Dancing Hippos in America: A Conversation with Author Mindy Aloff

Mindy Aloff has published essays, interviews, and articles on dance, literature, film, music, and other cultural subjects in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, and more. She is a renowned dance critic and scholar, analyzing dance in Disney animation for her Disney Editions book, Hippo in a Tutu. With her newest publication, Dance in America, she spans three centuries with the biggest anthology on American dance ever published. She stopped by Fülle Cr. to discuss these projects and more.

Jason Anders: So let's jump right into your newest work, a book called Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation, which studies dance in Disney's animated shorts and features; you have been a professional critic and teacher of dance for quite some time, and have even written a book called Dance Anecdotes, which contains stories about dancing all over the globe. So why Disney for the subject of your book, and when did the idea first come to you?

Mindy Aloff: The idea for the book, as such, wasn't mine: it was a longtime concept of an editor at Disney Editions, Christopher Caines, who is also a working choreographer - and, not incidentally, the author of the title, Hippo in a Tutu. He noticed that although there was a fair amount of published writing about music at Disney there was little about dance, and he thought such a study could fill in an important gap. Around six years ago he approached me with the suggestion that I might write the book; I drafted a proposal and the editorial director of Disney Editions, Wendy Lefkon, liked it... even though I didn't have an animation background.

However, the reason that Christopher tapped me was that nearly ten years before, in the early 1990s, I'd written two stories about dance in animated films. One, assigned by the dance editor of The Village Voice, was based on a festival of Warner Bros. cartoons at Film Forum in SoHo during which I saw 100 shorts in a row and stumbled into the street with the conviction that, as far as dance went, Disney exhibited more understanding and technical prowess. This story was never published.

The second, much more abbreviated, was one of the published Dance columns I wrote for the "Goings on about Town" section of The New Yorker, to which I contributed between 1989 and 1993. In 350 words or so, I evaluated dancing in Disney and Warner's and explained why, with respect to the dance passages of its animated films, Disney was my preference. Others in Great Britain had also written about dancing and Disney around that time: you can read the lovely 1989 essay "Disney's Dances" by Alastair Macaulay (now the chief dance critic at The New York Times) originally published in The Dancing Times and reprinted in Robert Gottlieb's new anthology, Reading Dance. The subject was in the air. I was just very lucky that Disney Editions reached out to me.
Tell me about the process of tackling this subject matter. 

It was nothing if not research. I began by going through the John Canemaker Collection at New York University's Bobst Library: a huge compendium of writings and art that John had used in the course of writing his many Disney histories and donated to the library. It was there where I first encountered some of the meticulous transcripts that recorded the story conferences of Walt Disney and his staff during the 1930s and early '40s. My favorite was one on Alice in Wonderland, which languished for several decades in development: in the transcript, Walt Disney spends a heartbreaking amount of time trying to figure out the psychological reasons why certain events in the Lewis Carroll books happen in the sequence they do. Reading it, I kept wanting to leap through time into the conference room and whisper into Mr. Disney's ear, "But Charles Dodgson was a mathematician, and these sequences play out certain math games." No one ever mentions that fact in the transcript, and it would have saved the team so much vexation!

While in New York, I also set up a 90-minute oral history interview at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts with Marge Champion, the live-action reference dancer for Snow White, the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, the Twirling Blossom in the "Nutcracker Suite" section of Fantasia, and for Hyacinth Hippo in Fantasia's "Dance of the Hours," which she also choreographed. (An edited version of that interview is included in Hippo in a Tutu.) And I began to buy the DVDs of animated shorts and features by Disney, Warner's, Fleischer, and other studios as Disney had none to lend. I also began to buy books on animation, most of them out of print and many of them not held by area libraries. Happily, one day, in two oversized boxes, a dozen relevant Disney histories arrived at my doorstep from Disney Editions: I could never have afforded them, even used. And I spent days at the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center researching related topics, as well as on the Internet, where I discovered that the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York owned a copy of the 1916 silent live-action feature Snow White, which Walt Disney had so enjoyed as a teenager, and that it was available as part of a DVD box set of American silents, which I was able to track down and (dipping deep into my savings) buy for study.

