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INSIDE STORY

The Flight Crew

They Don't Soar Like They Used to, but Fayard and Harold Nicholas Are Headliners...Again

April 26, 1998|EMORY HOLMES II | Emory Holmes II is a contributor to Calendar

Fayard Antonio Nicholas, 83, lifted his cane lightly in the courtyard of the Autry Museum and did a little time-step for the showgirl who had followed him, star-struck. The old man's body, and the impeccable suit and the cane, still danced, but it was a sly shuffle, more touching than grand.

It was a grand gesture nevertheless--and showed the kind of star he was: good natured and, even with two hip replacements, willing, capable and strong. On this night, he judged a Dorothy Dandridge look-alike contest, and in a few days he would fly to Washington with his brother, Harold, to attend the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy Center Honors, of which they were 1991 recipients. (They were saluted as movie legends with a 1994 star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.) On April 6 would come more honors, at Carnegie Hall, with an all-star tribute to the Nicholas Brothers featuring Bobby Short, Savion Glover and Lena Horne.

If it is true, as Aristotle supposed, that a dancer can, "by the rhythms of his attitudes . . . represent men's characters, as well as what they do and suffer," then the Nicholas Brothers speak for millions. Mikhail Baryshnikov pronounced them "the most amazing, amazing dancers I have ever seen in my life--ever." They've been characterized as "the greatest dance team ever to work in American movies." And they are as notable as any historical figures of the American stage. Beginning in the 1930s, the time of the brothers' adolescence and rise to national prominence, Harold and Fayard were among the few African American performers allowed to appear in the new medium of sound films without blackface or tatters, or dressed in livery, or in the obsequious guise of human pets and good luck charms, or as ne'er-do-wells, sycophants, pickaninnys or buffoons. The Nicholas Brothers were the first African Americans in big-time films to look like the people we looked up to, and went both to parties and church with. They were confident, dapper and gifted and always appeared to be relaxing--playing themselves, whether extending the limits of human flight in dance or resting within its myriad rhythms and stops, in top hat, tails and tuxedos, in boaters and spats. They represented what the Negro, until that time, never had in America: continuity, a preservation and extension of the highest virtue of the past and a confident flight into the unknown.

They were already consummate showmen by 1931, the time of their first radio appearances in their hometown of Philadelphia, on the "Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour" radio show (Harold was 10; Fayard, 17). They were naturals, self-taught by Fayard, a kind of motion-poet with an intuitive grasp of the interior architecture and imperatives of dance. Harold, the beautiful child, was a precursor to all the pop-transforming prodigies who followed him, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Michael Jackson. As little boys, they dressed and danced like men, and they were acknowledged as peers (and adored) by adult contemporaries such as Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. The great George Balanchine recruited the brothers for two of his Broadway productions; within the span of two years, they leaped from vaudeville to radio to movies, and by 1932 they were co-starring with jazz composer Eubie Blake in one of the early Vitaphone sound films.

They sang and danced to the songs of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington and others, in five languages and on five continents, yet they hardly uttered a word of dialogue to a white actor onstage, or kissed or touched a woman of any age or type, or buddied-around with a leading guy--with the notable exception of Gene Kelly ("The Pirate," 1948)--in more than 30 years of film. Their routines were "specialty numbers," shot independently of the movie plot lines so Southern film exhibitors could have the option of cutting the team out of the picture. But their dance sequences were a living special effect--an unrepeatable, show-stopping spectacle. When they were filming "Orchestra Wives" (1942) with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Nick Castle, 20th Century Fox's famed dance director, was continually challenged to come up with stunts that would showcase the team's athleticism and grace. "Hey, stop the music," Castle said. "I've got an idea. I want you to run up a wall [and] do a back flip into a split." "Are you crazy?" Fayard responded, "let me see you do it." Castle confessed he could not, but added: "I know you can." Their ecstatic, wall-walking, 360-degree flight into a split became one more impossible routine in a career that has lasted almost seven decades.

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