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Patricia Kelly comes to Inverness to talk about her late husband, Hollywood dance legend Gene Kelly on Thursday and on Sunday

By Margaret Chrystall

The widow of Hollywood dancer Gene Kelly is in Inverness to talk about a man people think they know very well.

On Sunday, Patricia Kelly will present her one-woman show Gene Kelly: The Legacy at Eden Court, the first event since lockdown in the Empire Theatre.

Patricia Kelly with her late husband Gene.
Patricia Kelly with her late husband Gene.

It will take a detailed look at the career of a man most of us think of as a fabulous dancer tearing across the big screen on a Hollywood street in the rain.

But Patricia hopes her show will reveal much more about the multi-talented man who charmed her and whose life she now celebrates and spotlights for new generations.

“The genesis of me creating this show is that I wanted people to understand there were so many dimensions to this man,” she said.

Not that Patricia knew anything about Gene Kelly, an older man in 1985 when she first met him, working on making a TV documentary he was narrating and hosting.

“The grand irony is that I did not know who he was. I hadn’t got a clue.”

He started testing her knowledge.

“I did know the answers, remarkably. But at the end of it I was thinking ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ My pet studies in graduate school were word origins and poetry and those were his too. So by the middle of the week we were quoting poetry back and forth and playing word games – and I was completely enchanted.”

They see him as that beautiful face up on the screen, but not the creative mind behind it

Patricia still didn’t know he was famous till the final day, he took off in a limousine and the woman next to Patricia said: ‘He’s really famous – go to the video store and ask for Gene Kelly'. Patricia shrugged, but did.

“I watched the films one after another in one weekend, and about 48 movies later I was just completely blown away that I had got to 26 years old and had no clue that this guy existed.”

Gene invited Patricia to California to write his memoir and they were married in 1990. Since his death in 1996, Patricia has looked after his archive, is his trustee, is writing a book about him.

She is an enthusiastic ambassador for the talents of her late husband.

Of the dancer, choreographer, director, dance innovator and iconic American modern male dancer, which side does Patricia think is the ‘dominant Gene’?

Patricia said: “He would give you a big hug for acknowledging all those aspects because so often people just reference him as the guy that they know up on screen. He said to me I would like to be remembered for being behind the camera as a director and choreographer and if anybody is going to do that it will be you”

Patricia’s show is an attempt to get the real Gene across to people.

“People come up to me after the show and they say ‘I loved him before, but I love him even more now’.

“They see a depth to him.

“On the screen they get a one-dimensional figure, then they learn he spoke multiple languages – French, Italian, Yiddish. He read Latin, he wrote and memorised poetry, he was an economics major, he often read a book a day.

“And he would say things to me like ‘I think I’d like to reread all of Charles Dickens or reread all of Evelyn Waugh.

“He had this tremendous mind that never stopped.

“In all the years I was with him, it just went at 100 miles an hour.

“I think you add that to this tremendously innovative guy who was so far ahead of his time and always looking for a new way to see things, to use the camera, to capture dance on film – and for costumes.

“In costume, he wanted to dance like the common guy – not in white tie and tails, so he wore khaki trousers that he wore perfectly cut against his leg so you would see the longest line of his body. And you would see T-shirts worn very tight so it is the closest approximation of a ballet leotard and yet he just looks like a guy on the street playing a character.”

Patricia knows that most of the world don’t know about Gene’s many talents.

“People say ‘Did he ever direct anything?’,” she laughed.

In 1969, Gene Kelly directing Hello Dolly.
In 1969, Gene Kelly directing Hello Dolly.

“Yes! Singin’ In The Rain, On The Town, Hello Dolly! They don’t see him in that position.

“They see him as that beautiful face up on the screen, but not the creative mind behind it.

“And 99.9 per cent of people do not know that he was the first American-born choreographer to create a piece for the Palais Garnier in Paris, he was ahead of Jerome Robbins and all of the people that came after, they don’t include him in that list, they don’t see him as a choreographer - and he broke the ground.

“You get a Jerome Robbins and a Bob Fosse because of a Gene Kelly.”

While Patricia is over from the States, she will be working with Scottish Ballet on a revival of Gene’s ballet Starstruck that will be performed at Eden Court in Inverness from September 30 to October 2.

For that she has been working with and meeting old friends, Christopher Hampson, director of Scottish Ballet and James Mackenzie-Blackman, chief executive of Eden Court, who before that worked as executive director with the master storyteller Sir Matthew Bourne and his innovative dance company New Adventures. James toured the world with the company and in America met Patricia.

She said: “Gene said surround yourself with the best and you will only elevate the entire project.

“There is this wonderful little creative pod that we have with Matthew and James and Chris Hampson at Scottish Ballet and the designer Lez Brotherston.”

Talk turns to Gene’s impact on dancers, particularly male dancers – even now. Patricia and James thought about the question, ‘did he define the way male dancers are now and what they aspire to be?’.