Disney Editions also set up three trips for me, each a week long, to the company archives in Burbank and Glendale. These were extraordinary experiences. On the first visit, I was able to interview animator Andreas Deja and the co-directors of The Little Mermaid, Ron Clements and John Musker and, over the phone, Kathryn Beaumont - the voice and live-action reference for Alice in Wonderland. I also spoke on the phone with Disney connoisseur Harry Arends and met film producer Les Perkins and other animation historians. Most of the week, though, was spent in the Burbank campus archives with the great Dave Smith and his excellent staff and at the Animation Research Library in Glendale, where archivist Fox Carney produced one treasure after another: inspirational drawings, live-action reference films. On the second trip, I spent all my time in the Burbank archives and at the ARL where archivist Ann Hansen, apprised of my research, brought to the table the full set of pencil drawings that Ub Iwerks made for "The Skeleton Dance", Disney's first Silly Symphony, as well as the art by another hand of Persephone dancing in another early Silly called "The Goddess of Spring."

On the third trip I touched base with both the Burbank archives and the ARL; however, most of it was spent at the Disney Photo Library in Glendale. And there were many conversations and interviews I conducted by telephone and online with the Disney historian Ross Care and most wonderfully of all, with the composer and Disney historian Alexander Rannie, whom I have yet to meet in person but with whom I have spent the equivalent of weeks in conversation through e-mail and over the telephone discussing Disney animation. Alex's unique combination of brilliance, respect for accuracy, collegial generosity, and optimism in the face of bleak doubt have been almost as important to the completion of this book as the spiritual contributions of my daughter, Ariel, and the editorial exactitude and imaginative sympathy of Christopher Caines. At one point, when I thought I'd hit a brick wall in my efforts to find out any information about the second half of the life of Hattie Noel (who served as the live-action reference for the body of Hyacinth Hippo), Alex got in his car and drove to libraries as well as through the neighborhood in which she lived. He sent me a report, which I've quoted in the book.

You cannot put a price on the kindness and intellectual curiosity of colleagues like Alex, or Jeff Kurtti, the Disney author and interviewer who, in essence, gave me the entire history of the Disney-Dali collaboration, Destino, and whose family opened their home to me to stay when I couldn't afford a hotel. In the event, the acknowledgments for Hippo in a Tutu spell out all the good souls who contributed to its realization.

Do you have an all-time favorite piece of animation?

For a long time my very favorite was Lotte Reininger's feature-length silhouette cut-out film from the 1920s, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which I saw in college. That is still a stupendous achievement and film of entrancing beauty. However, in the past decade it has been replaced by the animated sequence in the early Ingmar Bergman ballet picture Summer Interlude from the late 1940s. The animation consists of stick figures on the label of a long-playing record which, as the record turns, come to life for a pas de deux. It is both as simple and as profound as a pre-schooler's drawing, and I've never seen anything else quite as emotionally affecting. At one point I wrote to The Ingmar Bergman Foundation in Sweden to find out the name of the animator and the circumstances of the making of the passage and they kindly shared all that information via e-mail. However, when I changed computers, that all got lost. Jean-Luc Godard was once quoted as saying that he thought Summer Interlude was the finest film that Ingmar Bergman ever made; Godard and I agree on this point, and I'm a Bergman fan.

When I was in elementary school my favorite animated moment was when Disney's Lady and the Tramp enjoyed a spaghetti dinner together in an alley. As a very little kid, my favorite was when Peter Pan and the Darling children flew in the night sky.
Do you remember where your love and passion for dance began?

In the Philadelphia Academy of Music on an evening in 1956 when my father took me to see a performance of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The love and passion were born when I saw a ballet by Heinz Rosen called La Dame a la Licorne, about the unicorn tapestries of Cluny. The ballet, I learned later, was a critical disaster, but the image of the ballerina unicorn pointing her toe shoe in a gesture that rhymed with the horn on her mask was the moment I threw in my lot with ballet and art and poetic association.

Let's talk about another book of yours, Dance Anecdotes.

