“An Art Unscrolling in Time”: An Interview with Mindy Aloff

Posted by on January 31st, 2010 at 12:06 PM

As promised: my interview with the dance critic Mindy Aloff, author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation (Disney Editions, 2009). I learned a lot from her book, and enjoyed interviewing her for the Journal. The interview was conducted via email over the past couple of weeks.

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How did Hippo in a Tutu come about? Was the book commissioned by Disney, and, if so, what was it like working for them? Did they play an active editorial role or did the company take a hands-off approach?

The book was the brainchild of one editor at Disney Editions: the choreographer Christopher Caines. In working on books for the company, he realized that, although there were a number concerning music in Disney films, there was nothing about dance. He contacted me because I’d written about Disney dance and animation, in 1992, in the weekly unsigned Dance column I filed for several years at The New Yorker. In that column, I weighed the way Disney and Warner Bros. treated dance and concluded that Disney treated it far more respectfully and accurately than Warner’s. Christopher already had the title Hippo in a Tutu when he – and, eventually, Wendy Lefkon, the editorial director of Disney Editions – approached me about doing the book. And he served as editor on the project.

However, insofar as the content is concerned, I had free reign. There was absolutely no censorship of any sort. In fact, when I made my three trips to the studio archives in Burbank and Glendale, I was treated with tremendous consideration and thoroughness. And many, many Disney historians, performers, directors, aficionados bent over backwards to meet with me and help. I hope that I name them all in the acknowledgements, for it truly took a village to bring together all the complex themes and information that the story required.

How much did you already know about Disney and dance when you started this project?

This is the subject of the entire introduction. The bottom line: I knew and loved animated Disney features from the time I was a small child, and my own daughter and I happily watched them as well. I knew them as a member of the general audience. As far as the technology of animation is concerned, I knew almost nothing and had to learn that on the job.

Obviously you learned a lot about both Disney and animation by writing this book. Did you learn anything about dance?

Delightful question. Yes, I did. I learned how very hard it is to try to discuss choreography for a readership whose background (or even interest) in dancing cannot be presumed. You see, most people go with William Butler Yeats: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” They take it for granted that his question is rhetorical: i.e., that it’s impossible to know.

But a dance critic or historian approaches it as a real question. And the answer is: See at least two different casts. To learn, from the point of view of the audience, what makes the identity of a given dance is a heuristic process, consisting of induction and experiment. For some dances, that can take the better part of one’s life. The carrot is the kind of satisfaction one has in solving certain puzzles over and over, but differently each time, because the performances will be different. Not all dances, ballets, are constructed to withstand such constant and intense scrutiny, for even the tragic ones, such as Swan Lake or Balanchine’s La Valse or Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch, or Paul Taylor’s Last Look, must give sufficient pleasure to make the repeated scrutiny of the darkness in them bearable, as well as sufficient room for generations of new performers to contribute something of themselves to the work, so that the dances live anew. The advantage of trying to make sense of any kind of dance on film, animated or live-action, is that the performances are locked in. You may discover new things about the picture with repeated viewings, but the information you’re dealing with will always be the same.

In the book you distinguish between choreography and dance. How is this useful for thinking about animation? How do we distinguish “dance” from “movement” and bodily motion?

I also distinguish in the book between a dance proper and a “dance” in the sense of an animated scene, in which movement and bodily motion – elements of dancing – are connected by a larger design and coordinated, in the case of Disney films, moment by moment with a musical score. That is, I distinguish between choreography, in the sense of steps and gestures that are linked by a design, which is everywhere visible and nowhere palpable (as in the discussion of the parlor dancing in the 1949 featurette The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), and “choreography,” in the sense of images and actions that are linked that way (as in the “I Wan’na Be Like You” number in The Jungle Book of 1967).

This seems important to me because few animated films in the 21st century attempt choreography in either sense. Dancing is a reference point, an icon plucked from a rebus, not an art unscrolling in time. Animators don’t seem to enjoy dance as a serious human activity for moment-by-moment pleasure and/or regard. It’s affiliated with escapism, daydreaming, neurosis.

There are some notable exceptions, however. In the case of feature-length animated films, I’d cite the astonishing “insane dance” of a soldier on a battlefield, occasioned by flying bullets and set to Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp Minor, in Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman’s animated documentary of the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon. There are the simple yet expressive dance scenes in Nina Paley’s astounding one-woman film, Sita Sings the Blues. And there is an adorable little cabaret number for the title characters of Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville. This list is far from exhaustive. Still, for the historic Disney animated films, as for those of Max Fleischer’s studio, dance and music made the world go round. The characters on screen danced as part of the joy of life, and the audiences danced for pleasure. In 2010, we don’t live in that kind of culture, and most of us don’t dance. My word, we don’t even walk! It’s different, and our films, in all genres, reflect that difference.

