A Dance for Markova and Dolin

Courtesy of John Hall’s wonderful YouTube channel (a real treasure trove of historic dance clips that you should visit), here’s a clip of Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin dancing a pas de deux in the 1945 low-budget Hollywood film A Song For Miss Julie:

I’ve not been able to find much information on how this small dance came to be in this (really) small film.  No mention of it is in Dolin’s memoirs (one of them, anyway), Friends and Memories, nor in his own book about his partner, Alicia Markova: Her Life and Art.  Maurice Leonard’s 1995 biography, Markova: The Legend, after noting that Markova and Dolin were on tour in Los Angeles circa 1944 with Ballet Theatre (as well as appearing at the Hollywood Canteen), has then literally two sentences about it:  “[Markova] and Dolin appeared in a film while in Hollywood—A Song for Miss Julie.  They played Valentine Day characters who came to life.”  (That ‘Valentine Day characters’ reference leaves me puzzled; does Leonard mean the holiday or something else?)

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A more interesting entry is in Tina Sutton’s massive 2013 biography, The Making of Markova.  Sutton notes how ballet’s popularity, according to a March 1944 Life magazine article, was rising in 1940s America (the article including freeze-frame photographs of Markova in motion to emphasize its point).  Not only was ballet popular in theaters, Sutton adds, it was enjoying a boom in Hollywood, as bemoaned by a 1945 Dance Magazine piece, with dancers tempted away from the rigors of the stage to the relative luxury (and salaries) of the movie studio.  Sutton also quotes a 1945 New York Sun account about the Markova/Dolin appearance in A Song for Miss Julie, which noted that “[t]hey had only one day…to make their sequence.”  Markova herself, writes Sutton, disliked filmmaking, feeling that “movies were ‘cheating,’ as the cutting, editing, and special effects could…alter the mood and original step sequences of a dance.”  Tellingly, Markova did not appear in a (fictional) film again.

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I wonder, though, if the movie itself, a dire little cheapie from (equally cheap) Republic Pictures, may have also dampened Markova’s enthusiasm.  Barely an hour long, the film is a puttin’-on-a-show concoction, about three theater sophisticates attempting to stage a biographical musical about a long-dead song writer (the truly curious—or truly masochistic—can watch the whole thing here).  Markova and Dolin’s dance pops up about 19 minutes into the film, presented as one character’s theatrical fantasy exhibited on a set model, which then ‘becomes’ the scene.  Other than that, the ballet has nothing to do with either the movie’s or the show-within-the-movie’s plot.  If I had to guess, someone at Republic had the notion to insert what was then one of the most famous dance partnerships in the country, even the world (and no doubt largely responsible for the then-burgeoning dance boom), as a box-office boost.  (I’ve no idea if that succeeded).

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But you can ignore the film (seems everyone else did).  The actual ballet, a three-minute pas de deux, exists in and for itself.  It comes and goes as lightly, as quickly, as Markova’s fabled dance style—airy, swift, delicate, leaving a wistful impression of a half-glimpsed, now-vanished beauty.  Indeed, the only reason to see A Song for Miss Julie is for Markova and Dolin in this dance.  It’s a vehicle for its lead couple, an excuse to see two great dancers at their peak preserved in celluloid.  For which I am very grateful.

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Despite Markova’s above-stated reservations about the effects of film editing on filmed ballet, the dance here, except for brief mid-shots at beginning and end (and that quick, bizarre cut-away at one point to a bewigged fellow at a piano—what’s he doing there?…), is filmed in one sustained take, allowing us to enjoy, without interruption, its sequence of steps.  The dancers crisscross the space, moving in, out, and around each other in relation to their bodies and to the stage, the ‘wholeness’ of their performance seen in real space and time.

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As introduced in the film, the PDD represents a lovers’ quarrel, and its sequence is structured by that narrative peg:  Markova and Dolin separate, come together, separate again, finally reunite.  The cause may be the book Dolin is first seen reading, Markova perhaps objecting that his attention is not on her?  He tosses away the book and supports her in a pose and a spin.  She then points to the discarded book and gestures offstage; he motions the other way.  When he lifts her, she springs away and pirouettes rapidly across the stage, ending with her back to him, her arms crossed in pique; he ‘answers’ with travelling brisés in the other direction.  They then circle the stage together, skipping like children, the casus belli apparently forgotten as he tenderly holds her hand.  He supports her again in several turns (as well as a casually done fish dive), and they finish in the same pose as they started, the cause of the breach barely an interruption in their amity.

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Note the set:  A minimalist, black-and-white, stylized stage, bright and shiny in the contrasts, recalling (albeit more modestly) the big, shiny, B&W dance sets of the Astaire-Rogers RKO films, such as the “Cheek to Cheek” and “Never Gonna Dance” numbers.  This PDD is not in that league, but it’s still appealing to watch; its delights fit its own modest scale and frail elegance.  And note its use of classical style:  Quick, light, easy to watch, seemingly easy to perform, and charming—the element most needed for such a slight piece to make its mark.  I like what’s done here, such as a supported attitude devant turning towards the supporting leg rather than away; it takes you by surprise.  Movements echo or complete each other; when Markova closes her arms, Dolin behind her opens his.  Also note how Dolin spins round behind Markova and then, while she twirls on her own, he drops to one knee—a kind of throwaway, yet slightly complicated move (note the contrasting motions of the two) that makes me think, however briefly, of Balanchine.

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For these “step sequences,” IMDB lists Larry Ceballos as choreographer (though John Hall speculates that Dolin might have had input).  Ceballos’s lengthy movie career ranged from working on one of the earliest film musicals, the 1929 Gold Diggers of Broadway, to staging tango sequences for the 1951 Valentino film biopic.  If he was not noted for brilliance (most of his films look like B-product; he also directed many shorts), he was probably a reliable journeyman who could assemble dances quickly, in many styles, qualities needed for the B-movie treadmill (other examples of his choreography can be seen here and here).  About the most interesting thing I found on Ceballos is that he choreographed two numbers for 1933’s Footlight Parade but received no onscreen acknowledgment, the credit going entirely to Busby Berkeley.  Perhaps more should be examined on Ceballos’s career.

True, this little PDD is no great shakes, however charming.  It’s a trifle, its music sprightly but slight (the Sun article said it’s Mendelssohn, but I’ll be doggone if I can place it; any suggestions would be appreciated), its choreography serviceable, and its presence in this movie seemingly done in haste.  Yet it’s a precious document.  Very little is on film of either Dolin or Markova dancing, even less of their dancing together; and much of what’s there is fragments.  This PDD presents, as in a miniature, elements of their great partnership:  Markova’s delicacy, Dolin’s vigor (he may be utterly turned in, but he has height and breadth in his dancing), their response to and ease with each other.  And to watch a still-young Markova…her beautiful slim legs, her perfect placement, her modest demeanor, the lightness of her steps, as if she doesn’t touch the floor…her appearance here brings to mind those stories about her legendary technique, which film seems unable to capture, but can only hint at, in tantalizing flashes.

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If I have any quibble with the piece—and I’m assuming this was the director’s choice, not Ceballos’s—it’s that the dance starts in mid-shot, Markova and Dolin in full figure to us, but then cuts away, for the entire sequence, to a very far long shot.  John Hall in his YT post compared it to watching a dance in a real theater, but I would have preferred the camera to have stayed closer.  The pair look dwarfed at that far range, like tiny dolls, and details are hard to see.  Besides, if you’ve got a movie camera, then use it.  It’s a very expensive piece of equipment.

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