The role of dance as narrative in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) was choreographed by the Academy Award winning choreographer Michael Kidd. When collaborating with director Stanley Donen, Kidd discussed the ‘essential need for the dances to be a part of the storytelling’ (Thomas, 1985, p.15). Having had an extensive career in the ballet art form and being an affiliate of the School of American Ballet, Kidd was a leading authority in narrative dance, traditions of which evolved from the ballet genre (Eliot Tobias, 2007).

Ballet was established as a dramatic art form in the fifteenth century during the Italian Renaissance. The genre has since been adopted by countries such as France and Russia, speaking universally in its ability to break cultural and linguistic barriers (Kirstein, 1952, p.4). Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was perhaps Kidd’s best-known film work, described by film historian Eliot Tobias as a ‘musical of the American frontier whose dances were created by Mr. Kidd for ballet dancers who were not supposed to appear balletic’ (Eliot Tobias, 2007).

In conjunction with Seven Brides, Oklahoma! (1943), which is widely considered to have revolutionised musical theatre and to have ‘ushered in the age of the “integrated musical”’ (Knapp, 2005, p.123), similarly has a strong foundation in the classical ballet dance form. The integrated musical is defined as being composed of a musical book with song and dance that is fully cohesive with the plot, theoretically indicating that all elements should blend as a seamless whole (Everett 2002, p. 137). Therefore, with all components being equal, there is a considerable weight on dance as a narrative agent in both moving the plot forward and exploring the development of character, which would otherwise have been ascertained through the musical’s book.

While all kinds of dance had been incorporated in the shows of earlier eras, the profound connection of the ‘Dream Ballet’ to the plot of Oklahoma! revolutionised the use of dance in musical theatre. (Sears, 2008, p.153).

Before the integrated musical, there was the more frivolous ‘Musical Comedy’. These tended to emphasize star actors and actresses, spectacular routines and popular songs, all at the expense of plot. Oklahoma! differed as it had a well-crafted storyline that examined far less trivial subject matters, contributing to the musical-play form and providing impetus for writers to create musicals often rich with social thought (Lubbock, 1962, pp. 753-756).

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! completed the revolution begun by Show Boat, by tightly integrating all the aspects of musical theatre, with a cohesive plot, songs that furthered the action of the story, and featured dream ballets and other dances that advanced the plot and developed the characters, rather than using dance as an excuse to parade scantily clad women across the stage (Rubin, D., & SolóRzano, C, 2001, p.438)

Through dance, the famous dream ballet sequence in Oklahoma! 'permitted the exploration of deep feelings far more effectively than dialogue could ever do' (Riis and Sears, 2008, p.165).The dancing was representative of the characters’ state of consciousness, exploring austere issues such as rape and murder, neither of which were examined in the text. The reasoning behind this may have been the severity of the issues and the morality particularly of women of the time. Arguably, the content would have come under more scrutiny had it been addressed in the text. This is largely due to the fact that an audience can construe what they wish from a connotative dance, where themes such as Jud’s psychopathy and lustful desires are less readily identifiable.

It is irrefutable that the Dream ballet shows a development in the character of Laurey, this being the number’s main narrative function. Dance also serves a similar purpose in other musical numbers in Oklahoma! such as ‘Kansas City’ which equally gives insight in to another of the principle characters Will Parker. The number establishes Parker as a simple, young cowboy, however, Kidd’s choreography in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers progresses the ideas established in the innovative choreography of Oklahoma!. The dance numbers instead allow for character exploration and development through movement, whilst also furthering the narrative.

For instance in the number ‘Goin’ Courtin’’ the audience see the brothers’ characters start to develop from unruly and boisterous young men to charming gentlemen. In contrast to Oklahoma!, where the dance music was written to De Mille’s choreography, Kidd choreographed to music and lyrics that had already been composed (Miller, 2007, p.50). For this reason the movement is often very denotative of the words, reflecting exactly the dialogue. In ‘Goin’ Courtin’’ Milly is educating the boys in the proper way to court a woman. The movement is mostly gestural and comprises of literal mime which reinforces the overall theme. In an interview Kidd spoke about the use of human gesture in his choreography, he added ‘I always use real-life gestures, and most of my dancing is based on real life’ (Eliot Tobias, 2007). ‘Y’ sidle up and squeeze her hand’ (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 2005, [DVD]) is demonstrative of this, the lyric imitated by the character Milly moving up the bench towards the brother and as the lyric dictates ‘squeezing’ his hand. Deriving from Milly’s natural gesture and dialect, this contributes to the narrative element, carrying the dialogue through from the book and in to the dance.

