1232nd OGM and public lecture

“The science of spontaneity: Fred Astaire as consummate craftsman”

kriley  Dr Kathleen Riley

Wednesday 3 June 2015
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

This talk focused on the science behind Fred Astaire's apparent effortlessness, his ability to make something that was technically complex and endlessly rehearsed look easy and spontaneous. The lighter-than-air grace, the pluperfect precision and the sheer joyfulness of his dancing were the products of a dogged perfectionism, an astonishing musicianship and an imagination at once whimsical and methodical. Using numerous film clips Dr Riley illustrated how, in the more technical aspects of his artistry, Astaire was part of an ancient tradition (that of Roman pantomime) and, at the same time, revolutionary. The first half of the talk concentrated on Astaire the eloquent dance stylist and specifically, the perfect commensurability of all parts of his body to one another and to the whole, and his interpretive games with the shape and logic of music, his inventive use of the off-beat and experiments with broken rhythm, and his syncopated language, which impressed Bertolt Brecht as the sound of the modern environment. The second half considered Astaire the cinematic craftsman, his instinctive understanding of how best to present dance on film, his pioneering use of special effects (e.g. slow motion and split screens), and his role in improving sound synchronization.

Dr Kathleen Riley is a former British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford and now a freelance writer, theatre historian and critic. She is the author of Nigel Hawthorne on Stage (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004); The Reception and Performance of Euripides: Reasoning Madness (Oxford University Press, 2008); and The Astaires: Fred and Adele (Oxford University Press, US, 2012). The last was included in the Wall Street Journal's Best Non-Fiction for 2012 and described by legendary singer Tony Bennett as “a magnificent book about the trials and tribulations of show business”. In 2008, she convened at Oriel College, Oxford the first international conference on the art and legacy of Fred Astaire. She was Script Consultant on the critically acclaimed stage production My Perfect Mind, which had its London premiere at the Young Vic in 2013. Her current projects include a monograph on the ancient Greek concept of Nostos (homecoming) and an edited volume of essays on Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity. She continues to have an association with the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD) in Oxford.

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