His darkness lit the stage

The vocabulary of Bob Fosse's dances was informed by everything around him, good and bad.

September 17, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Theater: As this revue makes clear, the choreographer's works takes many turns.

The tipped bowler hat, the jutting hip, the turned-in feet, the gloved hands with outstretched fingers. These were part of the vocabulary of Bob Fosse's distinctive choreography.

That vocabulary was just one of the contributions to the American musical theater made by the late director/choreographer. His work is celebrated in the Tony Award-winning revue, "Fosse," which opens at the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.

The man who is remembered for such shows as "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Pippin" helped make sensuality and darkness acceptable in Broadway musicals. He translated film techniques to the musical stage. He advanced the triple-threat approach to casting by nurturing performers who were actor/dancer/singers. And he increased the accessibility of Broadway dance by using everyday life as a model.

Like most of Fosse's contributions to the stage, the element of darkness came directly out of his own life. "His life was always about his work," says Gordon Lowry Harrell, musical arranger for "Fosse," as well as Fosse's last two Broadway musicals, "Dancin' " and "Big Deal." Similarly, his work was about his life.

"Bobby was a dark person and finally expressed that in `Chicago,' and the darkness came directly from his heart attack," says critic and Fosse biographer Martin Gottfried, referring to the coronary Fosse suffered in 1975 during rehearsals of "Chicago." (Fosse died of a subsequent coronary in 1987.) "Everyone who worked on `Chicago' talked about how it changed when he came out of the hospital. Suddenly there was all this cynicism and morbidity, which gave it its strength."

"He was kind of going there anyway, but then it really took a turn after his heart attack," recalls Ann Reinking, the former Fosse companion and lead dancer who directed, co-conceived and co-choreographed "Fosse."

Dark subject matter wasn't foreign to Broadway musicals before Fosse came along. "Show Boat" deals with bigotry and miscegenation; racism is also a theme in "South Pacific"; and the rising Nazi threat shows up at the end of "The Sound of Music." "It's been dealt with, but they do shy away from it or temper it or comment on it a lot or put quotation marks around it, and he basically felt it didn't need any moralizing or commenting. You just put it out there," Reinking explains.

"He was always, oddly enough, interested in the underbelly of society. That was his first influence, so it was a prevailing theme."

That influence came from the Chicago strip clubs where Fosse got his start performing as a teen-aged hoofer. The burlesque and vaudeville-style sensuality that came to characterize his choreography also stems from those clubs. And, they were the source of the recurring theme Reinking describes as "innocence and loss of innocence."

Not only was Fosse unafraid of sensuality, he boldly created the choreographic language to depict it artistically on stage. "He allowed sensuality to be as much a part of our lives as everything else," she says.

Examples in "Fosse" range from the overt come-hither number, "Big Spender," from "Sweet Charity," to "Take Off With Us - Three Pas De Deux," a depiction of heterosexual, gay and lesbian love from the movie, "All the Jazz." His work was never smarmy, but it was almost always provocative.

In assembling his dance vocabulary, Fosse borrowed liberally from the gestures and movements of daily life, an approach that made his choreography immediately accessible to audiences. "Everything Bob did was recognizable," says Harrell. "He always came at it from a human being point of view. That is to say, he didn't pull any tricks. He didn't do anything like, how high can I jump or how many times can I turn?"

His sources were as eclectic as they were familiar, but always with a twist. "You recognize so many things - there was vaudeville, burlesque, hoofing, jazz, street dancing, social dancing, sports, there was even ballet in there," says Reinking. "There were things you recognized, even classic motifs, but somehow he'd turn them around and they'd come out this way that's distinctive Fosse, and it does break some rules. ...

"There was the time I said to him, `It's like those books that are all split up that you give children - a nurse's head, a fireman's body, a policeman's feet, such a mix of different things. Sometimes it's like watching the insides of a gorgeous Swiss clock and all of the sudden it drooped like a Dali clock."

Telling a story

Yet diffuse as his vocabulary may have been, when you put it all together, it told a story. "Choreography," Fosse once said, "is writing on your feet."

Continuing the tradition fostered by Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille, Fosse used dance to advance the plot. "To him [acting and dancing] were inextricably married," says Harrell. "You couldn't dance well if you didn't bring your acting to it."

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