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Matt Mattox, choreographer who shaped jazz dance; 91

Matt Mattox is credited with helping to transform jazz dance into a more rhythmically complex and eclectic form.

1991 file/Bob Boross

Matt Mattox is credited with helping to transform jazz dance into a more rhythmically complex and eclectic form.

NEW YORK — Matt Mattox — a dancer, choreographer and teacher who helped shape contemporary jazz dance in the United States and Europe — died Feb. 18 in France. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by Bob Boross, a former student.

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Mr. Mattox, who had made his home in France for many years, had a prominent career dancing in films and on Broadway in the 1940s and afterward.

Though he was not as well known as some of the celebrated Hollywood dancers of his era, he was by all accounts every bit their peer.

‘‘He was one of the greatest male dancers that ever was on a performing stage,’’ Jacques d’Amboise, the distinguished dancer and choreographer, said in a telephone interview. ‘‘He’s equal to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.’’

As a dancer, Mr. Mattox was celebrated for his ‘‘ballpoint ease, pinpoint precision, and catlike agility,’’ as Dance magazine wrote in 2007. He was perhaps best known to moviegoers as the young, bearded Caleb Pontipee, one of the marriageable frontiersmen at the heart of the 1954 film ‘‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,’’ directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by Michael Kidd.

In the movie — whose featured dancers also included Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, and d’Amboise — Mr. Mattox performs a dazzling series of leaps and splits above a sawhorse.

On Broadway, Mr. Mattox danced in ‘‘Once Upon a Mattress’’ (1959), in which he created the role of the Jester, and in the 1957 revival of ‘‘Brigadoon,’’ in which he played Harry Beaton.

Jazz dance entails far more than simply dancing to jazz music: The genre has its own aesthetic traditions and its own kinetic vocabulary.

Building on the work of his mentor, the prominent choreographer and teacher Jack Cole, Mr. Mattox is widely acknowledged as having been a primary shaper of those traditions in the mid-20th century and afterward.

Before that time, what passed for jazz dance was generally indistinguishable from garden-variety, high-energy Broadway hoofing. Mr. Mattox helped conceive a genre that was subtler, more rhythmically complex, and far more eclectic, as well suited to the concert hall as to the theatrical stage.

Combining his own extensive training in ballet with tap dance, modern dance, and folkloric dance traditions from around the world, he created a new, fluidly integrated art form he liked to call ‘‘freestyle dance.’’

‘’That elegance of ballet was there, but still, the energy and the shape of the inner body was from jazz,’’ said Boross, an assistant professor of dance at Radford University in Virginia.

From the mid-1950s on, Mr. Mattox taught this personal brand of dance to generations of students, first in New York and later in Europe.

In both places, students from around the world flocked to study with him; over the years, they ­included the noted choreographer and theater director Graciela Daniele, and a young woman, about to sing an audition for her first Broadway show and anxious to learn a dance to go with it, named ­Barbra Streisand. (The show was ‘‘I Can Get It for You Wholesale,’’ and Streisand got the part.)

Harold Mattox, known as Matt, was born in Tulsa and moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was about 11. There, he began instruction in ballet, tap, and ballroom dance, working with Cole and others.

As a young man, he interrupted his studies for service as a fighter pilot with the US Army Air Forces in World War II.

One of Mr. Mattox’s dance teachers, Nico Charisse, had a wife, Cyd, who was a pretty fair dancer herself, and through her connections Mr. Mattox got his start in movies, appearing in films including ­‘‘Yolanda and the Thief’’ (1945), ‘‘Till the Clouds Roll By’’ (1946), ‘‘Guys and Dolls’’ (1955), and ‘‘Song of Norway’’ (1970).

On television, Mr. Mattox danced and choreographed for ‘‘The Bell Telephone Hour,’’ broadcast on NBC starting in 1959.

He also choreographed the Broadway musical ‘‘Jennie,’’ starring Mary Martin, which opened in 1963; and a Metropolitan Opera ‘‘Aida’’ in 1959.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Mattox moved to London, where he started his own dance company, JazzArt, taking it with him when he moved to Paris in the mid-1970s.

Since the early 1980s, he had lived in Perpignan, in the south of France.

Mr. Mattox was married several times. He leaves his wife, Martine Limeul Mattox; three sons, ­Matthew, Christopher and Timothy; and grandchildren.

In an interview with Dance magazine in 2003, Mr. Mattox explained the genesis, at midcentury, of his singular style:

‘‘I went home, I sat down, and I drew one line on a blank piece of paper,’’ he said. ‘‘The body is a straight line, and you can do everything with it.

“Then, there was a Life magazine photographer who was experimenting in the early 1950s by shooting a man holding two lamps, which he moved against a black background. When the photo was developed, all you saw were these curving lines of light. And I thought, ‘That’s the way the body should move.’ ’’

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