On Stage: Gene Kelly — The Legacy

May 20, 2014

Movie icon Gene Kelly has always been larger than life here, being that he was a Pittsburgh native. This week viewers will have a rare opportunity to see him when Kelly returns to the big screen at the Byham Theater Wednesday night.

Wife Patricia Ward Kelly will bring a separate set of clips in this complimentary piece to her talk at the University of Pittsburgh in 2012, which focused on his use of the camera. The Byham evening will be more personal, an in-depth look at the varying dimensions of Kelly. “There are a couple of similarities,” says his wife. “But much of it will be very, very different.”

So it will again prove something: “Gene — we hardly knew ye.” “People come away with an altered sense of who Gene was,” she notes. “They love him up on the screen, but they kind of think that’s who he really was. They kind of forget that he’s acting up there. I think they think that he danced around the house and was this happy-go-lucky guy. I don’t think they think of him as this guy who was mostly cerebral — sitting down in a chair reading a book, writing poetry and things like that.”

Actually most people don’t know that he directed what we see in movies like On the Town and An American in Paris, choreographed what we see in Singin’ in the Rain. They don’t understand how revolutionary so much of the work was.

“That’s what is really fun about it,” she continues. “People don’t realize that he spoke so many languages [Yiddish, French, Latin and Italian], that he was a cultural ambassador to Africa. They don’t realize that he had these personal friendships with great writers like Carl Sandburg and Samuel Becket and Thornton Wilder.”

So they just come out with a greater appreciation for him.

Patricia underlines that he didn’t just study one form of dance. He studied everything — history, literature, poetry and mathematics. And Kelly wasn’t just that athletic all-American guy. He wasn’t only a tap dancer, but a classically-trained ballet dancer who also conceived what you saw and positioned the camera for what we saw.

Hamburg Ballet artistic director John Neumeier, San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson, Joffrey Ballet principal dancer Fabrice Calmels, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Roberto Bolle. The name that they give is Gene Kelly as the man who got them to dance. It’s not Baryshnikov. It’s not Nureyev. It’s Kelly.

“He made it okay for a guy to dance,” Patricia explains. When he saw Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in Pittsburgh, he auditioned and was offered a position in the corps de ballet. But he turned it down, because he didn’t think he could support his family on that salary.

Kelly could go on to study with modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey, plus some Spanish dance along the way.

He saw the interconnectedness of it all. So if a young artist asked, “What should we study?” He would say, “Everything.”

Maybe that’s why he touches people in so many ways.

 

This Renaissance man conceived a completely different style of American dance. “It’s not what Astaire was doing, continuing the tradition of ballroom dancing,” says Patricia. “This was dance that furthered the plot and was incorporated into the plot. Singin’ in the Rain is understood around the world. Instead of saying that he’s in love with a girl and is so happy, he does it all in motion. That was really a shift, something that wasn’t seen before him.”

She continues, “That was the challenge for him — not only to make something that’s really contemporary, but something that’s timeless.”

That’s what still inspires Patricia, who always watches the clips during her talk. ”The funny thing is that I have to remind myself to go back on stage because I get so caught up in what’s going on and I hear the audience responding. It’s a selfish thing for me, because I get so much out of it. I guess it was also a way of dealing with the absence and the loss because it makes him so continually present and alive.”

Thus she shares the legacy, reaping the rewards of his timeless art. “I’m constantly reminded that this is stuff that holds up,” she admits. “It’s sixty-plus years old, but it’s still really vibrant and fresh.”

Patricia happily provides the link to Kelly’s history. “It was personal for me, but I hear how it touches the people. I see the wit of it, the brightness of what he executed.”

So she will greet people before and after the show, giving it her own personal touch, then will talk to four high schools over the next two days. After rehearsals for the Gene Kelly Awards for excellence in high school musicals at the Benedum Center, she will step on stage to present the final awards Saturday“It’s really Gene on Gene that people are getting,” she says of The Legacy talk. “It’s as close as they’re going to come with this guy.”


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