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Dance of the Eggheads

In Manhattan after the Second World War, I’ve been told, a group of African American dancers, musicians, painters, and writers gathered regularly for martinis and mutual support at the home of the dancers Dorcas and Frank Neal, in Chelsea. The core membership included James Baldwin, Billy Strayhorn, and Talley Beatty, the choreographer, who told me about the group when I was researching my biography of Strayhorn in the early ’90s. “Jimmy Baldwin was a wonderful dancer,” Balley said in an interview, “but he’d only dance with you if you read his books.” Only after the dexterity of his mind had been established would Baldwin reveal his skill with the body. I thought of that little-known but unsurprising fact about Baldwin as soon as I saw the video for “Lotus Flower,” the first single from Radiohead’s new album, The King of Limbs, and not only because the title of the song reminds me of Strayhorn (who wrote songs called “Lotus,” “Lotus Blossom,” and “Ballade for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters”). Thom Yorke, having thoroughly established his brains, has decided to put his moves on screen.

As longtime Yorke fans know, he has always liked to bop around the stage, sort of dancing, in concert. His movements in the “Lotus Flower” video take off on the loose gestures of that geek-boy grooving, and also seem to quote explicitly from the canonical spasms of Joe Cocker, who never sought a reputation as a musical intellectual and, from the start, used his body and his voice in equal measure to communicate earthy wildness. Astutely, Yorke collaborated for the video with the choreographer Wayne McGregor, a postmodernist who, like Yorke, loves technology.

The “Lotus Flower” video brings three great earlier clips to mind: The film of Yvonne Rainer’s historic “Trio A,” a masterpiece of once-radical vernacular movement; the “Life During Wartime” sequence from Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, in which David Byrne gave up his art-school nerd schtick to do a rubberleg New Wave vaudeville act; and the definitive movie egghead dance, Jerry Lewis’s solo in The Nutty Professor (presented here as a mashup, because I can’t find the unaltered clip online). By my count, Yorke does at least four moves done first by the original king of limbs.