If The Man Can't Dance /
Alesha Dixon’s shoulder in motion is entrancing. The lyrics of “The Boy Does Nothing” (2008) spin an obscure parable of man-woman relations, but there is absolutely nothing mysterious about the video visualisation of this catchy song. It is a masterpiece of dance video, drawing for its high concept on the memory of Harlem’s Cotton Club as recreated in Francis Coppola’s 1984 film of that name. Focusing in its first half on the extraordinarily athletic and inventive choreography of Dixon and her chorus-line of female dancers on stage – who could ever have imagined that the words ‘wash up’ and ‘brush up’ could trigger such amazingly co-ordinated shake-outs of limbs, torsos and hair? – the clip flies off, for its second half, into the assembled crowd: audience members, watchers, listeners, dancers game to strut their stuff in the midst of some hastily assembled, formless circle. As opposed to the men “with two left feet” castigated in the song, here is a parade of virtuosic guys spinning, leaping, popping, executing superb, lightning transitions from stasis to manic motion. A chant starts up, belonging half to the smooth mix of the soundtrack and half to this filmed, added throng: If the man can’t dance / He gets no second chance … And suddenly Alesha is part of the crowd, just another spectator, cheering the spontaneous, anonymous stars along. Her body can’t stop being infected by the beat, however: given wholly over to spectatorship now, no longer performing per se, her shoulder (turned to the front of her body) is extravagantly, sexily bouncing along. I could stare (I have stared) at this shoulder for a very long time.
In the study of physical movement in the arts – especially in the realms of dance, gestural interchange, and comedy – much attention has been paid to mimesis: mirroring, imitation, ‘shadowing’. In a sense the great, slick choreographies of mass dance – from Busby Berkeley to contemporary Broadway and its many off-shore destinations, via the increasingly extravagant Opening and Closing spectaculars of sports events like the Olympic Games – have depended on the mechanised perfection, military precision and high-angle formal beauty of such mirror-formations: the spectacle of symmetry, as Maureen Turim once put it. (1) No one can deny the splendour of such efforts, however queasily fascistic they may sometimes seem in their grand extensions. But, for every successful mimesis of this sort – where the chorus-line of dozens or thousands successfully shadows the front-and-centre star – there are a hundred failed mimetic movements, somewhere, everywhere, every day. Bad copies, botched jobs, unskilled imitations … customised, improvised, adapted in the spaces of our makeshift dance-floors or teenage bedrooms or domestic kitchens or loungeroom parties. Alone or together; at a party or in a reverie. This is the true soul of dance.
In Caro Diario (Dear Diary, 1994), writer-director-star Nanni Moretti – cursed to be known throughout his career as the ‘Italian Woody Allen’, although Woody (even though he has made a musical) cannot bop like this guy – enters a bar while on his travel through the Italian islands. While waiting for his bar order to be filled, he glances at the TV set positioned humbly up in the corner of the room. He is just in time for a splendidly surreal transition, especially when seen in this place, and only at this precise moment: a flashback in the black-and-white film Anna (1951) takes us, in the fuzzy blink of a dissolve, from Silvana Mangano’s present-day existence as a nun to her sultry past as a nightclub performer. Her dance gestures are sleek, extravagant, animalistic, a little in the tradition of Marlene Dietrich’s celebrated “Hot Voodoo” number in Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932): she hops, prowls, whispers lyrics intimately – all the while backed by a vibrant all-black band (the songs’s name is in fact “El Negro zumbón” – in folklore, a black man always predisposed to mocking laughter and uninhibited dance). Moretti cuts up the scene for the sake of his own mimetic invention: from the TV image to him in front of the humble food-and-drink counter, shot/counter-shot, five times over, he copies the swaying, the ‘shush’ finger to the mouth, the hands elegantly sailing into the air away from his body, the animal movements … he’s in his own little world, and no one disturbs him. And Moretti maintains, all through this film and some subsequent films, his dream (which, of course, he will never fulfil) of making a ‘socialist musical’ about a pastry chef. A run-through of a model scene from this project concludes another diary-film, Aprile (1998): the final shot shows Moretti and his movie crew, at the side, shuffling and bending their heads in unison to the music.
You don’t have to be a star, baby / To be in my show. I understood the profound message in these lines (from Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.’s 1976 hit) when I saw the 1984 film Beat Street, about the then-burgeoning African-American hip-hop scene. Stan Lathan’s movie (a celebration of working-class culture) is geared towards its big finale: a funeral tribute which becomes a theatrical extravaganza (and nothing at all like the star-studded one accorded recently to Michael Jackson). In the past few years, only some of Barack Obama’s best speech-rallies have captured the same fervent feeling as this astonishing outpouring of movement and emotion created for Beat Street. What is most striking about it is the disappearance of any separation between stage and off-stage, performer and audience, illuminated centre and darkened periphery: now there is no centre, no stage whatsoever, the action is wherever you are in it, as many centres (as many stars and as many shows) as there are attendees at the event. Some scholars of popular culture, such as Thomas Elsaesser, have managed to give such moments on film or in life a robotic, again fascistic gloss: the mass hypnosis and mob rule evident, for example, in the cynical-ironic sing-along that concludes Robert Altman’s sour bash at the country’n’western crowd in Nashville (1975). (2) But perhaps we have all experienced, somewhere or somehow – and without terribly much alienation – an explosion of the kind of communal vibe in a public space that Beat Street enshrines as the reason for survival in the everyday world: at a concert, a street festival, even in time to the disco muzak piped through supermarket aisles (a fantasia which has become the subject of many short and feature films, such as P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, 2002).