There is also a marked difference in the boys’ body language and posture which gives insight into the development of the plot. The boys are naïve and awkward adolescents who have never had experience with a woman. When Milly introduces the concept of the social dance, their youth and churlishness is expressed through their questioning and reluctance to join in. She gets the brothers to practice the steps with one another which the brothers are not impressed by, initially appearing hesitant and dancing with little grace. Their movement is mechanical, showing a lack of poise and their footwork clumsy, again bringing to light their inexperience of the general social practices of Northern America. Their lack of knowledge in regards to the social dance also mirrors their inexperience with women. However, despite the brothers’ initial reaction, they soon become excited at the notion, and with this the movement itself becomes much more exuberant. One of the brothers exclaims ‘I love dancing’ (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 2005, [DVD]). This change in tone is also reflected in the build of musical orchestration which crescendos as the dancing builds, amplifying in excitement. The boys stamp and clap and brawl with each other vying for Milly’s attention.

There is a clear competition once the concept of being with a woman is introduced, the tension climaxing with one of the brothers going to hit another. However, Milly breaks up the action and the brothers shrug and proceed to dance. The physicality of both their actions and dance movement, which is somewhat wild and uninhibited, suggests to an audience that the boys are uneducated, still restless and unable ‘to express themselves in any manner other than physical’ (Thomas, 1985, p.15). But though still boisterous and outlandish to the cultural norm, this moment where the brothers stop fighting is crucial to the narrative as a whole, demonstrating that the brothers have started to develop and mature emotionally and sexually in their ability to show restraint. The proceedings of this sequence also foreshadow the events of the ‘Barn Raising’, which is perhaps one of the most celebrated numbers in the entire musical.

Within the arrangement of ‘Goin’ Courtin’’, Milly also introduces the concept of the court dance. The song is in a ¾ rhythm which is very typical of the Minuet, a seventeenth century dance of French origin designed for two people (Sadie, 2001, The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians). The music has a gentle and lilting quality that is representative of the light heartedness of the theme, and the steps are genre specific with turns, gallops and pas de basques, all typical of the seventeenth century dance. The illustrious ‘Barn Raising’ sequence also derives much of the movement from social dance forms, though it is somewhat stylised, based on Kidd’s own movement language.

Kidd’s choreographic style demonstrates a tension in the body which is particularly noticeable in the townsmen, where the posture is very upright. This breadth across the chest portrays a sense of masculinity and self-importance and is also true of the brothers’ physicality. This being said, there is slightly more freedom in the brothers’ torsos, which could be reminiscent of their coarseness and uncouthness. Within the number Kidd has choreographed a familiar motif that is repeated throughout, and elaborated upon by each suitor, in order to outdo the opponent. The movements build in athleticism with impressive tour en l’airs, axel jumps and the incorporation of gymnastic moves such as flips and handsprings, all of which display the men’s masculinity.

The choreography of this film created a new type of dance style - athletic ballet and moves that were specifically suited to each character - that was later seen in the work of other choreographers, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest dance sequences ever filmed. (Leblanc, 2011, [blog])

In the ‘Barn Raising’ sequence the dancers initially perform a country dance, a social dance in which couples dance together in a long ways set. It is usual for the men to form one line and for the women to form the second. ‘Social dances can be danced with a variety of partners and still be led and followed in a relaxed, easy atmosphere’ (Blair, 1994, p.65). Kidd adapts the idea of the long ways set in order to convey the theme with the sequence essentially connoting a battle. The townsmen and women form two lines with the brothers forming a third line on the opposing side to the townsmen. This creates the sense of a conflict, which is how the piece culminates, with a huge fight at the end in which the barn they have all come to raise is destroyed. The destruction of the barn establishes that the women are the objects of the men’s desires, and that the intention is not to come together as a community to raise a barn, but to win a woman’s affection. This is illustrated further by the women being placed in the centre of the space between the two lines of men. Whilst every effort is made by the brothers to avoid a fight in the actual ‘Barn Raising’, they do relent and engage with the townsmen showing that they still have a way to go in becoming mature and socialised males in society.

