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Keeping Bob Fosse's Legacy Authentic Isn't as Easy as It Looks

Lloyd Culbreath with dancers reconstructing "Take Off with Us" from All That Jazz. Transmission-Roots to Branches. Photo by Vibecke Dahle, courtesy of The Verdon Fosse Legacy.

How does a choreographer maintain the authenticity of his or her work? Unlike the words in a book or lyrics from a song, attributing movement isn't as black and white.

This makes the job of The Verdon Fosse Legacy, the organization that holds the rights and maintains the authenticity to Bob Fosse's work, that much harder.


Beginning in the 1950s until his death in the 1987, Fosse's iconic style spanned from Broadway stages to television and films. The work blurred lines. Although technically demanding, it also required a cool and breezy, almost pedestrian-like quality. With a sultry shoulder roll or an isolated hip wiggle, he revolutionized musical theater and jazz, molding dancers like Ann Reinking, Shirley MacLaine and Ben Vereen into stars. He didn't have a strict technique (i.e. Martha Graham, Paul Taylor or Balanchine) or even a trust in mind, as Jerome Robbins did for his work, before his death.

"He (Fosse) didn't realize how iconic his work was going to be in the future," says Nicole Fosse, daughter of the late choreographer and Gwen Verdon and artistic director of The Verdon Fosse Legacy.

Fosse's work continues to remain relevant and is frequently copied in pop culture, yet he's not always been given credit. Remember Beyoncé's 2009 "Single Ladies" video? For any person familiar with Fosse's "Mexican Breakfast," the comparison was unmistakable. No official credit.

Or more recently, Kelly Rowland, another Destiny's Child alum, sprinkled obvious hints of "Who's Got The Pain," from Damn Yankees, throughout the music video. Fosse was given a shout-out on the video's YouTube page, but there was no communication or sign-off of approval with The Verdon Fosse Legacy. The question of whether or not there should be is debatable. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

"With Fosse's work in general, people try to teach and perform his choreography all the time, and you wouldn't necessarily do that with Graham or Balanchine or Jerome Robbins," says Mary Callahan, project manager at The Verdon Fosse Legacy. "I've always wondered why with Fosse. Is it because it looks easy?"

When Nicole Fosse founded the legacy organization six years ago, she pulled from the foundation of forming a company. For a traditional dance company, like New York City Ballet or the Paul Taylor Dance Company, a repertory is established–the work taught to new to generations based on rehearsal notes, video archives, etc. Technically, only several of Fosse's works are archived and held at The Paley Center for Media in New York City. "There was no dance company to hold my father's work," says Fosse. "It was so fleeting. There was a Broadway show, then a television special and a film. So I tried to create a company." she adds.

With that in mind, she called upon three original Fosse dancers–Valarie Pettiford, Dana Moore and Lloyd Culbreath–who for three years taught monthly master classes to breakdown the choreography. Pulling from her ballet roots, Fosse adopted the word "reconstructeur," a term referring to teachers who teach—not restage or change—the work. Other "reconstructeurs" have included Mimi Quillin, Ann Reinking, Donna McKechnie and Kathryn Doby, Fosse's longtime assistant, among others.

Fosse says her father worked with dancers as if they were actors. "His work was a lot of information, a lot of nuance," she says. "Your mode of expression was the choreography."

With the intention to maintain the work's integrity and to avoid learning the choreography solely from video, a series of master classes has been instituted.


Recently veteran Fosse dancer Lloyd Culbreath taught a weeklong immersion of Fosse technique and repertoire, including "Rich Man's Frug," to students at Wright State University in Ohio. "'Rich Man's Frug' is already a beast of a number," says Callahan, "and the style and references of the piece are not contemporary. It can be difficult to get this generation to physicalize the 1960s style. The Wright State students did a superb job."

The legacy wants to continue to have all teachers trained by the organization or to have had a direct connection to Bob or Gwen Verdon. Only this year has Bob Fosse (and Fosse's master classes) become trademarked.

"Our goal is to get as close to the original as possible," says Callahan. "Nicole Fosse describes it like a game of telephone. The choreography is always going to get away from what it originally was, but we want to keep it as close as possible."

Below, watch Broadway veteran Dana Moore's recent Fosse workshop at Steps on Broadway in New York City. She taught the "Aloof" section from Sweet Charity's "Rich Man's Frug."

If you have questions about using Fosse's work, or would like more information, visit here.

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.

In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.

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News
Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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