Thursday, April 12, 2012

Busby Berkeley

I'm working on my second-to-last assignment for school right now on Busby Berkeley's choreography for depression-era musicals, for a seminar class on the topic of Beauty.  The choreography really is a feast for the eyes, which involved not so much dancing as it did posing and the movements of chorus girls in unison and shot from above to create some pretty dazzling living patterns.

In a 1998 documentary called “Going Through The Roof,” Busby Berkeley’s dance routines were described as the “Epitome of Broadway Modernity."  Best known for his choreography in depression-era “talkies” such as Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1933, Berkeley’s elaborate routines involving the synchronized movements of chorus girls and revolving stages were crowd-pleasing, ground breaking and highly influential-- echoes of them can be seen in everything from advertising to music videos of the late 20th Century. 

Providing some of the context that surrounded Berkeley’s choreography is important to a reading of his work. Berkeley’s signature work can be seen in films made between the two world wars during the years of the Great Depression, and he was at his most prolific in 1933-- widely believed to be the worst economic year in US history. Interestingly, despite the depression movie attendance was at a high, and depression-era audiences were most attracted to feel-good, codified genres. On a related note, central to the character of Berkeley’s choreography are synchronized, machine-like series of movements that feel rooted in Taylorist and Fordist principles of standardization and assembly line production such as harmony, anonymity and perfection.  A veteran of World War One, many of Berkeley’s ideas also came from military drill formations.  

Above: "We're In The Money" from Gold Diggers of 1933, featuring Ginger Rogers.

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