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.
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