Cyd Charisse, 1922-2008

Truly lovely…In the 1953 Vincente Minnelli musical, The Band Wagon, there’s a fantastic sequence called “The Girl Hunt,” in which dance great Fred Astaire, as gumshoe Rod Riley, searches for a mysterious ingenue. Numerous close calls and clues lead him to a gangster nightspot, Dem Bones Cafe, where upon entering, he suddenly catches sight of a woman, her hair coal-black, leaning ravenously against the bar in a dark green full-length coat.

For a second, there is no movement in the shot whatsoever. Watching it on video, one initially has the confusing impression that they’re looking at a still frame, until they notice the woman’s slow, deep breathing.

The Band Wagon DVDThen, as if caressing herself in a milk bath, the femme fatale runs her own hands and fingers across her chest and belly, over and under her coat, unclasps a button, and, like she were being led from the garment by her own breasts, seemingly levitates from the covering to reveal a scalding-red sequined dress, finished by arm-length black satin gloves, a shimmering diamond bracelet, and a dazzling choker.

The first time I saw this sequence—just a few years ago, in fact—as the woman’s coat dropped, I felt something jump and rebound inside of me. My body literally reacted with shock. I would have been no less stunned if that female had emerged from her cloak completely nude. Looking at her form lift and unveil as outer garments fell away was like studying a flower’s opening in time-lapse, but one painted by O’Keefe, petals, pistils, and stamen all in barely subdued and dewy concupiscence.Youthful Cyd

Keep in mind that these were the reactions of a 21st century man seeing a movie over 50 years old, its repressed, chaste mores and all. Also, don’t forget that, at this point in the film, the woman hasn’t even started dancing yet.

But such was the powerful physical and emotional prowess of dancer Cyd Charisse, 86, who died yesterday from a heart attack. Early in the “Girl Hunt” section, Astaire’s Riley describes the woman’s all-enveloping movement: “She came at me in sections,” he gasps.

Well said. Highly-trained and profoundly skilled, Charisse possessed an apparently unlimited capacity to make each and every limb move as an asynchronous part in a smooth whole, all responding to her own rapidly shifting will.

See something you like?…On paper, it sounds like a dancer whose elements merely relate via unending motion. But more, one would typically see Charisse’s immense control—her ability to convey tremendous amounts of information with the simplest gestures—while standing, or sitting, still. Even those who’ve never seen The Band Wagon will certainly remember her wordless, breakout 1952 role as Singing in the Rain‘s voracious gun moll, above. Exhaling cigarette smoke like a dragon, Charisse dangles Gene Kelly’s porkpie hat from the tip of her extended, curvaceous leg, before raising her gam, and presumably Kelly, to its perpendicular, fully erect state. Again, all she’s done by this point is say “Hi.”

Born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, Charisse danced with the world-renowned Ballet Russe after auditioning at 14. She was billed under the names Celia Siderova and Maria Istromena in order to preserve the illusion of a Russian-only corps.

Hi ya, kid!Besides The Band Wagon and Singing in the Rain, Charisse also starred in such Golden Age musicals as Ziegfeld Follies (1946), On an Island with You (1948) with Ricardo Montablan, Brigadoon (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1956), and Silk Stockings (1957), among many others. Of course, in later generations, some will only know her from a memorable cameo in Janet Jackson’s zoot-suited “Alright” music video (1990), above.

Though deeply-beloved and highly-awarded—a National Medal of Arts and Humanities Award was granted in 2006 by President Bush—perhaps Charisse’s greatest accomplishment was her nearly 60-year marriage to singer Tony Martin. He survives her, along with with her two sons and many family members.


1 comment so far ↓

#1 sirensongs on 06.24.08 at 4:49 am

Oh my Guru, that’s one classy raven-haired wench. Looks like Cyd is bustin out some Indian mudras (hand gestures) in the opening “unwinding” sequence.

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