Michael Kidd: Theatre and film choreographer

Milton Greenwald (Michael Kidd), choreographer, dancer and actor: born New York 12 August 1915; married first Mary Heater (two daughters; marriage dissolved), second Shelah Hackett (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 23 December 2007.

The choreographer, director and dancer Michael Kidd created the exhilarating "barn-raising" dance for the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and he is credited with bringing a fresh vigour and vitality to dance on stage and film.

He won the first of his five Tony awards for his spirited, athletic routines for the landmark stage hit Guys and Dolls (1950), and successfully merged classical ballet techniques with the earthier aspects of musical comedy dance to produce a style of exceptional virility perfectly suited to the lumberjacks of Seven Brides, and on stage to the country yokels of L'il Abner (1956) and the cowboys of Destry Rides Again (1957).

Kidd devised the stylised and sexy "Girl Hunt Ballet" for Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the film The Band Wagon (1953), and for the same movie he choreographed one of the most seductive and beguiling of romantic pas de deux, the duet by Astaire and Charisse in Central Park to the melody of "Dancing in the Dark". A former dancer himself he was one of the three main dancers in the original production of the ballet Fancy Free he had a leading role in the film It's Always Fair Weather (1955), starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse.

The son of a Russian immigrant barber, he was born Milton Greenwald in 1915 in New York. At New York City College he majored in chemical engineering but left in 1937 when awarded a scholarship by the School of American Ballet. He made his performing dbut, using the name Michael Kidd, in the chorus of the musical The Eternal Road, produced by Max Reinhardt in 1937, and in 1938 he became a soloist with Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan, touring with that group until 1941, when he became a soloist and assistant director with Eugene Loring's Dance Players.

He joined Ballet Theatre (now called American Ballet Theatre) in 1942 and danced with them in New York for five years. In 1945 Ballet Theatre mounted Kidd's ballet On Stage, in which he also danced as a stagehand who falls in love with a young dancer. It was to be his only ballet, for its success led to his being chosen to choreograph the Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow (1947), which earned him his first Tony award and launched his career as a theatre and film choreographer.

In 1950 Kidd provided the dances for Guys and Dolls, which has been described as receiving the most ecstatic set of unanimous critical raves in Broadway history. His choreography, perfectly integrated with both plot and characterisations, was inspired from the show's start the opening number was a joyously inventive picture of the Times Square area where a cross-section of Runyonesque characters are involved in a frenzy of activity. He also devised amusingly satirical routines for the nightclub girls, and a highlight of the show's second act was set in a sewer, where gamblers performed a ferociously energetic dance incorporating dextrous gyrations and breathtaking slides.

Guys and Dolls won Kidd his second Tony, and he won a third for Cole Porter's Can Can (1953), in which his choreography for the supporting player Gwen Verdon showcased the performer to an extent that completely overshadowed the show's nominal star, the French singer Lilo. As Eve in a ballet set in the Garden of Eden, Verdon displayed her impish humour, but Kidd enabled her to make even more impact later in the show when he staged an Apache dance in which she sent men spinning with a kick of her toe, dancing with ferocious abandon then suddenly, in a daring tour de force, dancing in slow motion to hypnotic effect.

Li'l Abner, based on Al Capp's comic strip, was the first show which Kidd directed as well as choreographed, but when he directed and choreographed Destry Rides Again (for which he won a fifth Tony), critical reaction indicated that he was a better choreographer than director.

Kidd's first film, made in the UK, was Where's Charley? (1952), a screen version of the Broadway hit based on Charley's Aunt, with songs by Frank Loesser. Kidd provided serviceable dances for the star Ray Bolger, but it was the film version of The Band Wagon the following year that first displayed his brilliance to movie-goers. "Dancing in the Dark" is justifiably regarded as one of the finest displays of growing attraction through dance, blissfully executed by Astaire and Charisse.

In the Danny Kaye comedy Knock on Wood (1954), Kidd devised a hilarious sequence in which Kaye, fleeing would-be assassins, finds himself taking part in a Russian ballet, and it was followed by Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, for which Kidd's ingenuity was tested, since the film was shot in two versions, both in the normal Academy ratio (4:3) and the newly developed CinemaScope. Though the film was a great hit with both public and critics, it had seemed an unlikely one. An adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's story "The Sobbin' Women", itself based on the Roman fable "The Rape of the Sabine Women", it was given a modest budget by MGM, and Kidd recalled in a 1997 interview that he initially turned down the director Stanley Donen's invitation to stage the dances:

Here are these slobs living off in the woods. They have no schooling, they are uncouth, there's manure on the floor, the cows come in and out and they're gonna get up and dance? We'd be laughed out of the house.

Kidd then reconceived his choreography for the film version of Guys and Dolls (1955), with the sewer dance particularly effective, as well as the comically abandoned dancing by Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando in the Havana sequences. In 1955 Kidd made his own screen dbut. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen had been considering making a sequel to On the Town, in which the three sailor heroes reunite after 10 years to find they have nothing in common any more. The idea was later transformed into It's Always Fair Weather, in which Kidd was given the role originally intended for Frank Sinatra. The film's subject proved a little too sad and sour for popular appeal, though the trio's dance through the streets with dustbin lids on their feet is fondly remembered.

He acted on screen again in 1974, when he gave a superb performance as a faded choreographer staging a small-town beauty pageant in Michael Ritchie's satirical Smile (1974). Kidd's own career as a choreographer was less happy after Li'l Abner. He worked on several unsuccessful shows, including the ill-fated Breakfast at Tiffany's (1966), which never officially opened on Broadway. He was nominated for Tony awards for both direction and choreography of The Rothschilds (1970), and was nominated for the direction of the last show on which he worked, The Goodbye Girl (1993). His later films included Star! (1968) and Hello, Dolly (1969) and, though suffering from over-production and miscasting, both films had some fine musical sequences.

In 1997 Kidd was given a special Academy Award "in recognition of his services to the art of dance in the art of the screen".

Tom Vallance

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