He would push himself to the limit all the time. He made it look easy, but everything that looked easy was three months’ rehearsal. It was never easy.
The above rehearsal footage from the summer of 1984 doesn’t show the sweat, but the choreography is obviously demanding. Prince leaps, squats, pirouettes, throws himself into James Brown splits, and executes a flurry of precision dance moves — in wicked high heeled boots.
“He ruined his hips on those damn high heels he used to wear” according to Minneapolis-area choreographer, John Command, who worked with Prince and the cast of Purple Rain, for nearly a year before shooting began:
We would do Broadway stuff, Bob Fosse, Jerry Robbins who did West Side Story. A lot of that is very difficult stuff and he loved it.
Glover recalled how Prince would visit dance clubs to check partygoers’ response to his music:
For one of his songs to get recorded it had to come with everything. If your feet aren’t tapping, if your feet aren’t bopping, it’s not good enough. If you can’t dance with music then it’s no good.
In 1989, when he opened his Glam Slam nightclub, he insisted on a resident dance troupe, and made them a priority. Its choreographer, Kat Carroll remembered how dancers were held to the same exacting standards Prince set for himself:
We worked very hard, and he treated us very well and he paid us very well. But he also expected us to be on top of things, just like his musicians. We worked long hours, many times during the week.
Prince kept up with the professional dance world, offering to write a piece for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, and waiving his royalties when they performed to it, a move that lifted the company from financial disaster in the 90s and increased their audience base.
There was one Pee-wee Herman movie that he was obsessed with. It was silly, like him, and funny, and quirky—watching Pee-wee Herman dance he just thought was the funniest thing.
For those wondering about the soundtrack to the rehearsal footage at the top of the page, it’s Prince’s original studio version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” recorded in that same room, that same summer. Six years later, Sinead O’Connor’s cover became a global hit.
There was a mix of sexual orientation, there was a mix of races, mix of economic groups. A real mix, where the common denominator was music.
One can’t mention the music at The Loft without giving props to the innovative and efficient sound system Rosner devised for Mancuso’s 1,850-square-foot space, using a McIntosh amplifier, an AR amplifier, Vega bass bottom speakers, and two Klipschorn Cornwall loudspeakers, whose circuit diagram inspired the Disco Love Blueprint’s layout.
As composer and producer Matt Sommers told The Vinyl Factory, those speakers surrounded dancers with the sort of high volume, undistorted sound they could lose themselves in:
…the Mancuso parties were unique because what he did was take it to a whole other level and created that envelopment experience where you could really get lost and I think that’s what people love about that, because you can just let your troubles go and enjoy it.
A new 4K restoration of Stop Making Sense debuted last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, then opened in theaters around the world. The promotional push for this cultural event started early (as featured here on Open Culture), and has involved the release of rarely-seen supplementary materials chosen to delight Talking Heads fans. Take the short video above, a compilation of video clips in which David Byrne rehearses his dance moves in advance of the band’s 1983 Speaking in Tongues tour, four of whose shows would be combined, with the help of many collaborators including director Jonathan Demme, into a seamless, still-beloved musical-cinematic experience.
In a film full of memorable elements, from the Pablo Ferro titles to the lamp to the big suit, Byrne’s distinctive way of carrying himself stands out. “His wide-eyed stare, jerky movements and onstage cool reminded many commentators of Anthony Perkins, star of Hitchcock’s movie Psycho,” Colin Larkin writes of earlier Heads shows in The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
This elaborate awkwardness, so thoroughly deliberate-looking that it comes around the other side to suavity, may seem like a natural expression of his artistic personality. But as revealed by the video he shot of himself trying out different choreographic ideas — and even more so by the full 25-minute version, which features not just numerous VHS glitches but also the band’s backup singers — it took trial and error to develop.
“The film’s peak moments come through Byrne’s simple physical presence,” Roger Ebert wrote of Stop Making Sense upon its initial release in 1984. “He jogs in place with his sidemen; he runs around the stage; he seems so happy to be alive and making music,” and even “serves as a reminder of how sour and weary and strung-out many rock bands have become.” Though, when rock bands may be less strung-out but are certainly no less weary, his restored performance is reminding countless Heads enthusiasts why they got into the band in the first place — and no doubt giving heretofore uninitiated new generations a few paranoically exuberant, rigidly uninhibited, and smoothly un-smooth moves to try out on the dance floor themselves.
It was the opinion voiced most loudly by the popular boys.
Dissenters pushed back at their own peril.
I didn’t know what YMCA was about, and I’m not convinced the ski jacketed, puka-necklaced alpha males at my school did either.
(My father, who sang along joyfully whenever it came on the car radio, definitely did.)