“Then the three boys will cut in, take three girls away, then two more boys will cut in and take three more girls away, and so forth. Eventually it will reach a point of anger and competition” (Silverman, 1996, p.191)

The dexterity of each man is highlighted through the cinematography, for example in one section ‘the angle of the camera was raised too, to show the athletic prowess of the boys to better advantage’ (Silverman, 1996, p.193). The boys dance on narrow beams in order to impress the women, performing dangerous athletic feats made more spectacular by the added height from the camera. The competitiveness of the sequence is very much a physical display of masculinity, which coincides with the idea of the alpha male. This concept is primitive in essence, portraying the already established chief objective of attaining a mate through a startling display of strength and agility. The competition also arguably acts as a catalyst for later events. For example, had the boys not entered the competition, they would not have won the girls and subsequently gone into the town to kidnap them. It is therefore arguable that the ‘Barn Raising’ sequence plays a vital role in the progression of the narrative.

A polecat is a solitary creature that remains inactive during the winter months. ‘The Lonesome Polecat’ number is thus aptly named relating to the seven brothers and reflecting the sobriety of their mood. The sequence, though not conventional in the sense of the traditional musical dance number, still carries considerable weight and contributes to the narrative of the plot. The number precedes one of the most major development points in the plot, where the brothers make the decision to go in to the town and kidnap the townswomen. The dance in this number is not customary in the sense that numbers such as ‘Goin’ Courtin’’ and the ‘Barn Raising’ are, though Kidd has used effective cinematography and carefully choreographed movement to convey a theme.

Because the song was a dreamy lament, the thoughts of the boys should not be interrupted, therefore Donen should not allow for a single cut throughout the course of “Lonesome Polecat.” The director would have to shoot it in one take (Silverman, 1996, p.194).

The song itself is quite sombre in tone and of a lyrical quality, in order to denote the brothers’ melancholy at being away from the women; this is contrasted by the dynamics of the axe thudding against the wood they are chopping. The brothers’ movement is naturally slow and their focus distant, which is demonstrative of a dreamy melancholic state, showing that their focus is not on the task at hand but on the girls. Though the movement is quite soft and dreamlike, the repetition of the swinging of the axe could be interpreted as a build-up of restlessness which reaches a climactic point when the brothers decide to kidnap the girls. A poignant example of this is where there is a shift in dynamic, and the axe is swung more aggressively for just two beats, before the brothers return back to their weary state. Performed in the woods, the snow highlights the isolation of the brothers from society, and the lethargy in the movement further highlights the isolation they are feeling. There is a small section of dance performed by Matt Mattox who played Caleb Pontipee. The movement consists of turns and has a very downward feel, with knee bends and pulses which again coincide with the swinging of the axe. The axe falls on the downward beat which physicalizes the feeling of being down. Through this number an audience learns that the brothers’ emotional needs have matured and that they are no longer content to be alone, requiring female company. The line “A man can't sleep when he sleeps with sheep” (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 2005, [DVD]), which according to interviews raised many concerns with censors, does carry some sexual undertones, which reinforces the brothers’ development and sexual maturity from naïve young boys to men.

This combination of athleticism and comedy epitomizes Kidd’s overall choreographic style. For his work, including film and stage productions of Finian’s Rainbow, Guys and Dolls, Can-Can and The Band Wagon, Kidd drew from the vocabularies of ballet, modern, social dance and acrobatics. But above all, his choreography stemmed from realistic movements and gestures. (Straus, 2012, Michael Kidd)

Following the ideas established by choreographers such as Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille, pioneers of the integrated musical, Kidd created dances that moved the narrative forward and gave further insight in to characters. Most importantly Kidd put the story first and communicated it through the dancing which is why the dance is effective and plays a significant role in the narrative as a whole. Through the dance numbers the audience see the brothers’ develop and grow as individuals, displaying their masculinity and progression from young, uncivilised boys to maturity, the musical climaxing with a wedding between the brothers and their sweethearts. Where Seven Brides for Seven Brothers differs from other integrated musicals of the time is the way in which dance contributes to the narrative as a whole. Sequences in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers act as a device for moving on plot or in fact are a significant plot point in themselves. For example numbers such as the ‘Barn Raising’ and ‘Lonesome Polecat’ which act as catalysts for later events. It is therefore reasonable to conclude in an evaluation of dance as narrative that Kidd’s choreography is successful in communicating themes and the plot line perhaps being one of the reasons why the musical has experienced such vast success.

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