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Top Broadway Choreographers on Bob Fosse's Legacy
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
Like the others, Trujillo didn't appropriate the distinctive Fosse style. But it's more than happenstance that the show produced this bumper crop of choreographers. Ask them why, and they make the school analogy. Trujillo says, "We all need some sort of master, like Michelangelo was. And for us, to be able to experience the work of Bob Fosse was like going to graduate school in choreography." Blankenbuehler likens it to "a finishing school."
For Rhodes, it was more like his freshman year—Fosse was his first Broadway show, and he was totally focused on performing. But, he says, "Even if you didn't know you were going to be a choreographer, that kind of training is like having a professor help you along the way. We all had Professor Bob Fosse."
They needed him. As Blankenbuehler points out,"There weren't a lot of mentors." Partly because of the impact of AIDS, partly because dance shows were not in fashion in the '90s, there wasn't "a Bob Fosse or a Jerome Robbins or a Michael Bennett I could chase—who I could dance for in his shows, be his dance captain."
He learned a lot doing several shows with Susan Stroman, Blankenbuehler says, but he was still "attracted to the classics—to study from them, as if they were a teacher." That's why, although already a choreographer, he returned to performing to tour with West Side Story. "I'd never done West Side," he explains. "To me it was like a college course. And I think dancing in Fosse was very much the same thing."
Rhodes notes that doing the show was not for everyone. "You had to be really dramatic with your body; you had to tell a story; you had to show musicality. And you also had to have a certain type of performance quality. I think all those things are sort of beyond just average dancers—maybe that is what gave us all insight into how far you can take dance, and how much you can tell a story with dance." For him, the crucial lesson was Fosse's composition, "the way transitions happen, the way you get from one formation to the next. He had meticulous composition—it was like Balanchine."
Rhodes says composition was his takeaway, "probably because as a swing, you have to attack not just the step and the style. You have to understand the entire stage picture. So at a very young age, I got the master class in the overall picture of Fosse's work. I got to watch it and learn what worked. As I put myself into all these different roles, I had to find the way in that was right for my body. I didn't realize it at the time, but being a swing was actually preparing me to be a choreographer."
Now, he says, when he's stumped, he finds himself borrowing from the numbers he did in Fosse. "It turns into different steps, because it's a different show with different characters," he says. "But Fosse's composition will always get you out of a jam." A particular favorite, he says, is "Rich Man's Frug," with its interweaving clusters crossing and circling one another. "It works like a Swiss clock," he says. "That kind of composition is beyond steps or the style of the movement."
Blankenbuehler looks beyond the steps, too, beyond the isolation that is such a crucial element of the Fosse style. "Another part of isolation," he notes, "is stripping down the unimportant. A lot of Broadway musicals are actually about adding on. That's not a bad thing, but Fosse's way is a different approach. You strip away, and boil down what's most important. 'Big Spender' is a perfect example—he stripped everything away to its raw, cold bitterness."
The Hamilton choreographer also cites Fosse's "study of tension and conflict, because so much of his choreography is about not letting out energy—the internalization of deeply seated pelvic angst. It feels sexual, but it's really about neurosis and dysfunction."
The climax of Hamilton, he says, the slow-motion Bullet dance that kills the title character, is "a Fosse-esque gesture": not in its steps, "but in the way it constricts energy and boils down one statement into a moment in time. And that's what I learned at finishing school."When Blankenbuehler and Trujillo toured together in Fosse, Blankenbuehler recalls turning their 10-minute breaks into study sessions: "We would sit outside and write notes on the show—analyze the show, talk about our thoughts about the show." He's held on to that notebook. And, he says, he recognizes the same impulse in some of his casts. "I know who's a choreographer—you can see their brain working in those ways. It's a gift for me, because I know I have somebody who's using their brain first, not just their body."
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.