Disco’s been dead for a long time now.
In the four plus decades since disgruntled Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl commandeered a baseball stadium for a Disco Demolition Night where fans tossed around homophobic and racist epithets while destroying records, there’s been notable social progress.
I certainly never heard of Stonewall as a kid, but many contemporary viewers, coming of age in a country that is, on the whole, much more LGBTQ-friendly than the world of their parents and grandparents, are familiar with it as a gay rights milestone.
Lefevre ties the birth of disco to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, and a subculture born of necessity, wherein gay men improvised underground dance clubs where they could cut freely loose with same sex partners.
Instead of live dance music, these venues boasted DJs, crate diggers open to any groove that would keep the party going on the dance floor: psychedelic, classic soul, progressive soul, jazz fusion, Latin American dance music, African pop…
You can hear it in Jimmy Nolen’s chicken scratch lead guitar for James Brown and session drummer Earl Young’s open high hat and four-to-the-floor beat on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ The Love I Lost.
It was supposed to be a secret, but I don’t know how secret it could have been when faggots and lesbians can come out of a church from midnight till sunrise.
As discotheque DJs began driving the record charts, mainstream producers took note, opening the gates for such monster hits as the Barry White-helmed Love Unlimited Orchestra’s Love’s Theme, Donna Summer’s Love to Love Ya, and Chic’s Le Freak.
A glitter-bedecked nude man rode a white horse into Bianca Jagger’s birthday party at Studio 54 on the stroke of midnight, while hinterland squares did The Hustle at their local Holiday Inns.
By the time celebs like the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart starting horning in on the act, disco had already reached its tipping point.
(An unexpected pleasure of Lefevre’s video is seeing all those familiar record labels spinning just the way they did on our precious stereos — Atlantic! Casablanca! Polydor! RSO! Somebody pass me a Dr. Pepper and a yellow plastic insert!)
Radio DJ Rick Dees’ novelty hit with Disco Duck seemed so harmless at the time, but it was surely music to the mainstream “disco sucks” crowd’s ears. (Good luck to any punk who betrayed a fondness for Disco Duck )
Disco’s reign was brief — Lefevre notes that its end coincides with the beginning of the AIDS crisis — but its impact has been greater than many assume at first blush.
Disco’s emphasis on turntables and long play versions influenced hip hop and electronic dance music.
Nearly half a century after discomania seized the land, its deep connection to Black, Latino and LGBTQ history must not be tossed aside lightly.
Watch more of Noah Lefevre’s Polyphonic video essays here.
Anita Berber, the taboo-busting, sexually omnivorous, fashion forward, frequently naked star of the Weimar Republic cabaret scene, tops our list of performers we really wish we’d been able to see live.
While Berber acted in 27 films, including Prostitution, director Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, and Different from the Others, which film critic Dennis Harvey describes as “the first movie to portray homosexual characters beyond the usual innuendo and ridicule,” we have a strong hunch that none of these appearances can compete with the sheer audacity of her stage work.
Audiences at Berlin’s White Mouse cabaret (some wearing black or white masks to conceal their identities) were titillated by her Expressionistic nude solo choreography, as well as the troupe of six teenaged dancers under her command.
Berber had been known to spit brandy on them or stand naked on their tables, dousing herself in wine whilst simultaneously urinating… It was not long before the entire cabaret one night sank into a groundswell of shouting, screams and laughter. Anita jumped off the stage in fuming rage, grabbed the nearest champagne bottle and smashed it over a businessman’s head.
Her collaborations with her second husband, dancer Sebastian Droste, carried Berber into increasingly transgressive territory, both onstage and off.
According to translator Merrill Cole, in the introduction to the 2012 reissue of Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy, a book of Expressionist poems, essays, photographs, and stage designs which Droste and Berber co-authored, “even the biographical details seduce:”
…a bisexual sometimes-prostitute and a shady figure from the male homosexual underworld, united in addiction to cocaine and disdain for bourgeois respectability, both highly talented, Expressionist-trained dancers, both beautiful exhibitionists, set out to provide the Babylon on the Spree with the ultimate experience of depravity, using an art form they had helped to invent for this purpose. Their brief marriage and artistic interaction ended when Droste became desperate for drugs and absconded with Berber’s jewel collection.
This, and the description of Berber’s penchant for “haunt(ing) Weimar Berlin’s hotel lobbies, nightclubs and casinos, radiantly naked except for an elegant sable wrap, a pet monkey hanging from her neck, and a silver brooch packed with cocaine,” do a far more evocative job of resurrecting Berber, the Weimar sensation, than any wordy, blow-by-blow attempt to recreate her shocking performances, though we can’t fault author Karl Toepfer, Professor Emeritus of Theater Arts at San Jose State University, for trying.
