The French-dancer-turned-Hollywood-star speaks to AnOther about some of her favourite, and most inspiring, dance partners...
"There was Gene Kelly, there was Fred Astaire and I did dance with Baryshnikov and Nureyev for five minutes – or seven minutes actually – at the Met for a charity evening and that was absolutely wild! I believe it's the only time the two boys were on the stage together at the same time and I was with them. I remember having a grin from one ear to the other for seven minutes. It was a huge, fabulous event – absolutely grand and great fun.
I loved dancing with both Fred and Gene. They were fabulous partners – different dancing. Fred was just made for dancing. You could see him walk in the streets and it was almost like he was dancing. There was a swing to it and a rhythm to it. He was absolutely, very precise about rhythm – about finishing on time and so on. And he heard the music; he played with it, he danced with it, he understood it so well. He understood Jazz. It was a real pleasure dancing with him. Everything was easy for him; he never got out of breath, always ready to rehearse again and do it again. He also had fun ideas – I think he's the dancer who made fun of himself the most. He would goof around and the result is lovely. You can see it on the screen. When we did the first number [in Daddy Long Legs] called Slew Foot – in the school where we were supposed to be – he was much older than all the school kids and myself but you can see this spark of fun in his eyes. We both were sparking off each other and you can tell he really enjoyed doing that bit and so did I. Monkeying around – that's what he was doing!
With Gene, I learnt to dance Jazz – a very different kind of dancing. Not ballet where your knees and back have to be very straight. And dancing his sort of dancing, which was inspired by Jack Cole, was something very new and different and I took to it. I thought it was very exciting. Gene was very demanding and very professional. He didn't think dancing was fun. He really thought it was hard work and he would let go during the weekend. Saturday night was the big night at his house. He and Betsy, his wife, would have an open door and anybody from Europe or New York or Los Angeles could drop in and talk or do a number or get to the piano and sing: it was free for all. That really was "the night" in Hollywood and Gene enjoyed receiving all those people. On a Saturday night, Gene wasn't dancing. He'd do the Irish thing: drink whiskey and talk."
The story of French-dancer-turned-Hollywood-star Leslie Caron is a captivating one, even by Hollywood standards. Having trained as a professional ballerina, she joined the prestigious, Paris-based Ballet des Champs-Élysées at the age of just 16, taking on solo parts from the start. It was during a performance with the company that Caron caught the eye of francophile Gene Kelly, who remembered her a year later when looking for a leading lady to play opposite him in what was set to be the 1951 MGM movie of the year, An American in Paris. Speaking now of her big break Caron ponders: "The more I say it, the more it does sound like a fairytale. It's absolutely unbelievable. I think all the girls in Hollywood wanted to play that part – all the ones that could dance." Yet it was the 17-year-old Caron upon whom Kelly had set his heart, so she was promptly screen-tested and, to her utter disbelief, whisked off to Hollywood three days after being offered the part.
The pixie-featured Caron is mesmerising in the film, in both her acting and her dancing (wonderfully choreographed by Kelly); the coy embodiment of French charm and elegance, she provides perfect counterbalance to the dashing Kelly's cocksure American swagger. The film was a huge success, securing the 24th Oscar for Best Picture, and Caron's Hollywood career went from strength to strength thereafter as she continued to land lead roles (in the likes of Gigi and The L-Shaped Room) and gain widespread acclaim, including two Oscars of her own. Caron's dancing résumé is equally impressive, her discernible talent having earned her the opportunity to work with some of the most highly regarded male dancers of the age.
The BFI re-release of An American in Paris is now available.