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  • More stars than there are in the heavens will be there! No, not on an M-G-M soundstage for the making of a megamusical, but City Center's stage and Career Transition For Dancers [CTFD] 9th annual gala benefit, Gotta Dance! A Dance Tribute to Hollywood, Monday, October 27th, at 7 P.M. Good news: tickets at "popular prices" are still available.

    Production director, choreographer Randy Skinner of 42nd Street fame guarantees "a very special evening." He says, "Not only are we going to have these movie musical greats together onstage - Cyd Charisse, Esther Williams, Jane Powell, Marge Champion, Fayard Nicholas, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn, Arlene Dahl - as well as such stars as Mary Tyler Moore, Lynn Redgrave, Cythia Gregory, Marni Nixon [the singing voice of so many stellar stars in film musicals], Rosie Perez and Leslie Browne - but also musical numbers saluting the films.

    Just for a bei trotti and pas de deux or two, how about this for an extra added attraction? Several tribute numbers will feature dancers from the Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Les Ballets Grandiva, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute!

    Alexander J. DubÈ is executive director of CTFD, which was founded in 1985 and has offices in New York and Los Angeles. Their mission is to provide services to assist dancers establish new careers when dance is no longer an option. It has awarded over $1.7 million in scholarships and provided more than 32,000 hours of free one-on-one career counseling.

    Ms. Charisse, who has been dancing since childhood, will receive the Movado Dance Award in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the world of dance. She's been seen in such movie musical classics as Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953) and Brigadoon (1954).

    In addition, Baccarat crystal awards will be presented to Fayard Nicholas, half of the legendary dance duo, the Nicholas Brothers; and posthumously to legendary hoofer Donald O'Connor.

    "When you think of movie musicals," says Skinner, "these are among the names that really stand out as the cream of the crop. They gave us so many fantastic hours of incredible entertainment."

    Another award goes to Turner Entertainment, in recognition of their film restoration efforts and keeping movie musicals alive on TV.

    "We're very proud we've helped restore and keep these film musicals alive," says Roger Mayer, Turner Entertainment president. "They are considered treasures of the M-G-M and Warner Bros. libraries that we own. Our restoration project started at M-G-M and has been ongoing for many years. The best musicals made, with few exceptions, were made there, thanks to the wonderful musical unit headed by Arthur Freed. He and Roger Edens recreated Broadway dance onscreen. They also brought out Broadway's best performers, such as Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, choreographers, directors and art directors, such as Vincente Minnelli."

    Mayer says Turner Entertainment is particularly proud of the recent 50th Anniversary release - for the first time on DVD - of the meticulously-restored Singin' in the Rain, which many consider Hollywood's greatest musical.

    Restoration and preservation, which adds to the commerciality of these film classics, depends on the condition of the stored negatives. "Some films don't need a lot of work," says Mayer, "others need a lot. The black and white films, of course, are less challenging. When color enters into the equation, the process can get time-consuming because of fading over time. It depends on the amount of money and time you're willing to spend. We take the work very seriously."

    Some restorations take a year to a year and a half, but, says Mayer, the average is six months. Cost ranges from $100,000 to a million or more.

    The gala, dedicated to CTFD board member and arts patron Caroline H. Newhouse, will feature dance homages to such films as The Red Shoes, Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, West Side Story and Sweet Charity. Adds Skinner, "And to the stars, such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly, who provided so many glorious screen dance moments."

    Skinner has choreographed two world premieres, "Gotta Dance!/Singin' in the Rain Suite," which will feature the young dancers from National Dance Institute dancing to the title tune and "Broadway Rhythm"; and "Horray for Hollywood," which will feature him, Kate Levering [Tony-nominated for the 42nd Street revival; The Music Man revival] and 19 of Broadway's top gypsy tappers from The Producers, Gypsy, Cabaret, Beauty and the Beast and 42nd Street.

    Choreographing numbers for such large ensembles isn't easy, reports Skinner, "but we choreographers have our ways! You use paper and a pencil with a very good eraser for charting your dancers, and that is a great tool when you get everyone in the rehearsal hall. And much credit has to go to the dance assistants."

    His "movie musical vision," reports Skinner, "is his greatest tool as a choreographer. He's watched the screen musicals of the 30s and 40s over and over. "I close my eyes and see pictures and hear sounds and this tells me exactly what I want to do. I've been able to do it since I was a kid. Every director and choreographer has some version of that ability to visualize what they want out of a scene and where they're going to place people. It's a gift."

