Last Thursday, on a snowy night, St Hilda’s College Oxford warmly welcomed the local dance community to learn more about Fred Astaire, arguably the greatest dancer of the twentieth century. New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay gave an entertaining, witty and enlightening talk, as he showed us a series of filmed dance excerpts, while placing Astaire’s work in its cultural and choreographic context.

Although perhaps best known as a tap dancer, Astaire also had ballroom, Latin and even ballet training (note the cabrioles in The Gay Divorcee!). His meticulous attention to detail applied to every aspect of his work, whether that meant dancing on Bakelite to achieve the right sound, or insisting on the full body filming of dance sequences in a single ‘take’. His eye was so accurate that he was able to spot it if the end result was ‘out of synch’ by even one frame.

Macaulay reminded us that Astaire’s work was not just a series of technical feats supported by dextrous use of props, but a highly developed and subtle way of telling stories and revealing human emotion through dance: in his great dance numbers, such as Let’s Face the Music and Dance, it is impossible to say where the dancing ends and the expression of love begins.

Astaire’s free use of the upper body, and his creative originality, for example in Dancing in the Dark with Cyd Charisse, where he turns walking into dance, have left a lasting legacy, influencing choreographers from George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, to Richard Alston (who was present in the audience).  Macaulay also talked about Astaire’s other partners; his sister Adele, Ginger Rogers, and lastly Eleanor Powell, the one whose work ethic matched his own.

Was he sexy? Macaulay suggests that he had a ‘pierrot quality’, and I would add that his ability to ‘dance with anger’, so clearly visible in One for My Baby (and One More for the Road), gave him an energy that made him hugely attractive. Dorothy L. Sayers apparently described her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey as half Bertie Wooster and half Fred Astaire: if so, I think I know for which half her heroine Harriet Vane finally fell in Gaudy Night, a novel set in another (imaginary) Oxford college.

Maggie Watson

8 March 2018