Beautiful work, Miriam Nelson, in ‘Picnic’ (1955) 5

Dance · Film

It was a delight to learn, after checking credits (“Who did this?”) on this sexy dance between William Holden and Kim Novak in PICNIC (1955), a YouTube phenomenon, that the choreographer was our good friend Miriam Nelson who died in 2018 at age 98. Deliciously done, Miriam.

It was my honor to share a meal with this (rare, female) film choreographer, occupying a red leather banquette at The Smoke House restaurant in Burbank. She gave me her very distinctive memories of Jack Cole dating to the 1930s in revues. The widow of dancer/choreographer Gene Nelson lived right around the corner at the time. Miriam was a very good friend of Robert Birchard and he often told me about her before I had the chance to meet her. She wrote in her autobiography as follows about her number for PICNIC:

“I was hired to teach Kim (Novak) and Bill (Holden) to dance in Picnic, 1955. They would be filming all day and I would get them in the evening, when they were both tired. That wasn’t the only challenge I encountered. Kim was painfully shy and inhibited, not a good thing for a dancer, and Bill didn’t want to dance, so I had to deal with that. I also dealt with rehearsal conditions in Hutchinson, Kansas, which were unusual to say the least. We rehearsed at a jukebox joint surrounded by bar patrons.”

From Miriam Nelson’s autobiography, My Life Dancing With The Stars

I do wish James Wong Howe had kept his camera fluid, although he does have beautiful framing shots … I don’t love the closeups, but I “get” them. I appreciate the little choreographic details, like when the duo changes their hand grip, the pauses (a perfect thing to give non-dancers to do), and the way Holden is leading Novak toward the end. I like how Miriam staged the couple right at the brink of falling into the water. Marvelous.

choreographer miriam nelson, courtesy orange county register

5 thoughts on “Beautiful work, Miriam Nelson, in ‘Picnic’ (1955)

  1. Newman Stare Aug 21,2021 1:04 pm

    The scenes and music and style of dancing is Over the Top Amazing.
    It put me into another world completely while watching these dance scenes.
    Miriam and Gene Nelson were truly The Dynamic Duo of dance.

  2. debra levine Jan 12,2021 5:07 pm

    Great comment. Yes, the pauses are very clever and they are “all in” on doing them.
    Cheers, Karen

  3. Karen Goodman Jan 12,2021 2:26 pm

    Thank you, Debra, for this gem of a clip. Yes, sexy and well-danced. An excellent use of those 2 beauties. So it was framed that way only showing them from the thighs up or is that bc the ratio has been changed to accommodate digital? It works for me knowing now they weren’t dancers. And the pauses are wonderful and so smart to have included.

    I met Miriam once very briefly maybe about six years ago. Her son, Chris Nelson, lived next door to us for a couple of years. He’s an accomplished film and TV editor.

  4. A dance fan Jan 12,2021 10:34 am

    Thanks so much for posting this interview! That dance number in Picnic is one of the sexiest, most powerful moments I’ve ever seen on film. Always wondered who staged it — it’s amazing the connections of talented people we have lost. Stunning this was Gene Nelson’s wife. I gather they worked together quite a bit, and Gene is probably the most talented, least recognized genius of dance there ever was. Amazing athlete, dancer and choreographer who made the skillful transition into directing. Someone needs to do a book/story on Gene and Miriam. FYI this is Gene dancing up and down a staircase banister, seemingly without effort:

  5. Mark Christian Miller Jan 12,2021 10:23 am

    Marvelous! And the music!

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