By Anjely Rais. Posted on May 17, 2016
The exotic rhythms, the cadenced moving, ravelling and unravelling of bodies, the dreamy, passionate glances and the mesmerizing sensuality: the dance scenes have their own coherence, function and beauty in cinema. It is fascinating, because it often embodies the core of the movie in an irrational and oneiric form. It’s as if the film was a necklace, where some stones reflected light brighter than the others, thus enhancing the beauty of the ornament in that process. These peculiar and hypnotizing stones can be said to be the dance scenes in the movie. These are moments, which are out of the reality, and yet are deeply rooted in the diegesis.
There are numerous examples of such scenes, like in West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961), All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979) and Umrao Jaan (Muzaffar Ali, 1981). However, according to me, above all the others, three masters of cinema have created the most graceful scenes ever. Stanley Donen’s Singing in the Rain (1952), K. Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam (1960) and Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (Young Girls From Rochefort) (1967) are three masterpieces from American, Indian and French directors, which rise above all the others when we talk about beauty of dance sequences in cinema.
Here, I have attempted to compare the dancing scenes by these three filmmakers so as to characterize their specifics, while pointing out similarities as well as the differences. Rather than an attempt to rationalize the elegance of these musical scenes, this comparison is a way to show how the grace of each of these movies is related to the others.
Singing in the Rain tells the story of Don Lockwood, a popular silent film star who has to put up with the transition to talking pictures. The Broadway Melody scene literally embodies the enthusiasm of Don about the idea he had with his friends to make a talking and dancing movie. It is a dreamy scene with two different rhythms and situations: the first part with the dancing crowd, and the second part about revisiting the icon of the vamp woman. It comes from the first sonorous feature film, The Broadway Melody (1929).
Mughal E Azam is the tragic love story between the Mughal Prince Salim and the court dancer Anarkali. In the first part of the movie, during the song Mohe Panghat Pe, Anarkali dances for the Royalty, where she and Salim fall in love. The music is composed by the ace music director of that era, Naushad.
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls from Rochefort) is about two 25 year old sisters who sing, dance and live life believing in beauty, poetry and fate. At the very beginning of the film, showmen arrive in town. It is the first dancing scene of the movie, which announces the soft and sensual atmosphere to come. The music is composed by Michel Legrand (who also worked with Jean-Luc Godard, Clint Eastwood, Norman Jewison, Claude Lelouch and many others).
“Broadway rhythm, it's got me, everybody dance!”
In Donen’s film, Don Lockwood, interpreted by Gene Kelly, arrives in a fantasy, set all in flashy blues, yellows and reds. His singing and dancing in the middle of the swinging New-Yorker crowd, as well as his solo, allows embodiment of the new aesthetic dynamic he is in. “That Broadway rhythm, writhing, beating, rhythm!” It is homage to Broadway musicals, where the spectator foresees what Lockwood’s creation will be.
A sudden break occurs in the music with the arrival of the vamp lady, played by Cyd Charisse. It is a traditional motif that allows the dynamic and enthusiastic scene to turn into a sensual duo: another ingredient in the musical to come, that the spectator can already see.
In Mughal-E-Azam, the dance scene is expected. Anarkali, played by Madhubala, sings and dances an episode from the life of Krishna, the Hindu god. Her performance shows her talent, her incredible beauty as well as her love for the Prince Salim. The dance also shows the strict protocol and etiquette, as well as the seduction game played by Salim and Anarkali, which is obviously suggested by the way they look at each other.
Mohe Panghat Pe Nandlal Chhed Gayo Re,
Nayno Se Jadoo Kiya, Jiyara Moh Liya
Mora Ghoongat Najariya Se Tod Gayo Re..
(Krishna teased me on the river bank. He performed magic with his eyes, and took away my heart. He lifted my veil and he exposed me to his gaze).
But what makes the dance so fascinating is also the fact that Kathak is originally a sacred dance performed in temples, which becomes secular under the reign of the Mughals, who turned it into pure entertainment. This tension between the sacred and the secular gives a particular intensity to the performance because it showcases the opposition between social pressure and desire, which are the core issues in the film.
The opening scene of Les Demoiselles introduces several elements of the movie. First, the jazzy music and the slow, tender choreography announce the general atmosphere and bring out the grace and beauty of youth. Matching colours evoke complementarity between men and women: it is a leitmotiv in the film. The arrival of the dancing showmen is going to be a reason for change in the small city. It’s as if the events that were bound to happen, happened just like their soft moves, in long and fluid sequences. The large frame and sudden acceleration of the choreography (at 0.57 in the YouTube video) is the moment chosen by Demy to reveal the title and the main musical theme of the movie. It mingles with jazzy moments.
These three dance sequences can be compared on several levels. First: how does the spectator look at the dance?
Clearly, in Mughal E Azam and Singing in the Rain, the camera focuses on Gene Kelly and Madhubala, whereas in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, George Chakiris and Grover Dale, two of the main characters, dance among their peers.
Mohe Panghat Pe is a monumental and codified scene, as Anarkali is danceing in court. The set, the costumes, the instruments and all the other dancers are prestigious and numerous. It is an expected scene, where the courtesan is supposed to show her talent and beauty through the performance. Unlike Donen and Demy’s films where the dance exists for itself, existing for the spectator only.
The other two films are not is the same kind of setting. Though the Broadway choreography is also a very codified genre, it is more spontaneous and doesn’t have anything to do with any kind of etiquette or political representation. It goes the same for Demy’s scene, and it is only by looking at them one after the other that one can notice the admiration Demy had for the work of Stanley Donen.
Furthermore, Demy’s scene is introducing the city of Rochefort. The set is therefore an urban landscape, sublimated by the dance and the moves of the camera. It introduces the people of Rochefort, who participated in the construction of the set: the scenes take place in real streets and real building painted by the people and Demy’s team. The production process is therefore very different from the one in India or in the US.
Nota Bene: This fascination in the mind of Demy for the Hollywood Musicals also appears in the presence of Georges Chakiris, the main actor of West Side Story, as well as Gene Kelly, - you can watch his dancing scene here - in Les Demoiselles.
In Asif and Donen’s films, the woman’s beauty, talent, and sensuality is sublimated by the dance. The role given to the solo is more important, and therefore provokes a fascination for the characters of Madhubala and Cyd Charisse.
Demy’s film is also very graceful and sensual, thanks to the soft choreography by Norman Maen and the jazzy rhythms of Michel Legrand. It sublimates the youth and lightness of the characters, their freedom and happiness to perform and to love. Light is also very important: in Les Demoiselles, scenes are always shot under a bright, joyful sunshine. Singing and dancing scenes are casually integrated to the rest of the plot. The transitions are very smooth: one line of dialogue, one move, can be followed by a performance.
Demy is an exception in that perspective. Unlike in India or in the US, there is no tradition of musicals in France. He is the main director to work on this type of movie.
Though the functions of the scenes differ from one film to another, there is, in our three examples, a fascination for the extraordinary grace, and a blissful mix between art and desire.
Anjely Raïs is a French-Indian postgraduate student from the Institute of Political Studies of Paris. She'll be working in film production for Drishyam Films in June 2016. She'll be writing for Jamuura about the specifics of both Indian and French cinema.