Sunday 12 June 2011

Jacques and Fred

Jacques Austerlitz, the subject of W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, which I am reading now, only discovers his true name when the headmaster of his Welsh boarding school takes him aside and tells him (he had been brought up under a Welsh name). He is mystified and intrigued, and struck by the rarity of his newly discovered surname - one he shares, as he notes, with Fred Astaire, the great dancer, who was born Frederick Austerlitz.
Fred Astaire - especially when dancing with Ginger Rogers - is (and I admit to a sizeable blind spot in the area marked Dance) almost the only dancer I can watch with that rush of aesthetic pleasure, the tingle at the nape of the neck, the amazed gasp that signify the presence of great art. Why him? I think it's the sheer effortless elegance; he is the least muscular of dancers. He doesn't throw himself into a dance - he stroll into it. This, I think, is because he is always dancing - whether he's 'dancing' or just moving around, walking, running, lighting a cigarette, lifting a glass, patting his hair, anything. Every part of his body is engaged in a kind of continual dance - every part except that extraordinary, outsize, lantern-jawed head that hangs above the action, quite detached - embodying (as I see it) the detachment of the true artist, the cool still centre.
Similarly, I think Astaire was a very great singer - not a very good one in a technical sense (he has little 'voice'), but he slips into song as easily and beautifully as he slips into dance. Again his style is entirely unforced and unshowy, he does enough and no more, his phrasing is perfect, and as a result he is devastatingly effective at putting a song across - which is why he was so popular with songwriters. Watch him in action with Ginger Rogers here, and marvel. This sequence never fails to take my breath away - and what an ending! The look on Ginger's face... Something much more than a dance has happened here.


  1. What a neat segue from literature to dance, Nige!
    Yes - such lightness and subtlety and exquisite detail in his dance. I've been watching with delight too.

  2. Ah good - and yes, those little hand details - amazing. And the little turn he does just for the fun of it when she isn't even looking...

  3. Talking of 'rush of aesthetic pleasure', I'm looking forward to reading Carlos Acosta's autobiography, No Way Home.

  4. The lovely flow of his dancing-- every "step" connected naturally with the next. He swept her up in it, made her a better dancer. But then he always made his partners look good. He was generous and egoless that way. It was always about dancing not himself. That the stuff that separates the good from the great.

    @Nige --" just for the fun of it"
    Astaire had such subtle humour; then at the end he dusts off his hands. Like he's saying, well, there's that done and dusted. You can't possibly leave NOW.

    Thank you for those exhilarating few minutes. It made my day!

  5. Glad you enjoyed it Barbara - I find it never palls. And yr observations are v true too...
    Thanks Susan - perhaps Acosta is the one who will finally show me the point of ballet, which has so far eluded me..

  6. Nige -- think of ballet as moving line drawings done with human bodies.

    Mikhail Baryshnikov's dance idol?
    Fred Astaire.