Tuesday, December 16, 2008

One of the books I was really looking forward to buying before interviewing its author was Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation by Mindy Aloff. Having been contacted by Alexander Rannie, who helped research the book, I knew that both Mindy and him were doing their homework and were doing it well. After having interviewed Mindy my position has evolved: I am no longer looking forward to it, I would litterally like to be able to project myself to February with a time machine to be able to get that book... now.

I have a feeling you will enjoy this interview no end.

DG: When, why and how did you decide to tackle this project?

Mindy Aloff: Long before I was tapped, about six years ago, by Disney Editions to write Hippo in a Tutu, the concept for it had been germinating in the mind of the choreographer Christopher Caines, then an editor at DE. The title is his. He had worked on many Disney books—intensively, for example, on the biography of Ubbe Iwerks, by Ubbe’s daughter—and he couldn’t understand why a studio that had relied so often on dancing in its animated films didn’t already have a book on the subject. Christopher brought the idea to DE’s editorial director, Wendy Lefkon, and the process to realize it was put into drive. My life-experience bona fides are detailed in the book’s introduction, where I write about the importance of Disney films to me during my childhood and, again, during my daughter’s childhood, when she and I would watch the films together. Also, I had written on dance and animation in the early 1990s. The first time was for the late Burt Supree at The Village Voice, who sent me to a Warner Bros. animation retrospective of 100 historic shorts, expecting a love letter to Carl Stalling et al, and who got a story with a lot of complaints about how Warner’s treated dance in its cartoons and a statement of preference for the Disney perspective (the story never saw the light of day). The second writing was for the “Dance” column I filed weekly, without byline, in the “Goings on about Town” department at The New Yorker for several years, where I compared the animated films of Warner’s and Disney by way of their treatments of dancing. I put my heart into that tiny essay. Only a handful of people noticed it, but those few included the late New Yorker theater critic Edith Oliver. Edith was a little daunting, and I always remained at a respectful distance. One day, though, shortly after my animation column was published, she stopped me in the hall to say that she thought my animation story was the best piece of writing in the magazine that week. She gave me the moxie to believe I had something to say.
Before DE decided on me, they requested an outline of the book, with a description of each chapter. I planned several more chapters, in fact, than the existing five—well, six, if you count the introduction—but I’m one of those impossible authors who always wants to do more research and takes forever to write anything, so eventually I decided to put away the unwritten chapters for the next life, when I intend to be the fastest pen in the West, or, at least, in western Brooklyn. Wendy and Christopher okayed the outline, and I started to read, and read, and read about animation, as well as to look at hundreds of animated films by Disney, Warner’s, Fleischer, and many other producers on DVD. Between the books and the DVDs, I probably kept Amazon in the black. I also spent many happy hours in the John Canemaker collection at New York University’s Bobst Library. And—Heaven!—I was able to take three trips to Burbank and Glendale to spend weeks at a time in the main Archives, Animation Research Library, and Photo Library at the Disney studio. They made everything available: transcripts of story conferences, art beyond my wildest dreams, live-action reference films. I was also privileged to interview several animators and animation directors on the lot: meeting all these people who love the hand-drawn animation, who have committed the better part of their adult lives to it in one way or another, has been one of the greatest joys of working on Hippo. Among the individuals I met at the Disney Studio was Steve Vagnini, then a college intern, who reassured me that a new generation of moviegoers might still find the old pictures relevant and entertaining. Indeed, Steve had memorized every shot, including every line of dialogue, of dozens of vintage Disney animated features. Just speaking with him, I felt like a naïf. And then, back in New York, I set out to interview dancers, beginning with the marvelous and magnificently generous Marge Champion, the live-action original for Snow White and many other characters and one of the movie stars I’d loved as a kid for her dancing with her husband Gower in Kismet and Jupiter’s Darling. This luminary descended with me into a windowless basement in the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to give an oral history of her work for Disney. (The tape and full transcript of this interview will be available to scholars at the Dance Division after the publication of Hippo.)
It was an amazing, fantastical experience to research this book. And I do seem to have enough material for another volume, which I hope eventually to share through lectures and additional essays.

DG: What is your focus? Can you give us an idea of the book's content?