James said: “Having worked with dancers for a decade and met so many male dancers from companies around the world, Gene is without doubt the dancer that male dancers reference not just someone who inspired them as a child in watching his movies, but who inspires them as athletes and as artists and that he is without doubt the dancer’s dancer.

“That is what I feel – and is that your experience too?”

Patricia replied: “Absolutely and thank you for saying that. It is a perfect description and it doesn’t subside. It continues.

Gene Kelly in On The Town.
Gene Kelly in On The Town.

She laughed: “I think Gene always thought that someone would come in and replace him and he kind of looked for the next guy to come over the hill, but he continues today.”

James said: “And do you know what is also important, when you talk to male dancers about what it is about Gene, it’s his technique and his skill which is world class and unbeaten.

“But there is also something really important which is Gene’s masculinity, because for so many male dancers as they are moving through their teens they can often experience great bullying and issues within their desire to dance, but Gene is such a – man, right? And that is really meaningful to many, especially straight dancers. It means a lot that there is someone who holds that.”

Gene’s widow said: “It was a remarkable fight that he fought, the notion that being a male dancer is ‘less than’, to the point where he created a television special in 1958 for Omnibus called Dancing, A Man’s Game to show that all of the movement of a dancer is the same as any top sport and it’s very interesting when they get to try it, some of the top athletes in the world try to perform dance sequences, they realise that dance is more difficult oftentimes than what they are doing in their own sports.”

As a dancer, Gene Kelly had to work out who that was for himself.

Patricia said: “There was no model for Gene, that was the thing.

“He had looked at dance – he never really wanted to be a dancer, but when he decided to commit to it, he looked around and found there was no model for how the American male moved.

“Gene wanted to break with the European tradition of ballroom dancing on polished floors, kind of rich man’s dancing – and to create this American style.

“He looked at the Modern Dance tradition and he looked at Martha Graham and studied with the moderns, people like choreographer Doris Humphrey, and appreciated what they were doing in trying to break with tradition.

“But he wanted to create something that was to American popular song.

“He wanted to dance to the music he loved – Cole Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin.

“And then he looked and he said ‘OK, how does the American male move and the only reference he could find was the sports that he loved as a boy, so baseball and hockey – and he was a tremendous athlete, any form of movement came to him easily, he was a trained gymnast, a trained acrobat, he could walk a tightrope. Any of it was effortless for him.”

Gene Kelly.
Gene Kelly.

Patricia added: “If you look, his dancing is very low to the ground, broad, open strokes – very similar to the hockey moves and skating and things. And you didn’t see that style before.

“Then you combine that with the new clothing that he introduced, and the shoes, even, that he made of a very supple leather, so he could bend his toes and they looked like a ballet slipper, yet it was like a man’s moccasin, so he still looked like a guy.

“As he always said, ideally in order to show the line of the body, it would be best if he came out in a ballet leotard.

“But to play the roles that he played, he had to dress like a guy on the street.”

Patricia talked about Gene Kelly’s love of Scotland.

“He first came here in 1953 to scout the locations for Brigadoon, he was really eager to do it here. He loved the people he loved the dancing. He had obviously learned Scottish dancing and toured around and had found the perfect locations.

“But then MGM decided not to do it on location.

“Gene had this idea that it would be like a John Ford western and that he would have the clans coming over the hills and actually meeting and dancing, so I think it would have been an extraordinary film on location.”

But it has been popular in lockdown, Patricia says.

“It provided this kind of magical mystical sensibility that people were yearning for, something romantic , so I got a lot of mail from people who had just watched it or rewatched it and it touched them in a way that was kind of important to them during that time of real uncertainty.”

For Patricia, Gene’s striving for excellence, innovation and love of detail in his quest for better storytelling – something shared with Sir Matthew Bourne and Scottish Ballet’s Christopher Hampson - it can be seen in the famous Singin’ In The Rain dance everyone knows.

Patricia reveals that there was no detail too small for Gene’s attention – from getting the colour in the film exactly right with the guys in the Technicolor office, to working with the sound desk on dubbing in the sound of the tap dancing on water for the famous number.

Patricia said: “The dance itself, instead of being a set-piece that you cut out of the film, it’s part of the story, it propels the plot, so what better way when you are in love to say that you are in love than to wave off the taxi driver and to dance and sing in the rain.

“It translates in any language, anybody can understand the romanticism of it. And without words it tells exactly what is going on in that guy’s mind.

“Those opening notes we all know weren’t in the original music, Gene worked with arranger Roger Edens to start the dance to make it look believable,” she said. “Roger just plucked out those notes we all know at the piano – Gene waves off the cab, steps into the street and starts to dance.”

A special screening of Singin' In The Rain is on tonight (Thursday, September 2) at 6pm with Patricia Kelly introducing the film and answering audience questions and talking about her late husband's most famous role. Then, on Sunday, Patricia will present her one-woman show Gene Kelly: The Legacy is at Eden Court on Sunday. The revival of Gene Kelly's ballet Starstruck will be performed at Eden Court by Scottish Ballet from Thursday, September 30 to October 2. All details: www.eden-court.co.uk

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