In your book you talk about the origins of the word “cartoon” to mean a drawn design that “provides a kind of blueprint made to underlie and therefore guide the creation of an image in another medium – oil painting, tapestry, mosaic mural, woodcarving. In this sense, a ‘cartoon’ is not the finished product but an intermediate stage on the way to something else.” This helps explain, you say, why cartooning remains saddled with a certain kind of lowly reputation. Has thinking and writing about cartooning affected your approach to dance? Are there things that cartoon and animation studies have to teach students of dance?

Both animation and theatrical dancing are labor-intensive activities that benefit from a benevolent visionary at the helm. Animation today could learn much from what Walt Disney arranged for his staff to do: to visit the ballet and sketch the dancers. And dancing could benefit from Disney’s appreciation of melodic, song-based music with a clear pulse as a floor for dancing. Unfortunately, the simple pleasures of dancing that asks the performer to use a comprehensible vocabulary of steps and expressive gestures, which relate moment by moment to music, are exactly what most students of both animation and choreography want to evade now. Balanchine, in fact, once wrote about how dancing could learn about the elaboration of fantasy from cartoons. Artists globally, though, don’t want what these historical animated films are equipped to teach – joy as the text and complication as the subtext; instead, they want complication, edge, as the text and more complication as the subtext. I think the culture is going to have to change for either group to learn from one another, and I just don’t see that happening in my lifetime. Perhaps a few individuals will take this as a challenge and prove me wrong. I certainly hope so.

Before reading your book, I had never considered dancing in Disney movies, even though I’ve watched lots of Disney shorts and full-length features. Now it seems as if dance is everywhere in Disney’s work. Why is dance such an underappreciated aspect of the Disney canon?

Actually, it hasn’t been as underappreciated as you might think. In the 1930s and 40s, dance and movie magazines and newsletters carried some stories about dancing in Disney; there are serious comments in print by Edwin Denby, Lincoln Kirstein, and George Balanchine. Unfortunately, the publications no longer exist. But, then, in the 1930s and 40s, there was a lot of dancing in movies generally, especially in Hollywood movies.

In more recent times, the dance critic Arlene Croce wrote a magisterial analysis of Fantasia (“Visualizations”) for The New Yorker. John Culhane’s landmark volume on the making of Fantasia is filled with information about dancing in that picture. Alastair Macaulay, the current chief dance critic of The New York Times, wrote a brilliant essay called “Disney Dances,” which Robert Gottlieb just republished in his mammoth anthology Reading Dance. Deirdre McMahon, the Irish historian, wrote a lovely story about Disney dancing. John Canemaker, the dean of Disney animation historians, has conducted several on-camera interviews with the wonderful dancer Marge Champion, about her youthful experiences as a live-action reference model for the Disney studio during the 1930s; his many landmark books on Disney often discuss dancing as well. In several landmark essays on the Silly Symphonies, the animation historian Ross Care discusses, with authority, aspects of dance.

The animators discuss techniques for animating the dancing figures, beginning with the Disney animator’s bible: Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s The Illusion of Life. It’s just that no one (at least to my knowledge) has happened to devote an entire book to the subject. I can tell you, though, without those previous appreciations, my book couldn’t be written. In this field, I stand on the shoulders of giants.

The history of dance in Disney has a sociological angle, of course. Disney films depict all kinds of social groups, albeit through the lens of fantasy and anthropormorphism. Were there images or scenes that you found distasteful or uncomfortable? What should we make, for example, of the crows in Dumbo? Is there a reason that Song of the South receives relatively little attention in your study? Did Walt Disney himself embrace racial stereotypes, or is that an unfair way of framing the question?

As I say quite directly in the book, I was given complete access to the archives, and I also read many histories and memoirs, including Neal Gabler’s recent biography of Walt Disney, and I did not find even a hint of aggressive racism. Passive or semi-conscious racism is a somewhat different matter. I explored it to the extent of including in Hippo some troubling frames, sized so the reader could really see them, from the live-action reference film of the African American singer and comedienne Hattie Noel, one of several individuals whose body, dancing, and/or personality went into the Fantasia ballerina Hyacinth Hippo.

Alas, the Hattie Noel film, itself, seems to have disappeared, and everyone connected with it is dead. We don’t know, and we may never know, the reason(s) why she looks to be in considerable pain or, if she was truly hurting, whether the pain was emotional or physical. Speculation is tempting, but it has no basis whatsoever in fact. The best I could do was to gather all the information I could concerning the trajectory of her career and her life and sketch out her biography for the book – the first biographical summary of this performer in print, I believe. (To find information about her later years, I was privileged to have the selfless help of the Los Angeles-based composer and researcher Alexander Rannie. Alex’s many contributions to Hippo in a Tutu – as a researcher, fact-checker, and general morale-builder – were crucial, and I’ve spelled them out in the acknowledgements.)