    Another gala premiere will be "Saturday Night Fever" by choreographer Andy Blankenbuler.

    The program will include the "Big Spender" number from Sweet Charity, performed by an ensemble that includes Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, Elizabeth Parkinson [Tony and Drama Desk nominee for Movin' Out] and Caitlin Carter [late of Chicago; Swing; Ain't Broadway Grand], who's also the gala's artistic chair; a tribute to Carmen Miranda by, yes, of course, Les Ballet Grandiva; "The Cotton Club," a tribute to the Nicholas Brothers by the Williams Brothers [this will be introduced by Maurice Hines and dedicated to his late brother Gregory Hines]; Nicholas and his wife performing "Chattanooga Choo Choo"; and "Appalachian Clog" saluting Seven Brides For Seven Brothers by d'Amboise, who played one of the brothers in the film.

    Robert Mikulski, currently onboard at Aida, is musical director.

    The event has taken a year to plan by a volunteer committee. "It's time consuming to put together such a gala," says Skinner, "because it gets complicated from the organizational standpoint - contacting the celebrities; hoping the date fits into their schedule; then, when they say yes, getting the music prepared and figuring how we're going to get the stars here and in what order they're going to be presenting the numbers.

    "You have to be very careful not to slight anyone," he adds. "If you're going to do a salute to the Hollywood musicals, it certainly helps to have a really committed committee person like Jane Powell [who's in the Sondheim musical Bounce, now at the Kennedy Center]. Not only was she in some of the great dance films, but she's also friends with almost all the stars she worked with."

    Planning so far ahead, adds Skinner, "you hope and pray that as the dates draws closer, everything stays on track. We were truly blessed in that we only lost Chita Rivera, who was one of the first to commit, but who now has a conflict. Also, we badly wanted Ann Miller and Van Johnson to be with us, but personal situations prevented that. Sadly, of course, we lost Donald O'Connor."

    There are other stars on the bill that we, unfortunately, don't see every day: Academy Award winner George Chakiris (West Side Story), Russ Tamblyn, Marge Champion, Fayard Nicholas of the famed Nicholas Brothers team and Esther Williams.

    Honoree Charisse spent her early childhood taking ballet and, using the names Maria Istomina and Felia Sidorova, joined the Ballet Russe at 13. She co-starred in such M-G-M classic musicals as It's Always Fair Weather (1955) and Silk Stockings (1957), the ballet feature, Black Tights(1960; U.K.) and performed an elegant striptease in the opening sequence of the camp spy thriller The Silencers (1966). She got her first name courtesy of her brother, who nicknamed her Sid. She tried to convince her agent to keep the spelling but, fearing it was too masculine, he persuaded her to change the Si to Cy.]

    Skinner, who can boast that he's worked in regional theater with Ms. Charisse and Ann Miller, came to the attention of Gower Champion almost fresh out of college. In 1976, he was appearing in the pre-Broadway try- outs of Jolie, a musical about Al Jolson starring Larry Kert that never made it to New York. Donald Johnston was music director and was so impressed with Skinner's tap abilities that he recommended him to Champion. He eventually became one of Champion's assistants on 42nd Street. Later he helped mount the London production and several international companies.

    "What really made it incredible was that I was so young," explains Skinner. "I'd only been in New York four years. Working with Gower on a big, splashy David Merrick musical was the opportunity of a lifetime. He allowed us such creativity. It was a true collaboration. Those six weeks of pre-production were some of the happiest days of my career." It did come at a cost, however. Looking back, Skinner admits that seeing all those dancers dancing gave him all sorts of separation anxieties. "Part of me wanted to be onstage with the chorus!"

    And as far as 42nd Street is concerned, he's come full circle, having recreated choreography from the original production and creating several spectacular numbers for the current revival.

    Chairs for the Gotta Dance! gala are Amy Bermant Adler, Fe Sarcino Fendi and Anka K. Palitz, who are joined by Jane Powell, Anne H. Bass and Cynthia Gregory as honorary chairs. Vice-Chairs are Helene Alexopoulos, Mercedes Ellington, Susan Jaffe and Laura Zeckendorf. Sponsors include Movado, CondÈ Nast Publications, Pointe Magazine/Lifestyle Ventures LLC and Rolex Watch U.S.A.

    Performance only tickets are on sale at City Center box office at $45, $55, $70 and $95 or by calling Citytix [212-581-1212].

    For more information on CTFD, visit www.careertransition.org.

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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