This lamp was an expressionist sculpture with an ambiguous form that one could read as a sign of the phallus, an abstraction of the female dancer’s body, or a monumental image of a syringe, for a long, shiny needle protruded from the top of it…It is not clear how nude Berber was when she performed the dance. Jenčík, writing in 1929, flatly stated that she was nude, but the famous Viennese photographer Madame D’Ora (Dora Kalmus) took a picture entitled “Kokain” in which Berber appears in a long black dress that exposes her breasts and whose lacing, up the front, reveals her flesh to below her navel.
In any case, according to Jenčík, she displayed “a simple technique of natural steps and unforced poses.” But though the technique was simple, the dance itself, one of Berber’s most successful creations, was apparently quite complex. Rising from an initial condition of paralysis on the floor (or possibly from the table, as indicated by Täuber’s scenographic notes), she adopted a primal movement involving a slow, sculptured turning of her body, a kind of slow-motion effect. The turning represented the unraveling of a “knot of flesh.” But as the body uncoiled, it convulsed into “separate parts,” producing a variety of rhythms within itself. Berber used all parts of her body to construct a “tragic” conflict between the healthy body and the poisoned body: she made distinct rhythms out of the movement of her muscles; she used “unexpected counter-movements” of her head to create an anguished sense of balance; her “porcelain-colored arms” made hypnotic, pendulumlike movements, like a marionette’s; within the primal turning of her body, there appeared contradictory turns of her wrists, torso, ankles; the rhythm of her breathing fluctuated with dramatic effect; her intense dark eyes followed yet another, slower rhythm; and she introduced the “most refined nuances of agility” in making spasms of sensation ripple through her fingers, nostrils, and lips. Yet, despite all this complexity, she was not afraid of seeming “ridiculous” or “painfully swollen.” The dance concluded when the convulsed dancer attempted to cry out (with the “blood-red opening of the mouth”) and could not. The dancer then hurled herself to the floor and assumed a pose of motionless, drugged sleep. Berber’s dance dramatized the intense ambiguity involved in linking the ecstatic liberation of the body to nudity and rhythmic consciousness. The dance tied ecstatic experience to an encounter with vice (addiction) and horror (acute awareness of death).
A noble attempt, but forgive us if we can’t quite picture it…
And what little evidence has been preserved of her screen appearances exists at a similar remove from the dark subject matter she explicitly referenced in her choreographed work — Morphine, Suicide, The Corpse on the Dissecting Table…
There are a number of narrative accounts of her dances, some pinned by professional critics, and almost all commending her talent, finesse, and mesmerizing stage presence. We also have film images from the various silent films in which she played bit parts. There exist, too, many still photographs of Berber and Droste, as well as renditions of Berber by other artists, most prominently the Dadaist Otto Dix’s famous scarlet-saturated portrait. In regard to the naked dances, unfortunately, we have no moving images, no way to watch directly how they were performed.
For a dishy overview of Anita Berber’s personal life, including her alleged dalliances with actress Marlene Dietrich, author Lawrence Durrell, and the King of Yugoslavia, her influential effect on director Leni Riefenstahl, and her sad demise at the age of 29, a “carrion soul that even the hyenas ignored,” take a peek at Victoria Linchong’s biographical essay for Messy Nessy Chic, or better yet, Iron Spike’s Twitter thread.
Berber was addicted to alcohol, cocaine, opium, and morphine. But one of her favorite drugs was chloroform and ether, mixed in a bowl. She would stir the bowl with the bloom of a white rose, and then eat the petals.
The physical grace he brought to such musical fare as Bye Bye Birdie and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is something he deliberately strived for as a fan of silent comedy’s greats, and at 96, it’s not something he takes for granted. He began strength training many decades ago, after observing Broadway dancers’ work outs, and maintains a daily regimen of crunches, leg lifts, and hip openers.
Like White, he thrives in the company of younger people.
He’s by far the oldest member of The Vantastix, a barbershop quartet he formed in 2020.
And for those keeping score, he’s 46 years older than his bride of ten years, Arlene Silver, who sings and dances with him in the above video (and directs, too.)
Yes, Van Dyke’s shoulders and torso may have stiffened a bit in the four years since Mary Poppins Returns found him hopping atop a desk for a spritely soft shoe, but the ease with which he propels himself from a low slung wingback chair at the one-minute mark will strike many viewers as nothing short of miraculous.
Van Dyke’s loose limbed appeal is accompanied by a refreshingly flexible attitude, another way in which he models health aging.