It is the case that the imagery of African Americans in the Disney films from the 1930s and ’40s looks insensitive to our, um, “enlightened” eyes. I put “enlightened” in quotation marks because many of us in this country have our own blind spots today: racial profiling for security on airplanes, for instance; or issues concerning the stresses on social services resulting from an influx of immigrants, legal and illegal, into established communities. But we can’t see these obstacles to full enlightenment, because they’re, well, blind spots. Every era suffers from them.

If you’re looking for racism in the early cartoons, you can find it in those produced by any of the various studios during the 1920s and early 30s, especially. And you can certainly find it in many live-action Hollywood features from that period. The way African Americans were treated by Hollywood – even stars, like The Nicholas Brothers and Lena Horne – was horrendous. But, in my experience – which is not by any means vast, simply mine – there are fewer objectionable racial images in the Disney films than in many, many others that are no longer in the public eye. I’ve seen racism in cartoons that made me ill. Disney produced one of them, and it was not about African Americans but rather about Jews. In the original version of the 1933 short Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf dresses up as a Jewish pedlar in order to fool the pigs into opening their door to him. As Neal Gabler recounts in his biography of Walt Disney, Jewish groups protested it vigorously, and Disney immediately pulled the picture from circulation and reconceived the character’s disguise.

To address the two specifics you mention:

In the matter of the crows in Dumbo, who perform a marvelous music-and-dance number to cheer up the title character, as I say in the book, I’m with John Canemaker and Michael Barrier. As the latter puts it in his history Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age: “The crows are stereotypical blacks, but rescued from embarrassment by the immense good humor that suffuses [animator Ward] Kimball’s animation, the voices, and the crows’ song ‘When I See an Elephant Fly.’” The crows, in fact, are the only characters Dumbo meets in his travails who are on his side! This also gives me the opportunity to mention that a very talented pair of West Coast-based, African American hoofers named The Jackson Brothers served as the live-action references for all five crows. They were paid the same peanuts that Marge Champion received as the live-action reference for Snow White (around $10 per day of work). As for the voices: the lead crow’s belonged to the white singer Cliff Edwards (also the voice for Pinocchio‘s Jiminy Cricket) and the rest belonged to members of the African American Hall Johnson Choir.

Why didn’t I write about Song of the South? Well, why didn’t I write about Mary Poppins – which, like Song of the South, combines animated and live-action dancing? Perhaps that’s a subject for a historian of animation to tackle. I would like to say, however, that the performances in the 1946 Song of the South (a film made completely unavailable during the Michael Eisner period at Disney but which I had seen as a child and which I was able to revisit by way of a Japanese laser disc) are exemplary, and that of African American actor James Baskett, as Uncle Remus, is great. In fact, Walt Disney was instrumental in getting Mr. Baskett a special Oscar for his work on that film. Of course, the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” which Uncle Remus sings, also won an Oscar. (Louis Armstrong recorded it on a 1968 LP called Disney Songs the Satchmo Way.)

In many respects Walt Disney is a larger than life figure. How would you characterize his relationship to dance as an art form? Did you come away from this project with a more sympathetic view of one of the masterminds of American popular culture than you had when you started? Who were some of the other folks at Disney who decisively shaped how dance was portrayed in Disney films?

Neal Gabler is really the go-to guy on Walt Disney’s biography. It did surprise me to learn from his book that Walt and his wife, Lillian, took a few ballroom dance classes during the early 1930s, though not that Walt wrote to the teacher that he thought of himself as “a lousy dancer.” (The Goofy short How to Dance, from 1953, seems to be reflective of W.D., especially in the moment when Goofy’s two left feet are revealed as literal, but it also might represent many of the men who worked in the studio.) Nor did I know that Walt was an avid polo player for a time (that takes a lot of guts), or that the period during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he began to develop the plans for Disneyland, was a moment when he felt uprooted from the animation department and restless for a change.

That restlessness is an indication, I think, of the artist in him. His genius wasn’t for drawing or any craft in particular, but rather for script development and creative provocation of the artists he employed. He represented the audience in a way that I think may be unique in American movies – he was very much in touch with that childlike capacity for wonder and curiosity at once. And on reading many of the transcripts for story conferences in which he participated, I can say that he was able to implement that capacity in terms of the tiniest details. He understood how to identify talent (visual, musical, performing, technological) and to showcase it, an impresario’s gift. I was particularly touched by his reverence for the inspirational artist Mary Blair; he just adored her sense of color, and even though her artist’s innovations couldn’t ever be fully realized in his films, which had to appeal to a mass audience, he held onto her. She seems to have been a kind of Jiminy Cricket-conscience for him.

