long way, but there's still nothing like a Busby Berkeley extravaganza!

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