MA: Wendy and Christopher gave me all the freedom I needed—and wanted—but they did determine the scope of the book in advance. They also asked for sidebars, deep captions, and so forth, to relieve the eye; and they were concerned that Fantasia—for most Disney fans the greatest example of animated dancing that the studio ever produced—should be discussed, not merely mentioned. Christopher provided, in detail, a working hypothesis about the place of dance in Disney animation, which I then considerably developed and qualified in the course of the writing. And I was asked to consider the broadest possible audience: fans of dance, of animation in general, and of Disney, in particular, as well as bright high-school students.
A lot of structure in the format, yet I was thrilled: I didn’t have to write a scholarly text, a chronological history, but could be freewheeling, writing each chapter as an essay. And there was no censorship: I could report what I found and say what I thought about it (not always my experience as a writer). In terms of a model for the freewheeling part, I went back to Lulu in Hollywood, the collection of essays by Louise Brooks; to a little volume called On Beauty and Being Just, a diptych of essays by Elaine Scarry; and to Joseph Mitchell’s collection of profiles and features on New York waterways, The Bottom of the Harbor. None of them has the least connection to animation, dancing, or Disney; I just enjoy them, and it seemed important to my own project to remind myself why. In terms of the visual presentation, I went back to my experience as the editor of the Vassar Quarterly, where I had the same kind of editorial freedom and the same mandate to make the publication visually engaging. So I began to think of the book as really two books: a reader’s book, for the people who will have the leisure to sit down with it, and a browser’s book, for most of the people who will pick it up. I tried to make the browser material long and the essays short. And I tried to balance the celebrated and the obscure, accenting the films that would bring several generations together—Fantasia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Jungle Book—as well as some of the spectacular animated shorts that are rarely discussed and features and featurettes, such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that are often overlooked. As for the subjects of the chapters, I chose to concentrate on fundamental questions: What is the distinction between dancing and choreography? How does music relate to dancing? Who were the live dancers who served as references for some of the animated characters and how did the process of incorporating their contributions to the films actually work?
One thing I noticed after Jon Glick designed the layouts was that the look of the spreads evoked the way the Internet looks. I like that very much: it permits such freedom and flexibility; and I’m beginning to see that look in other books on completely unrelated subjects, for example, a heartbreaking work of the highest scholarship, which I recently taught at Barnard, called Hidden Letters, a collection of letters by, and supplementary contextual material that concerns, a Jewish teenager from Holland named Flip Slier, who died in the Holocaust.
My book is not as scholarly as Hidden Letters, but it does contain source notes—many of them explanatory or otherwise amplifying—as well as an extensive bibliography, an index, and two dense pages of acknowledgements that try to spell out what the people who helped on this project actually contributed.

DG: How many illustrations will it contain and what type of illustrations will it contain?

MA: A lot! They are quite wide-ranging, too: some frames from the animated films, many preparatory drawings, a musical manuscript, page one of a little newspaper to publicize one of the shorts, a page of choreography for a 17th-century horse ballet, photographs of character models, photographs of personages and of stage choreography. There are also frames from a couple of live-action reference films that are not archived on commercial DVD.

DG: What will be the main chapters of the book?

MA: “A Short, Highly Subjective Tour of Dancing in Historic Disney Animation”
“Choreography: Dancing and Drawing”
“Animation, Dancing, and Music: Or, Are the Silly Symphonies Really So Silly?”
“Live Action Reference: The Illusion of Life and Life Itself”
“On the Art and Entertainment of Fantasia”

DG: What discoveries did you make while researching this book?

MA: Everything was a discovery. For example, the extent of Marge Champion’s involvement in the gestation of Fantasia’s “Dance of the Hours”; the fact that George Balanchine kept in touch with the animator Bill Tytla following Balanchine and Stravinsky’s visit to the Disney studio; the adorable dancing of The Jackson Brothers, who served as the live-action references for all the crows in Dumbo; the fact that Arturo Toscanini, E.M. Forster, Lincoln Kirstein, Edwin Denby, and many other intellectuals in the U.S. and Britain considered Disney to be a cutting-edge artist; the fact that the de Basil ballerina Irina Baronova, choreographing herself, served as the live-action reference for the ballerina ostrich in the “Dance of the Hours.” Perhaps the most important discovery for me is represented on page 41: the list of Disney character shorts, Silly Symphonies, and features between 1928 and 2002 that contain significant episodes of dancing: 68 entries! With one or two exceptions, this list had been compiled years ago by the staff overseen by Dave Smith in the Burbank Archives. The fact that they thought it important to make that catalogue was extremely heartening. Dance is often kicked away by other arts as a decoration or something not worth the effort to preserve.

