One Degree of Eduardo Cansino

2 x 2 Degrees of Eduardo Cansino

How Gene Kelly Made the Pilot for "Oklahoma!"

Ring Around the Rosy at Gene Kelly's Invitation

This website is intended to explore some of the behind-the-scenes relationships and friendships that can be part of the underlying history of a movie musical. Decades-long career paths and chance encounters may lead, in hindsight, to the inspiration and creativity that made a musical turn out the way it did.

For instance . . .

From Isadora Duncan and Agnes de Mille to Dancing Cockroaches

Dancer and choreographer Gemze de Lappe was born February 28, 1925, in Portsmouth, Virginia, the second daughter of a ship designer father (who was a Shakespearean actor in college in Denver) and a mother who studied and taught folk dancing.

The family moved to Baltimore when she was 2, and at age 5 she began to take ballet classes at the Peabody Conservatory. By the time the family moved on to New York City when Gemze was 7½, she recalls, she knew that she could be a dancer there.

In New York, her dance training moved in several directions. She began lessons at Alys Bentley's Studio 61, so-named because it used the largest studio at Carnegie Hall. (Studio 61 became Ballet Arts in 1937.) Her primary instructor there was Yeichi Nimura (later the choreographer in 1946 of "Lute Song", starring Mary Martin and a little-known Yul Brynner), with whom she continued to study until she went on tour with "Oklahoma!" in 1943.

Another important influence was Hans Wiener, an Austrian dancer who taught the freely expressive form of dance he had learned from Mary Wigman in Germany. Gemze took lessons from Wiener at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side. (Wiener later moved to Boston, where he changed his name to Jan Veen after the German occupation of Austria, established a dance school that became the Boston Conservatory Dance Program, and choreographed and danced the ballet, "The Incredible Flutist," that Walter Piston composed for him.)

Soon after arriving in New York, Gemze began lessons with Vivian Giesen, a dancer who had studied with Elizabeth Duncan in Germany. Giesen then referred Gemze to Irma Duncan at the New York School of Duncan Dancers, where Gemze was given a scholarship (very important in the early 1930s) and joined a children's group that performed regularly.

Elizabeth Duncan was the sister of Isadora Duncan, originator of a highly expressive style of interpretive dancing that inspired ballet directors and choreographers in the early years of the 20th century in the U.S. and Europe to move beyond the ritualized movements of "classic" ballet (and, of no small importance, beyond the constraints of the ballet tutu). Isadora had opened a dance school in Grunewald, Germany, in 1903, with Elizabeth acting as director when Isadora danced elsewhere. In 1908, the Grunewald school closed; Elizabeth kept most of the students with her in a new school in Darmstadt, while six of the more experienced girls stayed with Isadora and became called the "Isadorables". Isadora's two children were killed in an auto accident in 1913, and she legally adopted the six girls in 1919; Irma Erich-Grimme was one of three girls who changed their last names to Duncan.

The next critical connection was with Mikhail Fokine, the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer, who was at that time living in a mansion on Riverside Drive and often attended the nearby performances of the Irma Duncan students.

Fokine (whose first name can be translated into English also as Michel or Michael) had come to New York in 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution and after a 20-year career as a teacher and choreographer in Russia and in France with the Ballets Russes organization of impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Foline early in his career began to evolve from the traditional Russian ballet toward a ballet of dramatic story-telling with expressive movements created to draw fully on new sources of music and costumes. He created a ballet on music of Frederic Chopin in 1903, and in 1909 transformed the ballet into "Les Sylphides". At the request of Anna Pavlova in 1905, he created "The Dying Swan" from Camille Saint-Saens' "Swan", which became her signature dance.

All of this was a significant departure from traditional Russian ballet. Isadora Duncan was a friend of Pavlova and further influenced Fokine. When Fokine became choreographer for the Ballet Russes in 1909, he blossomed creatively with the resources Diaghilev made available: music commissioned from Stravinsky and Ravel, designs by Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois, and dancers including Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Tamara Karsavina. (After the Fokine years would come music by Satie and Prokofiev, the choreography of Leonide Massine and George Balanchine, and designs by the artists Braque, de Chirico, Derain, Matisse and Picasso.) Imagine what might have been produced at MGM if there had been a Sergei Diaghilev unit in addition to the Arthur Freed unit!

Gemze de Lappe's mother was aware of Fokine's proximity in New York and arranged an audition. It turned out that Fokine had already noticed her in the Duncan dancers; she was accepted (again with a scholarship) and began her professional training as an adult dancer in a school that encompassed every style of dancing.

By then, Fokine's choreography had grown to include musical numbers for the Shuberts, Charles Dillingham, and the Ziegfeld "Follies". After a few years with Fokine, Gemze joined the Fokine Ballet in summer performances at Lewisohn Stadium, Jones Beach, and Randalls Island for the Shubert organization. Randalls Island included both ballet and performances of Broadway musicals of the 1920s and 30s, including "Roberta" and "Show Boat" (with Fokine choreography). There were no young boys among the Fokine students, so Gemze and two other girls danced the boys' parts as well, she recalls.

