Kidd Steps to the Oscar Podium : The academy doesn’t have awards for choreography but next week it salutes a lifetime of work.
Summarizing his film achievements recently at a public forum on his work, Michael Kidd recalled turning down the opportunity to create the dances for “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” 43 years ago:
“Here are these slobs living off in the woods,” he remembered saying to director Stanley Donen. “They have no schooling, they are uncouth, there’s manure on the floor, the cows come in and out--and they’re gonna get up and dance? We’d be laughed out of the theater!”
For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 19, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 19, 1997 Home Edition CA Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit--A photograph of Danny Kaye and choreographer Michael Kidd in Tuesday’s Calendar section was inadequately credited. The photograph was taken by Phil Stern. Also, in another photo, Kidd was misidentified as standing on the left.
Fortunately, Donen didn’t give up, because “Seven Brides” is now widely considered the crowning achievement of Kidd’s film career--a career that will be celebrated with an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar at the 69th Academy Awards on Monday. Kidd says the news took him by surprise, “inasmuch as the last major musical I did was many years ago--and there has never been an [Academy Award] category for choreography.” And he’s aware that not since the 1960s have honorary Oscars gone to choreographers.
And because his film career largely ended in that decade, you could argue that his Oscar is a result of the current popularity of his films on videotape and cable. Certainly his reputation has never been more glowing, with some of his dance sequences now more famous than the films they ornament.
Take, for example, “Knock on Wood,” a typical Danny Kaye vehicle from 1954 with an inspired Kidd finale: Kaye being chased by killers into a theater where he ends up on stage, faking his way through a Russian ballet full of saucy Tartars and other Volga excesses.
Kidd is also the choreographer who transformed Fred Astaire into a Mickey Spillane-style private eye in “The Band Wagon” (1953) and set gamblers gamboling on stage and screen in “Guys and Dolls” (Broadway, 1950; Hollywood, five years later).
He was also a respected, ballet-trained dancer, but that career is harder to document through film. He certainly held his own against master hoofers Gene Kelly and Dan Dailey in the athletic trio near the beginning of “It’s Always Fair Weather” (1955). And since a number of sources--including Stephen M. Silverman’s recent book “Dancing on the Ceiling"--report that Kelly felt so threatened by a major Kidd solo that he ordered it cut from that film, the question lingers: Could he have been a dancing star?
“It would have been nice,” he admitted recently. “But I didn’t have a burning desire to be a performer. I didn’t want to sit by the phone waiting for it to ring and hoping to be cast in a movie. I would rather be independent and go and do the shows that I wanted.”
Now a spry 77, Kidd lives in Brentwood with his wife, Shelah, who served as his assistant on his last major Hollywood musical, “Hello, Dolly!” in 1969. After that assignment, he continued his career as Broadway director-choreographer and then worked in television--most notably, perhaps, on “Baryshnikov in Hollywood,” which he conceived and choreographed in 1981.
Mikhail Baryshnikov remembers Kidd having “a million ideas in his head” on that project. “I was amazed by his energy and willingness to reinvent all the time if the situation didn’t work,” he says. “He gave me a lot of confidence and I trusted him 100%.”
As Baryshnikov points out, Kidd came to Hollywood with “certain career equipment that other studio choreographers didn’t have,” including experience as a choreographer for American Ballet Theatre and two Tony Awards for Broadway choreography (“Finian’s Rainbow” in 1947, plus “Guys and Dolls”). Between movie assignments, he would win three more Tonys: for “Can Can” in 1954, “L’il Abner” in 1957 and “Destry Rides Again” in 1960.
Kidd says the biggest influences on his choreography were actor-director Charles Chaplin, “because he expressed through movement the aspirations of the little man,” and dancer-choreographer Leonide Massine, “because he expressed more than just balletic ability--he was always a character on stage, an exaggerated character, which I do all the time: an exaggeration of ordinary movement.”
Because Kidd believes “people are defined by the work they do,” he zeroed in on job activities in many of his projects: the brothers chopping wood in the “Lonesome Polecat” number from “Seven Brides,” hard hats on a building site in the 1965 Broadway musical “Skyscraper,” waiters setting tables in “Hello, Dolly!,” the crap game in “Guys and Dolls.”
“Emotion can’t just be performers emoting,” Kidd says. “It has to be shown through some specific action. In the crap game, I tried first of all to capture the excitement and tension of gambling. Of course, when people are around a crap table, they are motionless, they don’t express much. But I tried to show the inner feeling of these people by finding specific actions.
“They were shy, frightened or forceful people--but their tension was always expressed by a violent nervous twitching. I could identify with that nervousness and find a way of putting it on stage because I’ve felt that way myself.”
Asked to choose the work that defines him most intimately, Kidd chooses not a film, a Broadway musical or a television project but his ABT ballet “On Stage!,” choreographed more than a half-century ago. He played a stagehand who watched a young girl fall apart during an audition for a ballet company--and then coaxed her into fully expressing her potential. Eventually she was accepted into the company and he was left alone, sweeping the floor.
“Anybody that’s creative has to put expressions of himself into what he does,” Kidd says a little shyly, explaining his continuing attachment to this one and only classical creation. “My guess is I put myself into both those characters, the stagehand and the little girl.”