A year into his marriage to Silver, he told Parade that they’re so well suited because “she’s very mature for her age, and I’m very immature for my age.”
“Immature in a good way, Silver clarified to HuffPost, “with the wonder of a child”:
He’s just fun, he’s open minded. He’s not stuck in his ways at all.
We take very good care of each other. But, I’m very aware that I have a national treasure on my hands.
No wonder people love him. As proof, witness the twenty-something leaping to their feet to give him an ovation, as he makes his entrance in Disneyland’s 60th-anniversary special six years ago.
12 seconds later, the 90-year-old Van Dyke was also leaping.
Dance videos are having a moment, fueled in large part by TikTok.
Professionals and amateurs alike use the platform to showcase their work, and while the vast majority of performers seem to be in or barely out of their teens, a few dancing grandmas have become viral stars. (One such notable brushes off the attention, saying she’s just “an elderly lady making a fool of herself.”)
You’ll find a handful of dancers happy to make similar sport of themselves among the 52 celebrated, mostly middle-aged and older choreographers performing in And So Say All of Us,Mitchell Rose’s chain letter style dance film, above. Witness:
John Heginbotham’s spritely bowling alley turn, complete with refreshment stand nachos (4:10)…
Doug Varone’s determination to cram a bit of breakfast in before wafting out of a diner booth (5:15)…
And the responses David Dorfman, who both opens and closes the film, elicits aboard the 2 train and waiting on the platform at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue stop … conveniently situated near commissioning body BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music).
In the summer of 2017 — the same year TikTok launched in the international market — BAM asked filmmaker and former choreographer Rose to create a short film that would feature a number of choreographers whom outgoing Executive Producer Joseph V. Melillo had nurtured over the course of his 35-year tenure.
The result takes the form of an Exquisite Corpse, in which each performer picks up where the performer immediately before left off . Quite a feat when one considers that the contributors were spread all over the globe, and Rose had barely a year to ready the film for its premiere at a gala honoring Melillo.
To get an idea of the degree of coordination and precision editing this entailed, check out Rose’s detailed instructions for Globe Trot, a crowd-sourced “hyper match cut” work in which 50 filmmakers in 23 countries each contributed 2 second clips of non-dancers performing a piece choreographed by Bebe Miller (who appears fourth in And So Say All of Us).
A great pleasure of And So Say All of Us — and it’s a surprising one given how accustomed we’ve grown to peering in on work recorded in artists’ private spaces –is seeing the locations. Terraces and interior spaces still fascinate, though the lack of masks in populous public settings identify this as a decidedly pre-pandemic work.
The comparative stillness of Eiko and Koma, the only performers to be filmed together (2:19)
Sendak wanted the ballet to focus more intently on Clara, the young girl who receives the Nutcracker as a Christmas present in Act I:
It’s about her victory over her fear and her growing feelings for the prince… She is overwhelmed with growing up and has no knowledge of what this means. I think the ballet is all about a strong emotional sense of something happening to her, which is bewildering.
Balanchine must have felt differently. He benched Clara in Act II, letting the adult Sugarplum Fairy take centerstage, to guide the children through a passive tour of the Land of Sweets.
It’s all very, very pretty and very, very beautiful… I always hated the Sugarplum Fairy. I always wanted to whack her.
“Like what kids really want is a candy kingdom. That shortchanges children’s feelings about life,” echoes Stowell, who revived the Sendak commission, featuring the illustrator’s sets and costumes every winter for 3 decades.
In lieu of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Sendak and Stowell introduced a dazzling caged peacock — a fan favorite played by the same dancer who plays Clara’s mother in Act I.
The threats, in the form of eccentric uncle Drosselmeier, a ferocious tiger, and a massive rat puppet with an impressive, pulsing tail, have a Freudian edge.
The Sendak-designed costumes are more understated, thought Pacific Northwest Ballet costumer Mark Zappone, who described working with Sendak as “an incredible joy and pleasure” and recalled the funny ongoing battle with the Act II Moors costumes to Seattle Met:
Maurice’s design had the women in quite billowy pants. So we ripped them out of the box, threw them on the girls upstairs in the studios, and Kent started rehearsing the Moors. And one by one, the girls got their legs stuck in those pants and—boom—hit the floor, all six of them. It was like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do about that one?” They ended up, for years, twisting the legs in their costumes and making a little tuck here and there. It was a rite of passage; if you were going to do the Moors, don’t forget to twist your pants around so you won’t get stuck in them.
Rent a filmed version of Maurice Sendak’s The Nutcracker on Amazon Prime. (Look for a Wild Thing cameo in the boating scene with Clara and her Prince.)
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