The summer programs meshed with Gemze's high school years at the High School of Music and Art, where she studied voice, violin and art. She graduated in 1939 in the first graduating class. (The school had been founded in 1936 as a priority of New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, who had been raised as a cornet player by his U.S. Army bandmaster father.) She hadn't thought about Broadway as an option for her ballet talents, but, while attending Hunter College in 1943, she ran into Jerome Whyte, who had been dance captain for the shows at Randalls Island. Whyte, a stage manager for Broadway musicals since the mid-1930s, was then production manager for the Theatre Guild, which was preparing to produce the show that became "Oklahoma!". He encouraged her to audition, and she was hired.

"Oklahoma!" introduced Gemze to the world of Agnes de Mille, and vice versa. de Mille came to appreciate de Lappe's combination of strong dancing and dramatic abilities as an actor. Eventually, de Mille would create ballet roles for her, and de Lappe would become (and still is) a choreographic director in restaging productions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals with de Mille choreography ("Oklahoma!", "Carousel"), and de Mille's choreography for Lerner and Loewe's "Paint Your Wagon".

Gemze de Lappe began in the September 1943 national tour of "Oklahoma!" as the "Child with Pigtails". (As an innovative business move, the Theatre Guild planned a national touring company of "Oklahoma!" as part of the initial production, which opened on Broadway on March 31.) Gemze understudied Laurey in the Dream Ballet, and eventually moved up to that part. She continued with the show when the company was sent intact to the London West End in 1947 – another first for a Broadway show, she notes.

Gemze performed the role of Louise in restagings of "Carousel" in the late 1950s. In 1952, de Mille invited her to audition for the female lead dancer in the original Broadway production of "Paint Your Wagon", and they worked together on the choreography for that part. James Mitchell became the lead male dancer. Although dancing was a major part of the show, this was dropped entirely in the 1969 movie. (To see James Mitchell in this period, view "Oklahoma!" (1955; Curly in the Dream Ballet) or his dancing with Cyd Charisse in the "Desert Song" segment in the 1954 Sigmund Romberg biopic, "Deep in My Heart".)

"Paint Your Wagon" was not Gemze's first role in the original cast of a Broadway show, however. In 1951, Jerome Robbins was hiring dancers for his choreography in that year's Rodgers and Hammerstein production, "The King and I". Robbins had studied with Yeichi Nimura, as had de Lappe, and thus knew that she could do the kind of unusual movements – including crawling on the floor and growling like a lion – he planned for his choreography of King Simon of Legree in the ballet sequence, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas". Gemze was the only person auditioned for the part, and later was asked by Robbins to dance the role in the 1956 movie.

(Yeichi Nimura also played an incidental part in the chain of connections that led Yul Brynner to "The King and I". In her autobiography, Mary Martin wrote that she and her husband, producer Richard Halliday, had become acquainted with Brynner on a friend's advice, and subsequently recommended him for his part as Mary Martin's husband in "Lute Song", choreographed by Nimura. Five years later, when Rodgers and Hammerstein were finding it difficult to cast the right person for the King, Martin and Halliday remembered Brynner and once again recommended him.)

Coming out of the 1950s, Gemze married John Carisi, a jazz musician and composer, and had two sons. Peter Carisi-de Lappe, born in 1960, recalls being introduced to dancing and music as the boys grew up, as well as frequent visits with "Aunt" Agnes, and occasionally accompanying Gemze on trips to Europe, where they would meet the Oliviers and other theater acquaintances from London in 1947, or young dancers who would take classes with Gemze. Peter started out wanting to be a scientist, his mother says, but began to study design at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and graduated in 1984 with majors in architecture, computer science, and theatre. He also managed to study art and theater at Smith College, the women's college where Gemze was artist-in-residence for 13 years.

Peter had already been intrigued by computer graphic games as early as 1969, however. He had some television and video experience while at Stuyvesant High School in New York. Then experience with a 3-D computer graphics system in an architecture firm after college led him into computer-based video production in the late 1980s. A series of jobs brought him into contact with Chris Wedge and the digital animators at New York's Blue Sky Studios, which had been established by a group of animators who had made the movie "Tron" in 1982. Peter joined the Blue Sky staff in 1991 and became one of the character animators for the cockroaches in "Joe's Apartment", released in 1996. In particular, he was the lead animator for the musical numbers.

Is "Joe's Apartment" a musical? It has five production numbers: "Garbage in the Moonlight" (a barbership quartet with a seashore chorus line out of a 1940s Miami Beach musical), "Cat Rodeo" (country music with a square dance), "Funky Towel" (a rap number that segues into a Busby Berkeley aquatic sequence from an Esther Williams musical of the early 1950s), "Sewer Surfing" (very California but dark), and "Hold My Feeler" (gospel rock). Except for the graphic improvements made possible by high-power computers and incredibly clever programming, the numbers are in the same genre with "Be Our Guest" in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" or "Dance of the Hours" in Disney's 1940 "Fantasia".

Peter's work on the five musical sequences came from his 30 years or so of experience and training. But, more specifically, he consulted regularly with his mother while he was working out the choreography.

 

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