Centerwork: Not the "Old" Razzle-Dazzle
Training in Fosse-style jazz can help deepen performances.
A still of Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug,” from the 1969 film Sweet Charity. DM Archives.
Like George Balanchine and Martha Graham, Bob Fosse is one of the rare choreographers who not only created a large body of spectacular work, but also engendered an entire stylistic cannon. His slinky, sinewy movement is sensual and quirky, and his pieces are always grounded by emotional depth, whether it be Velma and Roxie’s burst of bittersweet celebration in Chicago’s “Hot Honey Rag” or “Big Spender,” the ode of the tired dancehall hostesses in Sweet Charity.
Though he died 26 years ago, Fosse’s contributions spanning the stage and silver screen haven’t lost relevance. “His work is copied repeatedly by recording artists, choreographers, and performance artists in homage to him,” says Lloyd Culbreath, who performed in original Fosse productions including Dancin’ and Big Deal. “People continue to clamor to it because it’s so singular and beautiful.” The revival of Chicago, choreographed by Fosse devotee Ann Reinking, is still running on Broadway; Pippin (with Fosse-inspired choreography by Chet Walker) is back on the scene; and many choreographers leading the field today cut their teeth in Fosse or Fosse-style productions: Graciela Daniele, Andy Blankenbuehler, and Sergio Trujillo, to name a few.
Fosse didn’t codify a technique to train future dancers, yet his style can serve as an essential underpinning for students of all disciplines. And, in a contemporary dance-scape that often focuses on athleticism and wow-factor steps, Fosse’s smooth style and attention to detail are invaluable.
Telling a Story
Fosse is known to have called his dancers “actors,” emphasizing that their primary job is to communicate a story—whether through dialogue, song, or dance. “Everything he did had an emotional, mental, physical, political, and ethical turn to it,” says Diane Laurenson, a Fosse master teacher at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Nowadays, tricks are a dime a dozen. But a dancer who can make you sit forward in your seat is precious. Bob taught us to be complete entertainers.”
Taking a Fosse class can help dancers work on their acting chops, says Broadway veteran Valarie Pettiford, who earned a Tony nomination for her work in the revue Fosse. “Each step has an intent behind it and you have to bring out every aspect of your character to convey it.”
For Dana Moore, who teaches both at Steps and Marymount Manhattan College, students are in dire need of Fosse work—instead of screen time. “Young dancers are used to sitting with a computer,” she says. “There’s often a disconnect as far as being expressive. Fosse style encourages dancers to engage emotionally.” Moore, who performed in Dancin’ and Sweet Charity on Broadway, says it also helps develop ensemble skills. “In Fosse group numbers, each dancer is a real character and individual, while still contributing to the ensemble picture,” she says. “It helps students learn the joy of working together to create a piece.”
Valarie Pettiford and Lloyd Culbreath at American Dance Machine for the 21st Century's reconstruction rehearsal of "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar," from Big Deal.
Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Verdon Fosse Estate.
Attention to Detail
Due to the intricate nature of Fosse’s choreography (a single finger wag in “All That Jazz” or a sideways glance in “Who’s Got the Pain”), patience, subtlety, and a respect for the process are honed.
“The style requires an incredible work ethic,” says Nicole Fosse, the daughter of Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and director of the Verdon Fosse Estate. “I have seen dancers work on the same four counts for three hours.” Because much of the work is based on intricate isolations, dancers develop a heightened body awareness and laser focus.
Kathryn Doby, Bob Fosse’s trusted assistant for Pippin, Chicago, and Dancin’, says the Manson Trio from Pippin is a perfect example of the patience required for this precision. “When you first watch it, it looks easy,” she says. “But really there are a million nuances, like the first step that looks like a figure eight with your toes: The movement actually starts from the hips! You have to work endlessly. You can’t look for instant gratification.”
While this process is intense, both Culbreath and Pettiford, who teach professional-level Fosse workshops for the Estate, say there are two huge payoffs in auditions and onstage. “You must be able to watch and replicate in a detailed and multilayered way,” says Culbreath. “That hyper focus in auditions can separate you from the others.” Pettiford adds that a diligent rehearsal process ensures a steady confidence in performance. “If you worked on something in Bob’s way, there was not one tiny second that was alien when you hit the stage,” she says. “You were so prepared. You could just relax and perform.”
In an often hyper-sexualized commercial dance world, Fosse’s work challenges students to be sexy without being vulgar. “Bob’s work was always sensual and subtle, not in-your-face sex,” explains Doby. “That was never his intention.”
For Nicole Fosse, the tendency to misconstrue the work’s sensuality is due to the lack of attention to acting intention. “Often, dancers are trying to reconstruct from what a finished product looks like,” she says. “But the process he used has been forgotten, changed, or skewed.” For example, the performers in “Big Spender” appear extremely sexy—but they were never told to be alluring. “They were directed to be bored, tired, and uninvolved.”
To avoid the “telephone game” that can unravel choreography as the years pass, Fosse advises dancers to stay as close as possible to the source. (As director of the Verdon Fosse Estate, she oversees the licensing of all of her father’s work, and vets master classes and workshops.) Books and videos—like the original movies Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and Damn Yankees—are a helpful secondary resource, but a direct link to the Fosse legacy will offer the most benefit. “Have the veterans come to your studios or take master classes when you can,” she says. “Go back to the original seed and you’ll see: Fosse is timeless.”
Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer in NYC.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
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On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.