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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.

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Dance Teacher Tips

The choreographer who changed Broadway jazz

Fosse rehearsing Shirley MacLaine for the film Sweet Charity (1969)

From pigeon-toed stances and widespread palms to sinewy, meticulous isolations, few choreographers evoke such strong imagery as Bob Fosse (1927–1987). Not only did he revolutionize the look of musical theater in the 1950s–’80s, his work continues to influence choreographers and filmmakers today. A Chicago native, Fosse began studying dance at age 8 when he accompanied his sister to dance lessons. A natural mover (and without the means to pay for dance lessons), Fosse began performing on vaudeville stages and in sleazy burlesque joints. In 1953—after high school and a two-year stint in the Navy performing for troops in the South Pacific—he signed a contract with MGM Studios in Los Angeles. Proving his choreographic chops in one section of the film Kiss Me, Kate, Fosse was hired to choreograph The Pajama Game on Broadway, earning him his first of nine Tony Awards. Although Fosse did not develop a codified technique to train dancers for his work, his style is immortalized by his choreography in many musicals, including Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, Pippin and Chicago.

The Work

Fosse’s dynamic choreography often shows a flair for the provocative, full of dark humor and sharp wit influenced by his early experiences in vaudeville and burlesque. The following productions showcase his style (Fosse both choreographed and directed all but Damn Yankees).

Damn Yankees (stage, 1955): (Dir. George Abbott, chor. Fosse) The baseball-inspired dances show Fosse’s often overlooked athleticism. In the 1958 film version, he appears in the number “Who’s Got the Pain,” dancing with Gwen Verdon.

Chicago (stage, 1975): Seen as the signature Fosse musical, Chicago was revived on Broadway in 1996 (chor. Ann Reinking) and is still running today.

Bebe Neuwirth in Chicago, 1996

Dancin (stage, 1978): With everything from tap to ballet, the plotless musical revue features Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” and Neil Diamond’s “Crunchy Granola Suite.”

Liza Minnelli in Cabaret

Cabaret (film, 1972): Based on the 1966 musical Cabaret (chor. Ronald Field), the film stars Liza Minnelli as a nightclub performer in 1931 Germany. Famous numbers “Mein Herr” and “Money, Money” were not in the original Broadway production, but have been added in stage revivals.

All That Jazz (film, 1979): This semi-autobiographical film follows Joe Gideon, a choreographer who must find balance between his health and a grueling work schedule. In it, Fosse forecasts his own death when Gideon dies from a heart attack. Fosse had undergone open-heart surgery after a heart attack five years prior. A subsequent attack in 1987 proved fatal.

 

The Legacy Lives On:

* After Fosse’s death, Chet Walker (who had been a dance captain of Dancin’) and Gwen Verdon hosted workshops teaching Fosse’s style and repertory. The sessions led to the production of the dance revue Fosse.

* The 2002 film Chicago, starring Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, won six Oscars.

* Beyoncé’s 2008 music video “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” shows close resemblance to Fosse’s 1969 “Mexican Breakfast,” a trio starring Verdon. Beyoncé’s 2007 video “Get Me Bodied” also lifts moves from “Rich Man’s Frug,” and Paula Abdul’s 1989 video “Cold Hearted” references “Take Off with Us” from All That Jazz.

* Many choreographers working today have been influenced by Fosse’s style, including 10-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele (original Chicago), Radio City Rockettes director Linda Haberman (Dancin’), Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo (Fosse).

 

Resources:

PRINT:

All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse, by Martin Gottfried, Bantam Books, 1990

Bob Fosse’s Broadway, by Margery Beddow, Heinemann Drama, 1996

“Bob Fosse,” by Fiona Kirk, Dance Teacher, April 2006

“Auditioning for Fosse,” by Ann Reinking, Dance Magazine, February 2007

VIDEOS:

All That Jazz, dir. Bob Fosse, 20th Century Fox, 2003 (DVD)

Chicago, dir. Rob Marshall, Miramax Home Entertainment, 2002 (DVD)

Fosse, dir. Matthew Diamond, Image Entertainment, 2002 (DVD)

Cabaret, dir. Bob Fosse, Warner Home Video, 2003 (DVD)

Damn Yankees, dir. Stanley Donen, George Abbott, Warner Home Video, 2004 (DVD)

Kiss Me, Kate, dir. George Sidney, Warner Home Video, 2003 (DVD)

Sweet Charity, dir. Bob Fosse, Universal Studios, 2003 (DVD)

WEB:

The Verdon Fosse Estate: verdonfosse.com

Dancers Over 40: panel discussions: youtube.com/dancersover40

PBS’ “That’s Dancin’: Fosse on Broadway” and “Broadway: The American Musical” resources: pbs.org

 

Photos: Chicago photo by Dan Chavkin, all courtesy of the Dance Magazine Archives

Dance Teacher Tips

How I teach musical theater jazz

"It’s time to hop on the isolation express,” Dana Moore calls out to students in her theater jazz class at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Standing in parallel first position with eyes facing forward, Moore’s head begins to alternate left, right, up and down. But it doesn’t stop there—before moving her shoulders, the veteran Fosse dancer has led the class through more than 10 variations of head isolations at multiple tempos. It’s this kind of specificity that Moore sees as the cornerstone of a successful performance career. “Of course you have to have technique, but if you really know your isolations, you have trained your body to do anything,” she says. “And not just for Fosse’s work. You can do anyone’s choreography.”

Moore certainly has the resumé to back up that thought: In addition to Bob Fosse, she’s worked with choreographers Tommy Tune, Michael Bennett and Twyla Tharp. Still, it’s Fosse whom she identifies as her biggest influence, and she feels a responsibility to pass his legacy to students. “I worked intimately with him and Gwen [Verdon] in rehearsals, and I feel confident that I’m the genuine article,” she says. “I can pass it on with as much authenticity as I know, and be true to what I understand is the intention of his movement.” Moore doesn’t teach his direct repertoire, yet her own choreographic style and class exercises are infused with Fosse’s vocabulary.

In class, the isolation drills follow a grueling 45-minute warm-up of stretching, conditioning, yoga, jazz and ballet-based exercises geared to developing a dancer’s sense of proper alignment and whole-body connection. “With younger students in particular, I’ve noticed a disconnect between the top of the body and the bottom,” she says. “The legs are doing it, and maybe the arms are doing it, but something in the core hasn’t been engaged.”

Sloppy isolations are clear signs that a student’s body is disconnected; it’s as great a challenge to keep the whole body still as it is to move one part individually. “There’s a step in Fosse’s ‘Big Spender,’ for instance, that has distinct pelvis and shoulder isolations, but the torso isn’t doing anything extra,” she says. “That specificity of the movement gets very murky if too many things are moving.”

Here, Moore demonstrates hip and pelvis isolations and shows how they can translate to a Fosse-style step:

A Pennsylvania native, Dana Moore trained with Doris Singer Kokoski before moving to New York City at 18. Moore performed in the original production of A Chorus Line, along with Singin’ in the Rain and The Will Rogers Follies, among many others. Her Fosse credits include Dancin’, revivals of Sweet Charity and Chicago, and the musical revue Fosse. She can be seen dancing on film in Fosse (a video performance of the Broadway show), The Producers and Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. Now on faculty at Marymount Manhattan College and Steps on Broadway, Moore is also a frequent guest artist and teacher at The School at Jacob’s Pillow and in France and Finland.

Photo by Jim Lafferty

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