“Invitation to the Dance” is a curious piece from Gene Kelly.
The 1956 film is clearly a labor of love, as he choreographs, directs and stars. The film consists of three unrelated segments, each told through dance and music – no dialogue, no singing. I’ve always admired that Kelly and counterpart Fred Astaire never relied on their expected personas as they tried to push what could be accomplished within the movie musical genre.
“Invitation to the Dance” follows up on ideas introduced in other Kelly films, such as “Anchors Aweigh” and “An American in Paris,” and throws in a dash of “Fantasia,” which is taking classical pieces and providing a narrative for each. But the results are uneven, an idea that is more admired than enjoyed.
The first segment is “Circus,” and the story is simple: Pierrot the clown (Kelly) is in love with a fellow performer (Claire Sombert) who is partnered with a different performer (Igor Youskevitch). Nothing is unexpected, so the presentation needs to be exceptional. Unfortunately, the lovely Sombert is given nothing to do but look pretty and dance. It’s a role that requires an expressive and enchanting presence for an emotional payoff. She then has the misfortune of having her dancing overshadowed by Youskevitch, one of the greatest male ballet stars of his era, and Kelly. The two are such powerful dancers that the accomplished Sombert pales in comparison.
Kelly’s best dance is with his fellow circus performers, but as director he must have been influenced by the ballet sequence in “The Red Shoes.” Sadly, “Circus” isn’t nearly as cinematic, and the piece has an almost dreary feel.
Thankfully, the tempo picks up for the film’s second segment, “Ring Around the Rosey.” In fact, the segment begins at a party in which the film speed is increased to convey to the event’s mayhem. The general theme revolves around a bracelet that travels from husband to wife to artist to model to boyfriend and on and on until it returns to the husband.
Don’t worry about the details of who’s giving it to whom or for what reasons. Just go with it and enjoy the energy of the segment. The sets are more abstract that the first piece, which adds a dream-like quality to what could be called a romantic fable. Each exchange of the bracelet has its own personality and dance – especially fun is one involving a crooner, and remember there are no words in this movie. The segment nicely culminates with a terrific number between Kelly and Tamara Toumanova (above), a steamy street dance between a Marine and a streetwalker.
The final segment is “Sinbad the Sailor,” with Kelly as a sailor who ends up with a lantern. As expected, he rubs the lantern and out comes a boy genie, played by David Kasday. The two become fast friends, and once the genie adopts his own sailor suit, the two perform perhaps the most endearing dance of the entire movie, with Kasday perfectly in synch with Kelly.
Sadly, the genie leads Kelly into an animated segment and leaves. Then, like Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse in “Anchors Aweigh,” Kelly finds himself opposite two animated Arabs chasing him and finally Scheherazade (modeled after Carol Haney), with whom he frolics through an animated landscape. Unfortunately, the cartoon Scheherazade has even less personality than Sombert from the first segment, and the piece feels amateurish and flat. It makes you wish young Kasday had remained and the segment built around him.
“Invitation to the Dance” should have been better, but the film never reaches the same level as the “American in Paris” ballet or even the Jerry the mouse segment. The lasting effect is one of familiarity.
But it does have some fine moments throughout. And Kelly should be commended for trying something different at a point in his career when he could have but did not want to do the same old thing.