Monday, 26 October 2009

DISNEY DANCING

I mentioned that I was talking with Marge Champion last week about her work on Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for which she had provided live-action film footage to enable the animators to create a convincing human character in such scenes as the one in which she and the dwarfs are singing and dancing together...



Marge recalled also having provided the Disney artists with reference footage for their animation of the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and the dance steps - though not the physical bulk - for the balletic hippo in Fantasia...




This reminded me that I have long been intending to blog about a terrific book that will be of interest to musical film fans, animation buffs and lovers of dance.


Written by Mindy Aloff (a distinguished dance critic and a teacher of dance history) Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation is, as the title proclaims, a study of dance in Disney films and it is as wide-ranging as the animated pictures that emerged from the studio over the years.

In 1929, just one year after the debut of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, Disney released his first 'Silly Symphony' cartoon, a series set to popular and classical tunes, that allowed the animators to explore a diverse range of characters and stories.

The first of those 'Silly Symphony' experiments was entitled Skeleton Dance...



Seven years later, here's Mickey Mouse in colour dancing up a storm in the 1936 cartoon, Thru the Mirror...



Donald Duck was also quite a hoofer as can be seen from his jitterbugging performance in the 1940 short, Mr Duck Steps Out...



"Dancing wasn't crucial to the Disney enterprise," writes author, Mindy Aloff, "but it was intrinsic to it. Bodies moving in periodic rhythms to music - either while executing choreographed dances, or while engaging in physical activities that verge on dance, or, occasionally while creating abstract designs (such as the surreal marching-and-floating-in-space patterns of the 'Pink Elephant' ballet in Dumbo) - were hallmarks of Disney's animated films..."

Well, you can judge for yourself because here is that elephant ballet that is a-sort-of-a-dance-even-though-it-is-not-quite-dancing...



In a foreword to the book, choreographer and director, Mark Morris explains why he includes Walt Disney on his list of influential choreographers alongside George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Busby Berkeley. "I marvel," he writes, "at the variety of choreographic invention and aptness. What a remarkable resource of whimsy, fantasy, art!"

Indeed, the sheer diversity of Disney dance is extraordinary: in one picture, Make Mine Music (1946), there is, among other things, a pas de deux from ballet stars, Riabouchinska and Lichine...



And this, accompanying a jazz number from Benny Goodman and his Orchestra...



Dance is often used in Disney films to convey moments of key emotion: Cinderella dancing with her Prince as the clock moves inexorably towards the midnight hour, Briar Rose dancing with woodland animals as she fantasies about meeting the man of her dreams, Belle dancing withe the Beast and so softening his bestial heart, but it just as often used as an integral part of the storytelling process as can be seen in this classic sequence from the last film to be personally supervised by Walt Disney - but released in 1967, a year after his death - The Jungle Book.

Just as the Disney animators had modeled Snow White on the movements of Marge Champion, so the artists working on The Jungle Book based the antics of of King Louie and Baloo on those of veteran jazzmen Louie Prima and Phil Harris...



No Disney film features quite as much dance as the 1940 feature, Fantasia. It is a masterpiece of animation and dance is part of the total expression of the film's visualisation of music and musicalisation of art and I have been thinking quite a lot about this movie lately as I am prepare to provide a new commentary on the film for it's Blu-ray DVD release next year.

In addition to the ballet of hippos, alligators and elephants executed to the music of 'The Dance of the Hours' and the gambolings on Mount Olympus and Bald Mountain in the sequences choreographed to Beethoven and Moussorgsky there is the exquisite sequence based on Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker Suite' which is presented as a succession of dances executed by fairies, fishes, flowers, snowflakes and - in a segment animated by Marge Champion's first husband, Art Babbitt - mushrooms...



"Dance and animation," writes John Canemaker in another of the book's forewords, "a pas de deaux choreographed in heaven." And that divine choreography is what Mindy Aloff has chronicled in this richly-textured book.


6 comments:

Suzanne said...

Thanks for that Brian! A friend of mine collects hippos and I didn't know what to get him for Christmas - I do now!
preverle: the act of hippos dancing on tiptoe

Andy J. Latham said...

I recently bought this book myself when I was on holiday. There's some great stuff in it about what I consider the hardest thing to animate well - dancing.

People suggest to me that I need to animate a dance for something and they wonder why my eyes glaze over lol.

SharonM said...

Thanks for all the enchanting clips, Brian.
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!

Boll Weavil said...

That skeleton dance is great ! About time, though, for Mr Sibley to mention Toy Story 3 - trailors of which are now running. It looks brilliant ! Say something Mr B....it was you who got me into the first one 15 years ago.
RETIONSE : The activity of watching a film trailor until one is word perfect on all the different versions.

Brian Sibley said...

TS3? Yep, lookin' good!

Steven Hartley said...

On my website, I posted an article about one of Disney's greatest storymen Bill Peet who claimed to have reanimated scenes from Dumbo and it was based on Bill's interviews, he claimed to have reanimated scenes from two wonderful animators: Fred Moore and Bill Tytla! I find my own article interesting.

It has no comments in there and I'm sort of suuprised by lacks of comments, but I'm not giving up and I'm doing what I'm best at!