Teacher's Wisdom: Ann Reinking

July 26, 2007

Best known as the leading interpreter of Bob Fosse’s style of musical theater dance, Anne Reinking made famous her Broadway leads in Dancin’, Sweet Charity, and Chicago. Reinking has worked with many legendary artists, including Katherine Hepburn, Gwen Verdon, Tommy Tune, Joel Grey, Ben Vereen and choreographers Jerome Robbins and Fosse. She won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Choreography (in the style of Bob Fosse) for the revival of Chicago, and in 1999, Fosse, which she directed and co-choreographed, won the Tony for Best Musical. A 2000 Dance Magazine Award recipient, Reinking has appeared in the films All That Jazz, Annie, and Micki and Maude, and has choreographed for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet Hispanico, and American Ballet Theatre. Reinking founded the Broadway Theatre Dance Project, a summer program for aspiring dancers, and teaches master classes all over the U.S. This past March, she was a master teacher and adjudicator for the southeast region American College Dance Festival, where fellow adjudicator Steve Rooks, associate professor and resident choreographer at Vassar (and former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company) observed her class.

Fosse technique has sometimes been classified as being a bit too sensual and risqué for some tastes, yet it clearly has a style and clarity that is trans-generational. What do you say to those detractors?

Certainly the style can be sensual but elegant, and no more sensual than what you might see in sections of works by Robbins or other Broadway choreographers. The hip isolation in Fosse’s work is given the same reverence that you would give to the art of an East Indian or Balinese dancer. Bob never wanted a “hard bump”—he always wanted it dainty, very controlled. Sensuality must be done with intelligence or wit or both. Students in my class should be bound to the earth, but attached to the heavens. That paradox is so marvelous. All this history from legends like Fosse goes into what each student experiences in the class.

What is the primary foundation in your teaching approach?

One of my greatest goals is to instill trust in my students. They want to know that they can trust you, and they want you to know that they will do their homework. In addition to their technical development, I want my students to be the best dancer they can become that day. I know the pressure that dancers face in every class—they have to be careful not to judge the work that they do each day, and as a teacher it is important that I support them and create this trust.

Who were some of your greatest influences?

I was very fortunate to have some legendary teachers, including Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. However, it was Robert Joffrey who, after hearing me sing, suggested that I might consider musical theater over ballet as a career. He told me, “It really would be fantastic if you did Broadway.” His counsel was pivotal to the direction of my career, and just as when I began to teach, once I began I knew what I wanted to do.

Aside from the great movement in your combinations, there is a distinct focus on clarity of line and detail.

If I have the students long enough, I like them to work on little sections with specific goals. I think that the students should pick up things quickly, and be good at pinpointing certain aspects of the dance. These nuggets can really help fine-tune the dancers’ craft. As a dancer, you have to like repetition, and be aware of the subtext of your work. I really want to create in the student a need to become involved. As an artist, everything has to be created inside your being—you must ask, how do I get myself into the piece?

What challenges do you face as you teach our 21st-century dancers?

Our dancers are technique-bound. They often feel that by simply doing the step they’ve “done it.” There isn’t often the work of dancing from the human soul. I believe that the student should be an inventive and contributing interpreter in the class. They should have a full-size view of what they want to do beyond pointing the feet and working on turnout.

At the American College Dance Festival, you spoke of your love for great music. Can you talk about the importance of music in your classes?

When I teach a repertory class, I use music that is specific to the work. However, I love live music, and I have enjoyed some wonderful class collaborations with Philip Hamilton. Live music really makes students grow. The studio becomes a “bouillabaisse” of creativity when everyone comes to class as a contributor—the great music, the pieces of repertory, and the student’s experience.

As a teacher, what are some of your pet focal points?

I want my students to work on good alignment, but I also want them to be able to explore “different lines,” especially for those dancers with strong balletic training. Their lines tend to be there automatically, but dancers often need to just let it go. I try to go to the need of the student at their appropriate level.

As you observe today’s dancers, what would you say are the greatest needs for teachers to impart in our students?

I think that teachers should help today’s students become specialists, but I also feel that dancers should be able to integrate all styles. They should learn to communicate to their audience that what they do is good, right, and wonderful! As instructors, we need to continue to teach dancers to be creatively obliged, to be interested in all approaches to dance.