Dance Anecdotes came to me at a moment when I was desperate for work and also had a two-year-old child and aging parents. It was part of a series that Oxford University Press publishes and most of the people who write those books have all the stories at hand. I didn't: I researched. And I had a vision; I wanted to include stories that would show theatrical and nontheatrical dancing as a vocation, even a mission, and I wanted stories that children as well as adults might find of interest. It's a luxury to hold a vision and the result was that the book took me seventeen years to complete. My editor at Oxford, the late great Sheldon Meyer, truly understood me and he waited, serving as editor even after he had retired from the press. I heard that mine was the very last book this wonderful editor worked on. The paperback edition is dedicated to his memory as well as to the memories of my parents, both of whom died in the time I worked on it.

Who are a few of your favorite dancers of all time?

Goodness, there are way too many! But one "dancer" you might not have thought of was the outstandingly graceful baseball player, Satchel Paige.

Are there any other films created by different studios that you feel achieved greatness in their marriage of dance and animation? 

Absolutely! Max Fleischer's studio, Disney's chief competitor during the 1930s, produced dancing sequences that were gorgeously musical, charming, and beautifully drawn. Betty Boop starred in several of them, such as her "Snow White" and "Poor Cinderella." I'd also cite the very simple slow marching dance of Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur, the amazing animations of Lotte Reininger, Alexander Shiryaev, and Wladyslaw Starewicz from just before or just after World War I, Gene Kelly's duet with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh, and even the animated credits to The Pink Panther. But you must remember that I'm not an animation historian. I'm missing entire repertories, which I'm sure that your readers will fill in.

Which film do you feel is the prime example of cartoon choreography?


Where did the idea for your new anthology book, Dance in America, originate?

Dance in America is a compendium of other people's writings—seventy-one other people. I wrote an introduction, of course, but I'm not represented in it as a contributor: There was no room. 

In May of 2010 I sent a message to the Library of America's editor-in-chief, Geoffrey O'Brien, to say it was nice to see him at the recent reception for current and former fellows of the Guggenheim Foundation and to ask if he had any time to meet about the “dance writing project” that he and I had discussed at the reception. I had worked with Geoffrey on the reference book he used to edit, The Reader's Catalogue, in the 1990s, as the contributor in the Dance section, and I was teaching my annual “Dance in Film” course at Barnard at the time (Geoffrey often writes about film for The New York Review of Books), and so it was natural for us to speak about dance, film, and—since he was an editor—writing projects. 

At our first meeting in the Library of America offices, Geoffrey and Max Rudin, then LoA's Publisher and now its President, weren't sure that there was enough material for an anthology restricted to American writers and/or American dance. Robert Gottlieb had just published his landmark anthology of international dance writing in English, Reading Dance, and it was nearly 1,400 pages long. Was anything left? But I had some ideas about writings that Bob hadn't chosen. Also, I wanted to include genres of writing outside formal essays or articles: I wanted poems, letters, journal entries, and other unanticipated sources. And I very much wanted authors who are rarely if ever associated with dance as a substantial subject of their work. I've been reading a lot about dancing from the time I was in grade school, and I knew that dance writing is a genre of surprises. To find treasures, sometimes it's necessary to think unconventionally. I spent a lot of time reflecting on the collection and raking my memory as a reader, as well as actively researching and reading material new to me.
What challenges did you face in the research process?

The best part of the research was learning so much—including what the resources were to try to find out anything about whether dance writing existed anywhere from sea to shining sea before the United States of America did! And having to think so hard about what “America” means, especially now, was educational indeed. I also was introduced to the fact that my sense of myself as proficient at basic math was a preconception that had to be revisited. I made three different tables of contents over the years of putting the anthology together, and the first one was 2,000 pages long, with something like a couple of hundred contributors. That's when I learned that I didn't know how to count and had, in my wishful way, considerably overshot my allocated 550 pages of text. I was also introduced to the realities of permissions fees: For instance, the cost of anthologizing some poetry was simply prohibitive for an anthology from Library of America, a nonprofit press. Money counts: Who would have thunk it? 

So, I tried to narrow the collection's focus in every way possible. Early on, I cut the English-language writings I had gathered from Cuba and Canada and the English translations of South American classics, for instance, Jorge Luís Borges's reflections on the tango, the complex and evocative partnered dance of his native Argentina. I regretted that, as the tango has been quite popular and influential in the United States, sometimes in its supple, chess-like, improvisatory Argentinian form, sometimes in its regulated competitive ballroom forms, and sometimes as a staged choreography, such as the tangos that Rudolph Valentino used to do in silent movies or bravura dancers perform in tango revues. The fact that I'm one of those pokey readers who lingers over every word was a huge challenge. Hello, midnight espresso! And then there was the scanning of possible passages from hundreds of books and periodicals. I was very lucky there, as three wonderful Barnard students stepped up to help: Susanna Friscia (now a freelance journalist), Rhitu Risal, and Ariel Rivkin.

