Putting it together
The tricky business of Fosse reconstruction gets a hand from the heart.
Reviving dormant choreography is closer to fine-tuning a recipe by taste than building from a yellowed set of blueprints: key to any archival project is a dancer who remembers the flavor of each moment and how it blends into the next. Recruiting the foremost authority on celebrated jazz choreographer Bob Fosse-—Broadway legend Ann Reinking—was unsurprisingly deemed essential to Melissa Thodos’ goal of restaging his work. The result of their venture, titled Fosse Trilogy and embedded within a concert of recent dances created mostly in-house, premiered earlier this month and repeats Saturday 28 at the Harris Theater.
Their timing is certainly right—the renaissance of interest that began a decade ago with the Tony-winning dansical Fosse and Rob Marshall’s film Chicago received an extension in 2007, when a video of Mexican Breakfast—included in Trilogy—set to Unk’s “Walk it Out” became a YouTube juggernaut and template for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” The buzz that ensued about Fosse’s influence and whether it was being adequately acknowledged, though, didn’t initiate much of an uptick in revivals of his rarely seen pure-dance shorts.
The idea was to seize the moment and let Fosse’s work speak for itself, but Thodos and Reinking were forced to shelve it for lack of funding until Rick Johnston, Thodos’s bookings director, caught wind of a National Endowment for the Arts grant named American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius. “A major initiative to acquaint Americans with the best of their cultural legacy and celebrate the rich evolution of dance and choreography in the United States” turned out to be the ideal vehicle for the project, and Fosse Trilogy was on its way to the stage.
With financing in place, Reinking made her final selections and chose the order of their appearance. She also decided to turn what originally were unrelated dances, one for stage and two for television, into a single, continuous act. The exacting environment and smart subtlety of Fosse’s choreography makes any intrusion an invitation to failure, but Reinking is fluent enough in his vocabulary of flicked wrists, cocky glances and syncopated hip thrusts to suggest something larger surrounding Breakfast, Cool Hand Luke and Tijuana Shuffle. (The musical bonding agent is a metronomic woodblock, often used by Fosse for intros that build anticipation without the suggestion of melody.) Interactions among the nine dancers respect the trios’ internal logic and don’t overstay their welcome.
Reconstructing for stage what was made for television—Breakfast was shown on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, Shuffle on a Bob Hope special the year before—presented new hurdles to the Thodos crew. Resident designer Nathan Tomlinson says, “I’d done very little lighting for jazz dances to begin with and, on top of that, had to figure out how to re-create these specific moods in a theater instead of on a soundstage.”
Tomlinson found help in visits to rehearsal, where Reinking was giving everyone more to work from than just steps and counts. Thodos, also a choreographer, says Fosse Trilogy won’t impact her style as much as how she teaches it. “I’m really taking away from the experience how Ann went about rebuilding these pieces.” There were discussions about geometry and timing, even the precise shape of a pinkie finger, “but from the very beginning she was including images, stories and textures as well. It changed the way I think about direction, about how you can guide the artists’ intuition toward their own discovery of the best result. With choreography like Bob Fosse’s, you don’t have to tell them every word of the story—it’s there clearly enough to be self-evident.”
Thodos Dance Chicago presents Fosse Trilogy along with six other works at the Harris Theater Saturday 28.