- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

Fred Astaire was quite possibly the greatest crossover artist of all time. Revered by George Balanchine, one of classical ballet’s most esteemed choreographers, and by Michael Jackson, one of the world’s most famous pop stars, he had an appeal that cut a wide swath across high and pop art.

The first DVD release this week of five films with Mr. Astaire dancing — and better yet, dancing with Ginger Rogers — is as good as it gets for dance lovers everywhere.

The Astaire-Rogers set includes most of the duo’s best work: “Top Hat,” “Follow the Fleet,” “Swing Time,” “Shall We Dance” — a dazzling record, filmed in less than two years in the mid-‘30s — and “The Barkleys of Broadway,” a lesser work made a dozen years later.

Showcasing his elegant aplomb, her supple grace and their incredible dance rapport, these films are both priceless and timeless.

Priceless because at their most sublime moments they are about romance, and no one has shown romance through movement with more nuance than Mr. Astaire as choreographer and Mr. Astaire and Miss Rogers as dancers.

Timeless because they are as fresh and vivid as the day they were made. Unlike lost milestones of 20th-century dance that vanished without adequate record — Vaslav Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” Martha Graham’s searing performances in the ‘30s and ‘40s — these treasures have survived, and we are seeing them exactly as their creator intended.

A peerless master of movement, Mr. Astaire defied dance’s greatest handicap, its evanescence, by focusing obsessively on the way his work was recorded. He had a special dolly on wheels made that closely tracked the couple’s duets. The device, soon known as the Astaire Dolly, also made it possible for the full figures of the dancers to be seen at all times and for Mr. Astaire’s most breathtaking advance: filming an entire dance sequence in a single shot.

The Astaire-Rogers duets were high-wire acts. We saw their daring, their mood changes, the way they suddenly went into double time, and we saw it all in real time, exactly as it was happening.

Not all the dances were filmed in a single shot, but most of them were. Some of the commentaries that are part of the extra goodies on these discs talk about the effect this generated. Special mention is made of the sequence at the end of “Never Gonna Dance” in “Swingtime.” It was shot 47 times before Mr. Astaire was satisfied with the result: a marathon that left Miss Rogers’ feet bleeding through her shoes but still game.

The most informative of the accompanying commentaries is by John Mueller (author of “Astaire Dancing”) for the film “Swingtime,” universally regarded as the greatest film in the Astaire-Rogers canon. The DVDs are being offered individually or as a set of five, and “Swingtime” certainly is the prize. It contains two of the greatest dances the pair ever did — “Waltz in Swingtime” and “Never Gonna Dance,” both set to Jerome Kern’s music.

The everlasting appeal of this extraordinary couple is the way they capture the passion of the moment: the joyous abandon of falling in love, heads thrown back in ecstasy as they whirl off at the finale of the first dance; the pang and despair of lovers forced to separate in the second. Telling tales with such depth of feeling, and through thrilling movement, is what makes them such magical performers.

The five-film set has other commentaries, some pedestrian but others with valuable archival shots such as a glimpse of Hermes Pan, who collaborated actively in the choreography with Mr. Astaire and taught the finished dances to Miss Rogers.

Each film also has cartoons and novelty shorts from the same time period as fillers. Their value is mostly as a contrasting frame of reference, to show the unique quality of the Astaire-Rogers phenomenon.

The true value of this long-awaited collection is the dancing itself and the repartee that surrounds it. As a die-hard fan, I have watched these dances on tape dozens of times. The remastering may not be perfect, but it is still a revelation to see the two stars looking so fresh. They have never seemed brighter or more appealing.

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