The lowly chorus girl is one of the saviors of early American dance. The other is dance historian Frank W.D. Ries.
For 18 years, Ries has tracked down retired Broadway and Hollywood chorus girls and asked them to re-create their routines. Why not go to the choreographers? Because they invented dances, taught them, and then forgot them. The chorus girl had to perform that dance day after day, month after month.
“I have found it’s the forgotten chorus girl who remembers everything,” said Ries, a professor of dance at UC Santa Barbara. “She’s your best source.”
Ries has collected about 400 dances from such chorus girls, some of which he’ll show off today and Friday in “Can’t Stop Dancing: An American Musical Marathon.” The 110-minute show, performed by Ries and eight UCSB dance majors, includes 18 dances spanning 200 years. It will start with the minuet as danced at George Washington’s inaugural ball, and end with a routine from “Dirty Dancing.”
Ries has staged more, well . . . more esteemed dance re-creations in the past, including Jean Cocteau’s famed 1924 ballet “Le Train Bleu,” which he did for the Oakland Ballet in 1988 and Paris Opera in 1990. But classic American musical theater--mined by musicians, but largely ignored by dancers--has been his love.
Ries grew up in St. Louis, where his father was a big-band singer and worked in radio. His grandfather had been a vaudeville performer and later ran a theater there. As a result, performers often would visit the Ries house, where young Frank would insist they teach him their routines.
It was those early lessons that Ries would fall back on, long after ballet training and history studies at Cambridge University. In living rooms and nursing homes across Southern California, Ries would take dance lessons from ladies who still remembered the steps they were taught 70 years before. “These women would get up and say, ‘Let’s show Frank that leg kick,’ ” he said.
He didn’t have to travel far to find them. Many of the producers and choreographers of the lavish musicals and revues of the 1920s --like Busby Berkeley--moved to Hollywood during the Depression. Their dancers followed and eventually retired here. Ries would record interviews with them in two ways: their voices on tape, and their dances by learning them himself.
Among the musical theater routines in “Can’t Stop Dancing” are the ballet sequence performed by Marilyn Miller in “Sunny” in 1924, and Agnes de Mille’s pas de deux from “Carousel” in 1944. Ries also will offer a minstrel cakewalk, the original Charleston, a ragtime vaudeville dance, and tap dance from George M. Cohan (performed in shoes that Cohan gave Ries’ grandfather).
The show ends with a humorous compendium of more recent musicals, including “The Music Man,” “Hair,” “Annie” and “Flashdance.”
While it sounds like a lot of hi-jinks, there is an educational purpose. Ries, with financial backing from UCSB and private donor Margaret Mosher, will videotape the performances today. The video will later be used to create a CD-ROM for students of dance history. “Dance is the most ephemeral of the arts,” Ries said. “If you stop dancing something, if it goes out of fashion, if you didn’t record it, it’s gone. . . . The important thing is to learn to preserve our heritage as well as to see what our ancestors enjoyed. We preserve our art and music and theater in scripts. Are we going to neglect dance?”
Ries is doing his best to keep the steps alive. For the Washington-era minuet, he dug up the music at the Smithsonian Institution, some notes at Monticello and then found souvenir programs from the inaugural ball at the Library of Congress. From those materials, he knew most of the ingredients, which he combined with minuet steps of the time.
“It takes months of piecing things together,” he said. “That dance only lasts a minute and a half. But I spent a year and a half of research on it.”
Re-creations such as Ries’ are one way that historians hope to reclaim dances that might otherwise slip into extinction. For centuries, the primary way of saving dance was to teach it to the next generation. Even when written notation became more common in the 20th century, Ries said, it’s never been used for show dances.
“There’s always been a prejudice [because] it’s not ballet, it’s not modern dance,” he said. “But this is just as important as anything else.”
“Can’t Stop Dancing: An American Musical Marathon,” at Hatlen Theatre, UC Santa Barbara. Today, 5:30 p.m., free; Friday, 7:30 p.m., $15; $25 with champagne reception. (805) 893-3022.