Fabulous Nicholas Brothers

fabulous-nicholas-brothersLast night at Bristol’s Watershed we went to see The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers:

Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at Film Forum in New York, presents a unique compilation tribute to the greatest dancers of the 20th century the Nicholas Brothers, featuring a collage of rarely seen home movies, photographs and film clips.

It was — the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers were — amazing. I perhaps use that adjective too much, my enthusiasms lace my writing with ‘I loved’ and ‘brilliant’ and other such encomiums so that perhaps they lose some meaning. But little I have ever experienced compares to the feeling of pure joy that dance can grant, particularly as embodied by Fayard and Harold Lloyd Nicholas. Before Bruce Goldstein began, they started with this clip, ‘Lucky Number’ (1936):

Throughout their career, in addition to the jaw-dropping virtuosity of their movements, there is a joy in dance and in dancing with each other that is a gift to watch. It fills you up as you watch it, together with awe that such things might be done.

I will also note that this format, of talk interspersed with clips, from someone as knowledgeable and personable as Bruce Goldstein who knew the brothers personally, was awesome. He had loads of footage from the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers’ own home videos including some of their unique film of the Cotton Club performances, which rendered it incredible.  You are sorry you missed it.

Anyway. You take all of this, the very best and the most beautiful of talent, and you set it in Jim Crow America. This ensures the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers are billed most of their lives as a ‘specialty act’ (though usually at the top of the bill). I think for all I have read, watched, wrestled with, this exposed an entirely new view of how damaging Jim Crow was. How crazy it was.

Absolutely batshit crazy.

There’s Pie Pie Blackbird. Crazy. Immense talent to be found singing and dancing about the master’s ‘blackbird pie’.

As a reference to master sleeping with his slaves, it hardly seems veiled at all. And so it is that here, the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers in their 1932 debut get called little pickinninies.

Wonderful without reservations is their appearance in the 1935 All Coloured Vaudeville Movie — and look at that city background, this is really an urban art after all, not one tied to the plantation south, but to Harlem, to Chicago, to the places that beckoned towards freedom and equality (though still have yet to grant it). Fayard is performing in his characteristic three piece suit — he wore it at almost all times (there’s home footage of him wearing it at the tennis courts, on the beach), a fashion statement against the indignities and disrespect of Jim Crow, and I love him for it:

Yet so many of these clips make me feel Jim Crow viscerally. After a rather saccharine display of white doo-wop and the (rather good don’t you know) Glen Miller band, there is the joy and virtuosity of the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers and the equally fabulous Dorothy Dandridge (who married Harold, how did I not know?). Carefully orchestrated so the whole section is separate from the white musicians, able to be cut entirely for Southern audiences — a prime reason the Nicholas Brothers would always perform self-contained ‘numbers’ rather than roles.

I found this separateness physically painful to watch, which sat strangely beside the absolute joy of the performance itself. But more bewildering were these two clips, the first the 1934 ‘Minstrel Man’ from Kid Millions

Apart from it being cool that Lucille Ball is in this, I sat wondering in what insane ideological space the whole of America was in to make such a musical number possible, such plunging necklines and singing about loving a minstrel man when Black men were being lynched in the South for even looking the wrong way at a white woman.

Their number from Tin Pan Alley (1940) is even crazier:

I couldn’t stop thinking about Emmet Till through the whole of this damn number. What the actual fuck. Never in a million years could I have imagined such a thing in 1940. In struggling to make sense of it, I think a partial answer is that the category of youth allowed Harold Nicholas to be non-threatening enough for ‘Minstrel Man’, and the category of ‘performing slave’ to be non-threatening enough for Tin Pan Alley (and the absence of sexual innuendo or physical contact). And yet. It doesn’t really explain it to my satisfaction.

Nothing does. Think of Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939: Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees. The two performances together somehow make white power and violence even more terrifying in ways I am unable to understand. Perhaps it is the impossibility of reconciling these two things that is the most terrifying, how do you fight what is impossible to understand?

World War II would start to move change along again, Fayard would be drafted into the Jim Crow Army’s laundry brigade.

The Pirate (1948), with Gene Kelley, was the first film where Black and white dancers interacted together, as something like equals (where Gene Kelley, who is a superb dancer, is struggling to keep up in fact).

Still the brothers’ speaking roles were cut from the final film, they remained listed as a specialty act.

Bruce Goldstein writes of all those they influenced:

The dancer’s dancers, their fans have included Gene Kelly, who teamed up with them in The Pirate; Bob Fosse and Gregory Hines, whose first acts were modelled on them; ballet legends George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov; Michael Jackson, who once had Fayard as a dance coach; and Fred Astaire, who named their Stormy Weather ‘staircase’ number the greatest of all musical sequences.

Yet watching this talk I was struck by how much better all of those dancers and all of their performances could have been in a world without racism, where the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers could have found a rightful respect and a rightful place in musicals and movies. The leading roles they deserved. The space to further develop their art. Instead they moved to Paris. After four years Fayard moved home, because home is home, you know? No one should have to leave home to feel like a human being. No one should have to choose between performing with his brother or being treated like a human being. Harold had to, chose the second for a time. Remained in Paris. Ended up coming home to be with his brother.

Here they are reunited at the Hollywood Palace in 1965. Fayard is 51.

How wonderful they are. How angry I remain at this larger context and history.

Finally to end, and to end on the wonderful just as the talk did, the most wonderful routine of all (of all!) from Stormy Weather, which we are lucky enough to have tickets to see on the big screen on Sunday!

I am going to learn to tap dance. I will not be good, but perhaps I might come to express some of my joy with my feet in such a way…

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