- Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire by John Franceschina
As sensitive to the eye of the camera as to the lines of the human body, the choreography of Hermes Pan both changed dance for camera and manipulated the ways in which Americans watch dance. In his new book, Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire, John Franceschina captures the essence of a man dedicated to the art of making dances for Hollywood. Unlike some of Franceschina’s previous roles as editor or translator, this recent publication allows him greater latitude to explore his own authorial voice. Franceschina examines the choreographic prodigy alongside American history and technology. He also demonstrates his extensive knowledge in disparate fields by offering detailed accounts of the artistic and culturally rich world in which Pan lived. Hermes Pan traverses both the slight and the scholarly; it is an instructive text laced with juicy entertainment gossip.
While Franceschina’s earlier publications have demonstrated the author’s expertise in the fields of theater and music,1 Hermes Pan proves that he also has an excellent grasp of both dance and dance for camera. He uses technical dance and camera terminologies and then supports these terms with encyclopedic descriptions. Additionally he fills the text with dense historical, technological, and musical theater facts, so that even those well versed in these [End Page 120] areas are likely to finish the book with a substantial bulk of new knowledge. Franceschina’s greatest contribution, however, is the blueprint he draws for scholars interested in American musical theater and Hollywood cinema’s Africanist2 presence.
Icons such as Fred Astaire have overshadowed Hermes Pan’s legacy within the annals of dance and musical theater, in much the same way Broadway and Hollywood have invisibilized Pan’s labors by omitting his name from the credits. It is for this reason that dance enthusiasts will be surprised to read that Pan assisted LeRoy Prinz in choreographing the all-black musical Lucky Day (36–7), was Fred Astaire’s right-hand man in countless Hollywood films—Flying Down to Rio, Top Hat, and Roberta to name just a few, and was responsible for Bob Fosse’s big break (187).3 Franceschina attributes some of this to Pan’s personal desire to stay out of the spotlight: “… Hermes resembled more the anonymous artisan or monk from the Middle Ages” (5). However, his career and contributions have been no less significant than those of other major names. Franceschina’s biography shines light on Pan’s extraordinary ordinary life and his prolific career as dancer, choreographer, and diplomat.
While this book lacks the allure of drugs, sex, and starvation that so many dance memoirs and biographies rely upon, Franceschina’s book is no less addictive. Similar to the way that Christian Science and maternal ties became both driving and obsessive forces in Allegra Kent’s dance career and personal life (1997), Catholicism and familial obligations simultaneously drove and impeded Pan’s personal life and career. These demons kept Pan a closeted homosexual, but also kept him choreographically productive and humble. Pan choreographed eighty-nine films for Hollywood and still struggled to accept public accolades, including an Oscar and an Emmy for best choreography. Despite Pan’s success, he often experienced a spiritual emptiness and thus offered up each of his dances in prayer as “spiritual contribution[s]” (130). Feelings of gluttony and shame consumed Pan, and he consequently lived a life of abstinence and secrecy.
Hermes Pan diverges from typical dance biographies that are full of sexual escapades and non-closeted homosexuality. The only significant mention of Pan’s romantic life regards his secret lover, Gino Malerba, a dancer he met while working in Italy. Yet despite the silenced nature of Pan’s romantic life, he had a wealth of deep friendships. Franceschina devotes the majority of his text to these relationships. Letters dispersed throughout the text from American figures like Cole Porter, and anecdotes that describe personal...