7 DVDs Show How Divine and Dramatic Dance Can Be

ASTAIRE & ROGERS COLLECTION VOL. IHe was a geek with brilliant feet, she a pert blond chorine. Yet when Fred took Ginger in his arms and led her across a ballroom floor, he not only defined the film musical but also, deep in the Depression, created a new ideal of “la belle, la perfectly swell romance.” Most of their best numbers–Isn’t This a Lovely Day and Cheek to Cheek from Top Hat, the all-time sublime Never Gonna Dance from Swing Time–are in this five-film set, along with cogent analysis of the screen’s most buoyant duo.


When Astaire, in Swing Time, performed the Bojangles of Harlem number, he was paying tribute to Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, tap master extraordinaire and the prime exponent of a dance form developed on slave plantations and in vaudeville halls. Three of Robinson’s aged contemporaries–Bunny Briggs, Chuck Green and Sandman Sims–still hoofing in 1979, were the stars of George T. Nierenberg’s intimate documentary about a challenge dance at a Harlem nightclub. Their story is poignant, their dexterity poetic, their legacy immense.


The kid from Pittsburgh, Pa., could tap like a demon (he did a terrific trio with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate), but Kelly’s real aspiration was to create a fully American form of dance: ballet with machismo. Compared with the slim, elegant Astaire, Kelly was Everyman, all man. And for a wonderful while, he did it all: sang, danced, acted, choreographed and directed. Singin’ in the Rain is his masterpiece, but there’s lots more to savor in Robert Trachtenberg’s excellent 2002 bio-doc.


In 1961 this Oscar winner introduced the mass audience to the marriage of serious dance (Jerome Robbins’) and serious music (Leonard Bernstein’s). The way to see it, if not on the big screen, is in this two-disc MGM set that includes reminiscences of those baby Jets and Sharks, now in their 60s and 70s.


George Balanchine was the great melder of high and popular art in dance. The young Russian came to the U.S. in 1933 and worked on Broadway, in Hollywood and for the circus (devising a piece for 14 elephants) before starting the New York City Ballet in 1948 and creating works from Stravinsky (39 in all) and Tchaikovsky (the perennial Nutcracker). He said his mission was to “entertain the public” as well as elevate it. This 1984 documentary does both.


How many girls saw this 1948 English musical melodrama and, no matter what the heroine’s fate, decided to put on ballet slippers? Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s fevered parable of ballet’s uneasy kinship of music and dance turned an art-business into a battlefield of egos, lusts and near demonic possessiveness. It established Anton Walbrook as the Svengali of his day and made a star of Moira Shearer.


Shearer’s Royal Ballet colleague Margot Fonteyn was by 1948 the world’s top ballet dancer. Her grace, sense of drama and ability to remain en pointe for seemingly minutes on end won her wide acclaim (and the cover of TIME). Later, when she was in her 40s, she found new life and a new lover with young Rudolf Nureyev. But her story was gaudier than her renown: the stuff of affairs, abortions, gunrunning for her Panamanian husband, an old age stripped of wealth, burial in a pauper’s grave. Tony Palmer’s thrilling 2005 documentary brims with pertinent clips and lurid gossip. It captures a dancer’s life at its most rarefied and rapacious.

From the Jul 10, 2006 issue of TIME magazine