There is a strange, anachronistic hold-over haunting today’s fan criticism and academic commentary on film: the bias (inherited from the holistic theories of André Bazin) that the best way for any film to convey physical action – whether the action of a dance musical, burlesque comedy or sports story – is a full-body, head-to-toe, long-take mise en scène. Virtuosic physical display, it seems (according to this account), demands a limpid, transparent, fluid but modest stylistic treatment: we want visual and sonic proof that a movement or gesture, action or routine, singing vocalisation or acrobatic stunt has indeed been executed in real time and space and in one go, all the way through. Hence – so the complaint goes – the problem with modern screen musicals (from the revisionist revolution on Broadway and in Hollywood ushered in by Bob Fosse, through to every last movie about straitlaced white kids skipping ballet class to get down in the black clubs) post their long-lost Golden Age: everything is all so chopped up, disconnected, then re-strung to a robotic beat. Voilà, the MTV aesthetic! Despite all the unquestionable glories of Astaire and Rogers, Kelly and Charisse, Cagney and Miller, this old-fashioned bias for the ‘Bazinian dance’ is a nonsense. Dance on screen has always been about – as much as it has been about the wonder of the natural or supernaturally trained body – special effects, treatments, extensions, juxtapositions. A fantasia of the body as manipulable, raw material. Busby Berkeley is as much of a king in this domain as – and more of a prophet than – Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli or even Jacques Demy. And all the signs and strategies of the future dance-spectacle were perfectly laid out by Michael Powell already in 1948: the big ballet performance that crowns the much-loved The Red Shoes (a complex, unforgettable sequence which is “the height of cinema”, as Raymond Durgnat rightly called it) (3) is as much a marvel of montage – of completely disconnected gestures and actions re-animated by montage, graphic form and sound design – as the most intricate car-chase in a Mad Max movie. (4) MTV, for its part, has simply kept busy tracing the lines of invention both backwards and forwards in time, thanks to the different tweakings enabled by digital technology: from Spike Jonze sending Christopher Walken dancing and tapping grandly, in the old-style, and then floating through the air in “Weapon of Choice” (by Fatboy Slim, 2001); to Dave Meyers looping and ‘speed ramping’ the smallest movements of Missy Elliott and her accompanying dancers in “Work It” (2003). Indeed, the contemporary masterpieces of dance video are not necessarily for the coolest or most underground songs: Jake Nava’s clip for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (2008) is an authentic fusion of full-frame mise en scène choreography (closely inspired by the TV segment “Mexican Breakfast” devised by Fosse for Gwen Verdon) building to total ‘break-down’ plasticity of light, camera angle and editing; while Sophie Muller’s clip for “Hips Don’t Lie” (2006) by Shakira and Wyclef Jean effortlessly refinds the thread of its wild from-her-to-him dance in the back-and-forth call-and-response which is at the heart of all mimicry – and also all montage.
Jerry Lewis in You're Never Too Young (1955) gets into a dance fever, alongside the typically smooth and restrained (and possibly embarrassed) Dean Martin. Faced with a barrage of lithe, teen women in a band-marching formation, Jerry is at first terrified (who wouldn’t be?), then intoxicated: he can lead them! And then we see the apotheosis of Lewis in those pre-Muscular Dystrophy Telethon years, the ‘making fun of the physically disabled’ for which he would have to do so much future reparation: fantastically discombobulated, childlike, on a surreal jag of jumping and jerking, falling and dropping – and yet such a choreographic miracle in itself, the paradoxical sign of Lewis’ actual physical mastery as a performer – he pauses only long enough for the girls behind him to perfectly retrace his zany motions. (Teenagers were often robotic mimes in the pop movies of the ‘50s: cf. Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It, 1956.) In 1978, Rainer Werner Fassbinder gave this very same dance routine to his motley crew of social outcasts and gender-misfits in what appears to be an asylum ward or ultra-modern prison cell In a Year of 13 Moons: a hyper-camp interregnum in an otherwise crushingly bleak film, it mixes gay improvisation with social submission. The song to which this all happens in both films, over a seven-minute period in the original, has a quietly emphatic command embedded, half-hidden in it: “Face the Music”. For Fassbinder, the catch-phrase reveals a sinister, militaristic intent. But, almost thirty years after You’re Never Too Young, wasn’t it the Australian scholar Bill Routt who concluded a short, visionary article on the disco craze (“Disco Hoodoo”) with the admonition to those “other enslavers” – all of us sophisticated white guys and gals appropriating the surfaces signs and gestures of black culture in the anything-goes ‘80s – that, one day, we would have to “face the music – and dance”? (5)
© Adrian Martin October 2009
1. Maureen Turim, “Symmetry/Asymmetry and Visual Fascination”, Wide Angle, vol. 4, no. 3 (1980), pp. 38-47.
2. Thomas Elsaesser, “Nashville: Putting On the Show”, in Persistence of Vision, no. 1 (Summer 1984), pp. 35-43.
3. See Durgnat’s annotated list in the ten-yearly ‘best films’ poll of Sight and Sound (December 1992), p. 32.
4. See my The Mad Max Movies (Sydney: Currency Press & ScreenSound Australia, 2003).
5. William D. Routt, “Disco Hoodoo”, Art & Text, no. 3 (1981), p. 23.