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OBITUARIES / Michael Kidd, 1915 - 2007

Choreographer created memorable sequences for Broadway and Hollywood

December 25, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Michael Kidd, the choreographer with a gift for inventive yet realistic movement who created some of Broadway's and Hollywood's most memorable dance sequences, particularly in a string of 1950s hits that included the stage musical "Guys and Dolls" and the movie "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," died Sunday at his Los Angeles home. He was 92.

The cause was cancer, said his nephew, Robert Greenwald.

On Broadway, Kidd's robust style brought him five Tony Awards: for "Finian's Rainbrow" (1947), "Guys and Dolls" (1951), "Can-Can" (1954), "Li'l Abner" (1957) and "Destry Rides Again" (1960).

In Hollywood, he often masterminded numbers that were remembered long after the films themselves were forgotten. He created a magical dance through Central Park by Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in "The Band Wagon" (1953) and the inspired lunacy of Danny Kaye's escape into a Russian ballet in "Knock on Wood" (1954).

The pinnacle of his film career was the exuberant barn-raising dance for "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (1954), in which he employed top ballet dancers to play wood-chopping country bumpkins in search of mates.

Despite extensive movie work, he did not receive an Academy Award until 1997, when he was given an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. Jane Powell, who starred in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," told Variety when Kidd's honorary Oscar was announced that the film would not have been such a success "if not for Michael. After all, the dances are what everyone remembers about the movie."

Kidd often said that silent screen maestro Charlie Chaplin was one of his strongest influences. He cited Chaplin's instinct for pathos and comedy as the foundation for his own efforts to sculpt characters and connect emotionally with his audience through dance.

"Dancing should be completely understandable -- every move, every turn should mean something, should be crystal clear to the audience," he told the New York Times many years ago. "And if you can make them laugh or cry, move them emotionally, make them respond to the dancer as a real person doing something believable within your theatrical framework, well, you've done a job."

Dance entered Kidd's life somewhat late. The son of a Russian immigrant barber, he was born Milton Greenwald in 1915 in Brooklyn, N.Y. While at New Utrecht High School, where he ran track, he attended a performance of the New Dance League and was "careless enough to say" he was impressed by it, which earned him a scholarship to a modern dance class.

After graduating, however, he enrolled in City College of New York and majored in chemical engineering. He eventually tired of the subject, finding it "too impersonal." Desiring to deal more directly with people, he decided to study dance instead.

He won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet and made his stage debut in the chorus of Max Reinhardt's 1937 production of "The Eternal Road." Later that year he joined the American Ballet and Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan and danced on tour the next three years.

By the mid-1940s he was playing leading roles with the American Ballet Theatre in New York. For that company, he directed his original ballet "On Stage!," which told the story of a shy young dancer and a stagehand -- played by Kidd -- who befriends her. It won kudos, with critics declaring Kidd one of the great hopes of postwar American ballet. "On Stage!" would be his only ballet, however, because Kidd soon left for Broadway.

He quickly became a sensation, beginning with "Finian's Rainbow," the musical fantasy about scheming leprechauns. He credited his successes over the next decade to his belief that dance must be grounded in real life. As he told the New York Times in 1994, he saw his choreography as "human behavior and people's manners, stylized into musical rhythmic forms."

Critics found that ethic most brilliantly displayed in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," the story of seven unruly lumberjack brothers who try to tame their ways and attract brides.

When approached by director Stanley Donen, Kidd initially turned the project down.

"Here are these slobs living off in the woods," Kidd, recalling his reaction, said in a 1997 interview in the Los Angeles Times. "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 theater!"

He ultimately managed, he said, to "find a way to have these backwoods men dance without looking ridiculous." He told Variety that his strategy was to base the men's movements on activities that an audience would find believable, such as chopping wood. At the same time, the men had to move with balletic flair and precision while twirling axes and cartwheeling on planks in the air. Of the seven brothers, four were portrayed by leading ballet dancers, including Jacques d'Amboise of the New York City Ballet, who described Kidd's style as "a no-holds-barred atomic energy explosion."

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