Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dancer Cyd Charisse Passes On

Dancer and actress Cyd Charisse passed yesterday at the age of 86. The cause was an apparent heart attack.

Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea on March 8, 1922 in Amarillo, Texas. She earned her nickname "Sid" because her older brother couldn't say "Sis." She had been sickly as a child and after a bout with polio took up dancing to regain her strength. When she was 12, while on vacation in Los Angeles, her parents enrolled her in ballet classes. Among her teachers was Nico Charisse. As a teenager she returned to the school to attend full time. It was there that Colonel W. de Basil, then director of the Ballet Russe, saw her dance. He invited her to join the company and she danced under the names Natacha Tulaelis and Felia Siderova (dancers in the Ballet Russe were required to adopt Russian stage names). It was in 1939, while touring with the Ballet Russe in Europe, that she eloped with Nico Charisse. The marriage would end in divorce in 1947, producing a son, Nico.

With World War II the Ballet Russe broke up. She returned to Los Angeles where ballet dancer David Lichine asked her to appear in the film Something to Shout About. The film, released in 1943, gave Charisse her first screen credit, under the name "Lily Norwood." Charisse would make uncredited appearances in the films Mission to Moscow and Thousands Cheer, both in 1943. Thousands Cheer would be her first film with MGM. Choreographer Robert Alton, who had also discovered Gene Kelly, got her signed to the Freed Unit at MGM (the unit responsible for the studio's musicals). She appeared in one more uncredited part in This Love of Mine in 1944 before appearing as Deborah in The Harvey Girls in 1946. It was her first screen credit as Cyd Charisse--"Cyd" a variation in spelling of her childhood nickname, Charisse from her first husband.

For the next several years she would appear in speciality dances in films such as Ziegfeld Follies, Til the Clouds Roll By, and The Kissing Bandit. Her dark haired beauty would find her cast in ethnic roles, such as a Hispanic in Fiesta and as a Polynesian in On an Island With You. Her breakout role would be in the movie Singin' in the Rain, in which she danced with Gene Kelly in the Broadway Melody Ballet. It was thereafter that Cyd Charisse's career reached its height. She played the lead opposite Fred Astaire in the moviesThe Band Wagon and Silk Stockings. She played opposite Gene Kelly in the leading role in both Brigadoon and It's Always Fair Weather.

Unfortunately, the Hollywood musical would decline, resulting in a slowdown in her career. She appeared in dramatic and comedic roles in films such as Party Girl, Five Golden Hours, Something's Got to Give, The Silencers, and Maroc 7. She and husband Tony Martin (whom she married in 1948 and to whom she remained married until her death) developed a cabaret act in the Sixties. She also made guest appearances on television, appearing on such shows as Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O, The Fall Guy, and Frasier.

At the age of 70, Charisse made her Broadway debut in the musical Grand Hotel, which ran from 1989 to 1992. She also appeared on stage elsewhere, in Charlie Girl in London and a summer stock production of Cactus Flower.

Cyd Charisse was quite simply the greatest female dancer in Hollywood history. Trained in ballet, she could perform nearly any dance, from the a pas de deux in Ziegfeld Follies to her sexy dance in Party Girl. She simultaneously combined strength with grace. Fred Astaire once said of her, "When you've danced with her you stay danced with!" Not only was Cyd Charisse a fantastically talented dancer, her classical training offering a stark contrast to Hollywood dancers before her, Charisse also differed from them in other ways. For much of the history of the Hollywood musical female dancers tended to be cute and bouncy, Alice Faye and Vera Ellen being perfect examples. On the other hand, Cyd Charisse was downright sexy, possessed of incredible beauty and long, shapely legs that are often counted as being the greatest to ever grace the big screen. Paticularly when she danced, Cyd Charisse simply oozed sex appeal. No female dancer has ever matched Cyd Charisse in terms of raw talent and exquisite beauty. I very seriously doubt any female dancer ever will. Cyd Charisse was one of a kind.

No comments: