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."
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.