The History and Impact of Gene Kelly

ODE TO AN AMERICAN LEGEND- Viani’s Performing Arts Academy

I begin my first article by telling you that I do not pretend to be a professional journalist or novel writer. I am a choreographer. A director. A dancer. A singer. A performer. An artist who has studied the art of performance for decades out of passion and desire to learn more! To this DAY I am still hungry to learn more about why our performing arts world is the way it is today. The history to me is FACINATING, and I want to share it with you! One piece at a time, of course, but this is my way of giving back to a world where the arts world has been shut down and silenced. I will dedicate myself to writing about our vast world of the arts- once a week- in ambition to help educate our world about the arts when our world has effectively shut down our world. How are you to learn about a topic if it is not taught or shared with you?? So, here I am, writing you to share with you the beauty that exists in the world of performing arts. The performing arts has been around for centuries and has taken many twists and turns along the way in its journey, and I want to share with you all of these beautiful stories. Iconic choreographers, musicians, composers, singers, and performers that not only influenced a change in the arts but also completely incepted new stylizations that were completely revolutionary!

These performing artists knew that there was freedom to be had within their revolutionary concepts and ideology, and they committed fearlessly, allowing no compromise, to their art form and putting it out there for the world to see. To be an artist is to be a fearless and vulnerable warrior who knows how to intertwine and balance the two starkly different emotional states into their inspired creation. To be an artist is to be a risk taker- one can not possibly know the depths of their capabilities if they are to play it safe their entire lives. It is scary to put new ideologies out there for the world to see- on a STAGE– nonetheless, but that is what this world requires of us. The world of the performing arts is one that doesn’t allow for marginalized error and is riddled with constant criticism, by both the professionals and non-professionals (ie. your audience). It is a world that isn’t built for the faint of heart, so with that being said, put on your armor and learn about these iconic performing arts warriors that went out into the world and forced a change. These are the warriors that simply refused to be overlooked or ignored- they would be heard, and their voice still resounds to this DAY!

The first artist we will explore is widely renowned and beloved, who is credited with changing the face of dance and also the expectation that the viewing audience may have had about the art of dance. This icon, this man, this person and artist is one that I watched and studied closely as a little girl and still honor today as a grown woman, dance professional and choreographer. Agility, athleticism, strength, grace and poise are all terms that are used to describe the style of this historical performer. He later stepped into the role of choreographer and director after doing enough time on screen as the actor/dancer to where he knew how to better direct and film a musical movie that best suited the performers and audience.

But first, HIS STORY:

His name is Gene Kelly, and if you don’t know his name, keep reading…you SHOULD.

Gene Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1912 and was the middle child in a family of 5 siblings. When he was young, he played hockey, football, baseball and even participated in gymnastics. His mother was his main influence when it came to dance in that she had a passion for the theater.

As he grew up, he wanted to quit taking dance class because he was getting teased for it at school. However, when he got wind that the girls liked boys who knew how to dance, he decided to continue with his lessons. In 1929, Gene left to go to Pennsylvania State College, but because of The Great Depression, his family lost all of their money and he had to move back home. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and worked odd jobs such as pumping gas and digging ditches in order to pay his tuition.

During his time at the University of Pennsylvania, Kelly’s mother thought it would be a good idea for the family to open their own dance studio. After some time, the Kelly family’s studio became very successful. Gene graduated from the university and taught dance for another 6 years before he decided to pursue dreams for himself. He thought he was talented enough to be successful in New York, so in 1937 he left for New York and found work his very first week there!

Kelly’s big break came when he was cast in the leading role in Rodgers and Hart Pal Joey in 1940, and producers from Hollywood had caught his performance. They offered him a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) where he worked for the next sixteen years. His first film was Me and My Girl in 1942 where he played opposite Judy Garland who was only 20 years old at the time but already a huge star. Judy had seen Gene perform and actually insisted he get the part. Judy is credited with helping Gene learn how to act for the screen. From then on, Judy and Gene remained good friends until the day Judy passed.

Kelly then went on to do a movie called “Cover Girl” in 1942 where he dances with a mirror image of himself, and it was this movie that gave Kelly insight on what dance could be in the movies. It caught all the critics’ attention. Kelly told Interview magazine, “[That is] when I began to see that you could make dances for cinema that weren’t just photographed stage dancing. That was my big insight into Hollywood, and Hollywood’s big insight into me.”

Gene took the opportunity to begin experimentation with combining dance and film technique in his films “Anchors Away” (1945) and “An American in Paris” (1951). In “Anchors Away”, he demonstrated how film technique could be utilized by dancing with a cartoon mouse, in addition, in “An American in Paris” he staged a full length ballet taking camera set ups and location into account. Later he developed a system of choreography made for the camera that took into account camera setups, movement, and editing. Kelly is also credited with ‘American-izing’ the art of dance by infusing his athletic and energetic style into the formal and ballet styles of European dance.

His most memorable movie, still to this date, is 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain”. The movie is set in 1920’s Hollywood and is about the movies transitioning from silent films to “talkies” (movies with sound). In this movie, Kelly played opposite the amazingly talented Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Conner, but at the end of the day, it was Kelly who stole the show. His performance to the title song has since made it iconic where he partnered his dancing with a soaking rainstorm and a simple umbrella.

Respected as one of the very best in the business, Gene was always very effective in communicating the joy he found in movement and stories he could create within the world of dance. He spent his last years in the industry choreographing and directing films, such as “It’s Always Fair Weather” (1955) and “An Invitation to Dance” (1956), where his choreography continued to take on more emotional, relative, and real life scenarios.

Gene passed away on February 2, 1996 in his home in Beverly Hills, California. His widow, Patricia Ward, tours all over the world speaking about Gene’s impact on the world with not only his revolutionary dance conceptualizations but also his humanitarian efforts. Gene was a poet and a romantic, a true intellect, and he left a very large hole in our hearts when he passed.

I had the privilege to hear Ms. Ward speak about Gene, and I even was able to talk with her for a while after her event. I will always see that moment as the moment I was finally able to meet Gene in person. The icon, the man, the person, the artist- one of the most influential performers of my life- and I was finally able to say “Thank you”.

Please enjoy this clip as it is one of my most favorite Gene Kelly performances he has ever done. Please note how he integrates inanimate objects – once again – as his partners in this dance (ie. the squeak in the floor and the newspaper).

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