By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008
You think of the legs first. After all, they were famously insured for $5 million, back when Cyd Charisse was the pearl of the American movie musical. She was perfect, from her dark eyes and toothpaste-ad smile to her long, tapered shins and slim ankles, and the camera loved her.
But it was what Charisse could do with her legs that set her apart from other musical stars of her era, the mid-1940s through the '50s, and what distinguished her from those who came before or after. She was a dancing goddess on a very lonely pedestal. Charisse, who died Tuesday at 86, had no peers and few imitators.
Unlike the other great movie dancers -- Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell and so on -- Charisse had a whole different way of carrying herself, pulled-up and light, those legs stroking forward like a cat's, because she had been a ballerina before she ever danced a step with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.
"You couldn't mistake her for anyone else," said Broadway star Chita Rivera yesterday. "You don't compare Cyd Charisse with anybody. She was a dancer. She didn't fool around, she wasn't a stylist or anything like that. . . . She was a completely gifted human being, and so gorgeous you could die."
"Beautiful dynamite" was how Astaire described her, capturing Charisse's devastating combination of explosiveness and ravishing grace. She could spin like a whirligig and skid to a landing on her knees; she could time step, vamp, chug and cha-cha, legs flashing like rapiers, but she never dropped her cool. In "Meet Me in Las Vegas" (1956) as Sammy Davis Jr. croons the tragic jazz ballad "Frankie and Johnny," Charisse bubbles and streams across the nightclub floor like spilled champagne. She's wearing what look like four-inch heels, and a snug, sequined gown slit to her thigh, and truly, it's a marvel she could move at all, let alone dance like it was her last night on Earth.
Later in the number, she grabs hold of a pistol, vaults over the bar with it (this was a favorite move, thrown into other films) and takes dead aim at her two-timing lover (who deserved it, the fool). A murderer, yes, but she's a dancer to the end, driving toward the strong finish: After killing him off, Charisse pivots around to toss off an elegant flourish of her backside.
Veteran dancer and choreographer Ann Reinking, who called Charisse her idol, recalled in an interview yesterday that when someone once asked the movie star how she could possibly dance so well in such high heels, Charisse had no big secret to reveal. "Oh, it's just like anything else, dear," Charisse said. "Practice, practice."
Charisse must have learned that kind of work ethic from the discipline of ballet. Before her beauty and physicality caught MGM's attention, she was darning tights and sewing the ribbons on her pointe shoes, while performing with some of the era's ballet greats. Born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Tex., Charisse took the name of her ballet teacher, Nico Charisse, whom she married while dancing in France with the Ballets Russes under various Russian-sounding stage names. She also studied with Bronislava Nijinska, the sister of famed Russian ballet star Vaslav Nijinsky and a groundbreaking choreographer in her own right.
Astaire made the most of Charisse's ballet bona fides, drawing more on her elegance and reserve in "The Band Wagon" (1953) and "Silk Stockings" (1957). Dancing with him in these films, Charisse doesn't have the smoldering sexuality of a Ginger Rogers; instead, she is all class, in shirtwaists, tweedy skirts and flats. In their duets, she is almost an abstract device, her legs and their flexibility deployed for their geometric lines and angles, the way they sliced through space. She's not the fleshly representation, but the platonic ideal.
In one of the "Silk Stockings" dance sequences, Astaire whips her around like a matador uses his cape; he tosses her down and she slides across the ground, he snaps her upright and she perches on his hip, light as a sparrow. He couldn't have done that with Rogers. The "Dancing in the Dark" number in "The Band Wagon" -- one of the finest segments of movie dancing, choreographed by Astaire -- is remarkable for what Charisse and Astaire do with simply walking around, deepening their synchronization and emotional sympathies so that by the end of it they're like one person, but with a sense of physical restraint as palpable as fire.
Charisse's ability to express character and feeling in scenes like this one made her unusual, said Reinking. (That, and staying married to the same man -- her second husband, singer-actor Tony Martin -- for 60 years, certainly different in showbiz.)
" 'Dancing in the Dark' is one complete message, and a very beautiful one, but not a word is spoken," Reinking said. "Aside from [Charisse's] unbelievable beauty and technique as a dancer, her heart was in it. . . . Every move means something to her and coincides with the music. She really somehow feels the person she's dancing with, and it affects her movement."
Charisse may not have had the acting chops of other movie dancers who had more theatrical training. But still, there's something vulnerable and believable about her in "Brigadoon" (1954), which she made with Gene Kelly. And it's hard to question the versatility of a woman who can fire off a quasi-striptease in "Party Girl" (1958) as well as join with Ricardo Montalban in an earthy bamba and a flamenco number in "Fiesta" (1947).
Someone ought to put on a Cyd Charisse film festival, for these films have migrated out of local rental shops and on to YouTube clips. The loss is not just of Charisse's dancing, but also of the choreography created for her by some of Hollywood's best, such as Eugene Loring and Michael Kidd. Charisse, with those legs and that heart, was a choreographer's dream, an instrument in heavenly form, willing, smart and musical.
And if her dancing offered us a piece of heaven, one can only hope she's found the same.