Thursday, February 03, 2011

Bojangles Reconsidered

Back in December, I blogged on Fred Astaire's Bojangles routine in "Swing Time" (1936), see Astaire Shoes, Dec. 5, 2010, and Bojangles in Harlem, Dec. 2, 2010. I stirred clear from the problematic racial questions that Astaire's blackface raises, but I'm happy to see that they were tackled this weekend by Alastair Macaulay, "Astaire the Artist, Even in Blackface," New York Times (Jan. 27, 2011). The article argues convincingly that we should take the routine as a celebration of Bill Robinson and not as a derogatory minstrel show. The NYT article was an additional treat because it included the photo (left) from the shooting of the Bojangles dance. Astaire is here posing on the architectural model of Harlem that was featured in the background of his dance.

I am not a dance or film specialist, so I was glad to have two bibliographic suggestions. In Macaulay's words, "No performer in dance is more refreshing than Astaire. And no better companions to his art exist than the two reissues from the Educational Publisher: “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book” by Arlene Croce (originally from 1972) and “Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films” by John Mueller (1985).

The reason for studying "Swing Time" originally was organizing my 1930s art history seminar, which is moving along into its third week. To be honest, we have spent the first couple of weeks in the late 1910s and 1920s, surveying developments in the American avant-garde focusing on Duchamp's New York, the cult of Manhattan (Joseph Stella, the film Manhatta) and, finally turning to Charles Demuth in order to bring modernity back to Lancaster. Last week, I guest-lectured in "Constructing Sexualities: LGBTIQ Theory, Life and Culture," one of the most popular courses at F&M, and took the class to Washington D.C. to see the controversial "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the National Gallery. The exhibit offered the opportunity to turn our full attention on Demuth, the gay protagonist of Lancaster's modernism. On Saturday, the class goes to the Whitney in New York to see "Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Times." The highlight of this trip for me will be seeing Demuth "My Egypt" in person, as well as taking my wonderful students to the RCA Building, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Radiator Building, the McGraw Hill Building and other Deco treasures.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States