What is it that excites you most in writing about dance?

Truly? That I can do it. Dance writing involves so many perceptual skills and so much memory (the fun factor of taking notes in the dark without looking is quite overrated) and so much knowledge about how music and sound and movement and composition and running times for the chaos part and—OMG! What color were the bodices, and were there ten people on stage or twelve?—Well, as the novelist put it, God is in the details; you can see right here how the effort to write about dance can break down the English language and, in certain high-stakes platforms, the critic's very mind. The idea that one might have an opinion, too, and that the opinion is why you were assigned to review the show in the first place, can drive a critic out of the the dance-critic biz altogether and into a new career in sales. Every time, I sit down to the computer and think, “Aloff, you're sunk.”

And then I remind myself—I'm being absolutely literal here—of the most important experience I had concerning the solving of puzzles. For, ultimately, writing is a version of puzzle-solving, sometimes with just a few pieces and sometimes with thousands. Anyway, I was in the seventh-grade math class of the immortal Mr. Sewall at Philadelphia's Beeber Junior High. Mr. Sewall gave the class an assignment of solving a math problem that covered all the blackboards in the classroom and called upon every mathematical procedure we were supposed to have mastered to date. So, I duly copied it and took it home, sure that I'd never get it. I asked my father, an electrical engineer, to help me. But he was of the devil's party, that is, he told me that unless I did it myself it would never count in the largest scheme of things, whatever that is. So, I sat down with pencil and paper and started at the beginning, on the left, and went from required operation to required operation, until, after an hour or so, I arrived at an answer, which I remember to this day: 3/400. Would you think that was the right answer? The fraction was lopsided; it has no je ne sais crois. But it's what I found, and the next day it was what I turned in.

The following day, Mr. Sewall announced that two people in the class had gotten the right answer. One was in decimals, and the girl who had turned it in said that she'd worked on it with her father, and Mr. Sewall nodded approvingly. Don't even think of asking me how I felt! For the second answer, he said that he'd written it on a 3 x 5 card and put it in a sealed but translucent envelope and that, since he was standing next to me, I could read the answer aloud and would the problem solver stand up. He placed his thumb on the envelope so that I could see it was a fraction, and that the top number, the numerator, was a 3. I began to scream. And he moved his thumb on the envelope so I could see that the bottom number, the denominator, was 400. I've never forgotten that lesson: When you think you're lost, intellectually speaking, go forward step by step. It doesn't always get you out of the woods; there are puzzles where you have to somehow put yourself in the zone to provoke an epiphany from absolutely out of the blue to get clear. But step-by-step often does work, and the process has a comforting dimension. I used it the morning of 9/11, when I was on the subway heading uptown to work and my daughter had just taken the subway to her school, ten blocks away from Ground Zero. 

But back to dance reviewing: After re-running that junior-high experience as a talisman, I embark on my first draft. Most puzzles eventually have solutions, and just that knowledge—even if you yourself aren't the one who will solve them—removes the high anxiety attendant on the undoable. And, myth or wish or fiction as that may be for the most rarefied enigmas, the prospect of solution is exciting.
What is one thing you learned while writing this book that you didn't know before?

As the dance historian Joanne Barclay Skoller discovered and wrote about, between 1846 and 1847, the ballet Giselle was performed between 30 and 50 times in Boston, Massachusetts, alone. Think about that: Giselle was given its world première, by the Paris Opéra Ballet, in 1841. And in a mere five years it was being performed across the Atlantic, in just one city (that is, exclusive of the performances in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the U.S.), at least 30 times in a single year. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

What subject would you most like to tackle next?

An encyclopedia of the world's luxury spas, hotels, cruises, and Guide Michelin restaurants. If you're aware of an interested publisher, I'm listening.

Buy Mindy's new book, Dance in America, HERE!