And he took a lot artistic risks. Snow White was predicted by many people to be a folly, but he staked everything on it – and won. And Fantasia, his tremendous effort to claim the prestige of high art for animation, was, indeed, a folly for decades. Yet he stood by it. The bitter animators’ strike of 1941 seems to have broken something in him, but he went on. His testimony at HUAC and his naming of names associated with the strike may account for a large part of the resentment toward him, even now. People who named names were never completely forgiven within their fields.

I suppose, though, that the biggest surprises for me were, first, how many high-art practitioners considered Disney animation to be the last word in cutting-edge art during the 1930s, and, second, how important Walt’s brother, Roy, was to the health of the Disney enterprise. Roy wasn’t an artist: he took care of the business side, and he did so devotedly. When Walt took those wild risks, it was Roy who found the support for them to fly. The big lesson for me was that no artist in the moving picture industry should try to make a go of it without a devoted sibling or someone close who will, so to speak, keep the visionary’s eyes focused.

As for Walt Disney and dance as an art form: he valued ballet as a prestigious example of motion throughout his adulthood and was clearly open to Latin dancing and swing in the 1940s. It was motion he loved through and though – motion with a periodic rhythm, which told a story. Not only did his animated films contain dance scenes referring to many different traditions and techniques, but his television shows also featured dance – especially, in the 1950s, ballet.

Among the other Disneyeans who contributed to the dance elements of the films: Marge Champion not only served as the live-action reference model for Pinocchio‘s Blue Fairy; for Snow White’s dancing Dopey, as well as Snow White, herself; and for the ballerina blossom of Fantasia’s “Nutcracker Suite” and the motion of Hyacinth Hippo in that movie’s “Dance of the Hours,” but she also choreographed the corps de ballet of the elephants in Fantasia and suggested the Undine ballet that Balanchine had made for The Goldwyn Follies as the satirical target for Hyacinth Hippo’s entrance. Among the animators, Art Babbitt – to whom the young Marge Champion was briefly married and who is especially well-known for his work on Fantasia’s “Chinese Dance,” performed by mushrooms – had a special feeling for dance movement. Jack Kinney contributed some wonderful things in his work on shorts of the 1940s and 1950s. Animator Jules Engel – a true devotee of concert dance (especially the work of Balanchine, Graham, and Cunningham) – offered invaluable contributions to the dance passages of Fantasia.

Did I come away from the research of this subject with more sympathy for Disney than when I went in? No, because I went in with sympathy. But I came away from the research informed.

What are your two or three favorite dance-in-Disney sequences, and why?

The amazing sophistication of reference to two Fred Astaire pictures in the Silly Symphony Cock O’the Walk; the inexhaustible transformations of The Skeleton Dance; the storytelling choreography, with accuracy in every dance detail, in the van Tassels’ Halloween dance in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the sly references to ballet embedded in the pedestrian movement for every principal character in that picture; the virtuoso relationship between text and subtext of the dances in Pinocchio; the blood-stirring rhythms of the “Jesusita” section of The Three Caballeros; the independently imagined imagery of the “Nutcracker Suite” section of the 1940 Fantasia; the completely satisfying ballet of “Dance of the Hours,” also from Fantasia. And the humanity of the humor in Goofy’s How to Dance.

How have dancers and other dance critics responded to your book? Are their folks who find your fusion of popular culture studies and dance studies distasteful?

Dancers who have spoken to me seem to like it, and dance critics in England, as well as in the U.S., have written appreciatively, for which I am very grateful. It’s not that they’ve liked everything, but rather than they understood the purpose and point of view of the book; one can’t ask for more than that, to be understood. But most of the reviews and interviews have been by animation historians: they find that Hippo in a Tutu – especially the q&a in it with Marge Champion – fills a useful gap, and they’ve written in very heartening ways.

Now, I have no doubt that some people will find distasteful the fusion of high and low you speak of; I haven’t yet encountered them, but I will.

Do you have any animation related projects in the pipeline?

Nope. You know, the world of animation historians is filled with a galaxy of brains with eidetic memories. Many of them specialize in Disney. Indeed, my daughter, to whom Hippo in a Tutu is dedicated, remembers more shots more exactly than I do, without notes. In the main, though, animation history is a guy’s game. I feel quite privileged to have been accepted into the fold for the time it took to research and write my book, but I have no illusions that I’m now an animation historian, like the many individuals I met who have devoted their adult lives to the subject. The membership card was temporary, but it’s something I’ll always treasure.

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