DG: What do you believe will be the most exciting parts of the book for Disney history enthusiasts?

MA: Seeing the art, probably, some of which has never been published. And perhaps reading about the dancers who served as the live-action reference models. Also, working on opposite coasts, Alexander Rannie and I have put together what may be the first detailed biography of the African American actress-singer-comedienne Hattie Noel, who served as one of the references for Hyacinth Hippo.

DG: What was the role of Alexander Rannie in this project and how did he get involved?

MA: Alex helped me in myriad ways. He tutored me in how the musical dimension of the animated films worked in a technical sense, and he served as a living encyclopedia of information about the animators, composers, storymen, and art. He introduced me, online, to the composer and historian of animation music Ross Care, whom I interviewed by telephone; arranged for me to conduct a telephone interview with Burny Mattinson; and kindly served as a liaison for me with several collectors of Disney art, who generously provided images of the works from their holdings. Alex pointed me toward some rare books I wouldn’t have been able to find on my own. As a frequent researcher at the Disney studio and a consultant to The Walt Disney Family Museum, he was able, as well, to discover some images about whose existence I would have otherwise had no idea. When I felt the need to discover something about what happened to Hattie Noel after the 1950s, Alex kindly drove around Los Angeles to discover the relevant material. He fact-checked the book! As both a creative and an interpretive artist, a composer and a former pianist for dancers, Alex served as a sounding board for ideas and also—through sharing his own brilliant ideas—as an inspiration to think more deeply. Any idea of his that I used has been attributed to him in the text, and in places I have quoted him directly, with a source note in the back. But the most exciting part of our entirely 21st-century friendship—I have never met him in person—were the conversations over the phone and through E-mail about the reading and the films and ballet and theater. They reminded me of a time, many years ago, when I was in constant contact with other writers who were excited about the same things I was and who had the same background.
Why did Alex offer to do all this? I can’t say, except that he’s a mensch of a very high order and has racked up a lifetime’s worth of mitzvahs for his efforts. But other animation historians have been generous beyond description as well: John Canemaker, for example—a celebrated working artist as well as a distinguished historian—is a mentor who could be Mentor, himself; I feel privileged to be one of his hundreds, perhaps thousands, of adoring students. At Disney, itself, Jeff Kurtti was an extraordinary guide, and the hospitality that he and his family offered on one of the trips made it possible for me to study at the Photo Library, period. At the main Archives, Dave Smith, Becky Cline, and Robert Tieman were tremendous resources, as, at the ARL, were Lella Smith, Fox Carney, and Ann Hansen, and, at the Photo Library, was Ed Squair. I think they realized that, although I didn’t know much about their field to start with, I truly tried to learn, and I truly love the films. From my own field of dancing, too, the choreographer Mark Morris took time from making new work and many other stresses to contribute an illuminating statement about how much Disney has meant to his own imagination. Their collegiality made this project one of the high points of my life.
Nevertheless, the writing and the concepts you’ll find in the essays are entirely my own, and I take full responsibility for inaccuracies or flaws of logic or reporting. These wonderful colleagues brought many of the groceries to the kitchen, but I cooked the meal.

DG: Are you considering tackling any other Disney-related books in the future?

MA: Wouldn’t it be lovely? Well, if the opportunity for another project were to present itself, I’d certainly be delighted. I suspect, though, that I’m standing at the end of a long line. There are a host of outstanding animation historians who know much, much more about the Disney enterprise than I could ever hope to master. This is their field, into which I’ve been invited as a cosseted guest. I’ve never forgotten that.


Unknown said...

Another great title to look forward to reading.

Thanks for sharing the interview with us.

Bob Cowan said...

Thanks for the interview! I was pleased that some of the artwork from our collection was used in the book. It was a great honor! I'm sure this will be a fantastic new take on a subject we all love.