L.A. Dance Company Retraces Fred Astaire's Steps in New Numbers

Astaire Dances at American Contemporary Ballet - Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of American Contemporary Ballet/Darren Dai

From Feb. 1-16, Metropolis Los Angeles will present 'Astaire Dances III,' a series that re-creates four romantic numbers from the star's musicals, such as 'The Gay Divorcee' and 'Daddy Long Leg.'

Lincoln Jones will never forget the first time he saw Fred Astaire dance. "It was from [the 1942 film] You Were Never Lovelier," the artistic director of American Contemporary Ballet recalls. "It blew my mind. His choreography was the same quality as George Balanchine, and it was integrated so well with the music.”

Balanchine and Astaire continue to inspire Jones’s work for the Los Angeles-based dance company: From Feb. 1 to 16 at Downtown L.A.'s Metropolis Los Angeles, the company will present Astaire Dances III, the latest in a series that re-creates romantic numbers from the star's musicals, which this season includes pieces from The Gay Divorcee, Silk Stockings and Daddy Long Legs. The program is comprised of six numbers, five from Astaire musicals and an original ballet choreographed by Jones. 

Why is Fred Astaire’s body of work, in films from the 1930s through the 1950s, worthy of celebration by a contemporary dance company? “Nobody else was doing the work that he did,” Jones says. “Shakespeare wrote plays that were of his moment, and Mozart did the same with music. That’s how Astaire treated his dances. They’re really one of the great repertories of the 20th century, and I wanted our audiences to experience that.” 

Footwork from Astaire’s choreography has been replicated as closely as possible, with adjustments made for the transition from cinema to live performance. “In the films you often see Astaire and his partner jump from room to room, so we had to adapt the numbers for our staging,” Jones says. “But the feet, hands, heads, all of it, are as close as we can get to the original numbers, including those beautiful fixed romantic gazes as they were doing incredibly complex steps. It’s no mean feat to do that.” 

The Astaire Dances series got its start in 2014 as individual numbers in ACB’s Dance + Design (now titled Dancing School), before Jones and executive director Theresa Farrell decided in 2018 to expand the idea into its own series, which now ranks among the company’s most popular programs. “Last year people were upset when they couldn’t get tickets,” Jones says. “Everyone loves Fred Astaire, plus we make it a really fun night, with pre- and post-show receptions. People really get into the spirit of the evening and the style of Fred Astaire; it’s not surprising to see men in tuxedos.” 

Jones took on the Astaire role in previous Astaire Dances programs, but this season has cast ACB dancer Joshua Brown, while dancers Elise Filo, Sarah Bukowski, Cara Hansvick, Madeline Houk and Rochelle Chang assume the women’s roles played onscreen by Ginger Rogers, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse and others. “Josh is a new ACB dancer who has a really wonderful presence, and it makes sense that one guy would take on the Astaire role in each number,” Jones says. “Astaire was always Astaire, but he had many female partners. I thought about how challenging it might be for one dancer to do all five numbers, but when filming, Astaire did the same dances over and over until they were perfect. It feels a little more true to cast it this way.” 

A 10-piece band and singer Anastasia Malliaras provide the night’s live music, while costumes in the recreated dances also have been designed to resemble the original gowns and other looks seen on film. “When Ginger Rogers whipped around after a turn, her gown moved in its own way, and that was an important part of the number,” Jones explains. “We were very meticulous with the costumes — as much as our budget allowed us to be, because some of those pieces designed for Ginger Rogers in particular were very expensive. But the basic construction and sense of movement is there.” 

Audience seating is placed on the same level with the performers and musicians for an immersive experience, which includes cocktails and stand-up comedians Brian Kiley and Randy Liedtke, who will alternate performances as the show’s opening act. The vibe is meant to echo a night at a classic Hollywood club like Ciro's. Says Jones, "I want to create a feeling we don't experience today, but in a contemporary way." 

Tickets for ACB's 11 performances of Astaire Dances III start at $45 per person. The event takes place at Metropolis Los Angeles, 877 S. Francisco St., Upper Level, Los Angeles. For tickets or more information, visit acbdances.com. 

This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.