It was the only time my mother actively encouraged me to skip school or, rather, ballet school, for reasons other than health. “If you want to be a dancer, you must see this film. It’s as important for your education as your classes.”
As a child, more than anything in the world, I wanted to be a dancer. More than anything else in the world, I loved music, so getting my body to be at one with it in an expression of joyous harmony represented for me the ultimate achievement and boundless happiness. The physical world made perfect by pulsating to the harmony of music.
The moment I could hold a pencil, I drew ballet dancers. When I lost my first tooth, I asked the Tooth Fairy for records of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. I spent hours in my room, listening to Stravinsky’s Firebird, and staging a mental ballet full of colour and thrill. I played Prokofiev’s Cinderella so often, I scratched the record. Even now, whenever I hear it, my auditory memory expects to hear the hiccups of the needle at specific points, and part of me is surprised when the music plays smoothly.
I begged and hassled my mother to send me to ballet school, but we could not afford it. Finally, at the age of eleven or twelve, I was accepted by the Nice Conservatoire. And so began a strenuous, painful and humiliating weekly class. My body was at odds with ballet. I was too stiff, too clumsy and just the wrong shape. Inside, I felt fast, light and agile, but I was trapped in this chunky box that was my body. Only last year, an osteopath dissolved over thirty years of gnawing regret and sense of failure. “You have short tendons,” he said. “You were born that way. You could never have been flexible. There is nothing you could have done.” Strange as it may sound, it was as though he removed a rucksack full of bricks off my back, and gave me permission to stand up straight.
My mother has always loved U.S. musicals, and instilled the same love into me at a very early age. Living in Italy and France, we would sit together and watch them whenever they happened to be on television, in black and white, with most of the songs dubbed into Italian and French. My mother, who had seen most of them on the silver screen and in the original English, would provide a running commentary on the real colours of the set and costumes. Afterwards, she would often sing me the songs in English. I sang songs from South Pacific, The King and I and Carousel throughout primary school (yes, Rodgers & Hammerstein were my mother’s favourites).
I loved ballet, but what really filled me with unadulterated, bank-bursting joy, was tap. I would push brass drawing pins into the heels and toes of my shoes, and try clicking rhythmical patterns on the tiled kitchen floor. Sadly for me, tap classes were not an option. No one really learnt to tap in those days. It was then considered a thing of the past, that had gone out of fashion with the waning of the MGM musical.
I remember walking into the kitchen, one day after school, and my mother looking up from the TV listings magazine. “An American in Paris is on television, tomorrow afternoon,” she said. It was afternoon at the Conservatoire, but the excitement in her voice promised a highly desirable alternative to yet another humiliating session with our ballet teacher, a claw-footed Madame who poked the end of her stick into our knees if we failed to lock them hermetically, and reserved her rare smiles for the one and only boy in our class.
And so, the following afternoon, we sat staring into the small black and white television, swept away by that brand of magic only Hollywood and MGM alchemy could manifest. Luckily, this time, although the dialogue had been dubbed, the songs had been kept in English. My mother did her best to help me imagine the vibrant colours in the ballet sequence. “If you could only see this in colour, on a large screen!” she would exclaim, excited but powerless. I was charmed by Gene Kelly’s shrewd yet heartfelt smile and life-affirming dancing, mesmerised by the imaginative and inspiring choreography, engrossed by (unusually for a Hollywood musical) a good storyline, entranced by Leslie Caron’s versatility in ‘Embraceable You’… And utterly bewitched by the George Gershwin’s happy and yet hauntingly wistful music.
To this day, together with Ziegfeld Follies and Broadway Melody (1940), An American in Paris remains my all-time favourite film musical. It is a masterpiece. In spite of a French schooling and a degree in French literature, I can only think of Paris landmarks as sets for Gene Kelly’s dance numbers. In my early days as an English as Foreign Language teacher, I would show my classes the Georges Guétary-Gene Kelly ‘S Wonderful scene as a prompt for eliciting English love idioms (“So why are they dancing? How are they feeling?”). On my first trip to New York, I strolled down Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, my heart fluttering at the thought that George Gershwin must have walked along those sidewalks. My two favourite composers are Johann Sebastian Bach and George Gershwin. The former reassures me that the world makes sense; the latter makes me happy to be alive in it.
As I have reached my middle years, I relate to a line in the film, spoken by Georges Guétary. In my opinion, it is one of the best film lines ever. When I joined the Red Room, a year and a half ago, I decided to use it as the quote below my photo. It is spoken at the beginning of the film, as we hear the character of Henry Borel’s voice trying to introduce himself, just before we see his reflection in the drinking fountain mirror.
“I don’t mean to imply that I’m old. After all I am only… What’s the difference? […] Let’s just say that I’m old enough to know what to do with my young feelings.”