In the Pantheon of the American musical, choreography division, Agnes DeMille was the pioneer, with Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett the great hyphenates who fused style, form, and content. But Bob Fosse was the ultimate stylist: no other choreographer-director had so crazily individual a personal stamp. His brand of expression was not, as many alleged while the man was alive, a case of style over content. It was style as content. (See Cabaret, arguably still the finest musical film of the past 50 years.)
The movements grew from Fosse's own physical "defects," which with a perception known only to genius he embraced, accentuated, and exaggerated until they became as identifiable as the Ralph Burns arrangements the choreographer favored. The crazy angles — knees in, hands splayed, ankles insouciantly crossed; languid arm gestures and hips jutting out at right angles; sagging limbs, alternately rounded and shrugging shoulders; legs crisscrossing over each other like scissors somehow imbued with sex. The liquid moves — bodies now hunched over, now slinking and sinuous, their movements sly and self-referential; sharp head-snaps and precision; the finger snaps and bowlers — half hating show business and mocking its pretensions, half celebrating its gloriously self-centered excesses. You can sense the choreographer's crazy quilt of influences (Fred Astaire, Bill Robinson, Jack Cole, even Michael Kidd) but it all comes out Fosse.
And the sex. If ever an American choreographer was defined by his heterosexuality, it was Bob Fosse. Watching a number like Sweet Charity's famous "Big Spender" routine, you may become convinced it's the sexiest display of erotic boredom ever staged. Fosse felt no sexual guilt, and he didn't condemn. He celebrated sex, embodied it, even as he explored its darker emotional contours. He was as shockingly direct as an artist can get this side of pornography.
One of the most exhilarating afternoons of my youth was spent in Shubert Alley, watching a matinee of Fosse's three-act tone poem Dancin'. For a man whose rows with composers were legendary, it must have been nirvana: use existing music and let it take you where your imagination and inner rhythms lead. And no story to get in the way of the numbers. Dancin' was Fosse, neat.
I mention that show because eternal Fosse dancer Anne Reinking's own enterprise, the NETworks' National Tour of Fosse which recently played at Duke University on Dec. 3 as part of the Broadway at Duke series, fares so badly in comparison. While the re-stagings of her mentor's dances are often magnificent, Fosse provides no context in which to view them. Dancin' had no context either, but it required none; the numbers were complete, in and of themselves. For all its idiosyncrasy and rebellion, Fosse's imagination fed on the material he was given. In Fosse, the numbers he created for The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Chicago, All That Jazz, and Big Deal come on denuded: they're devoid of plot, character, and meaning; they can't stand on their own as the pieces in Dancin' could.
This is especially true of the movie numbers, which suffer not only a lack of dramatic purpose but also absence of Fosse's breathtaking camera angles and kinetic, even astonishing, film editing. A song like "Mein Herr," cut to the rhythm of John Kander's Weill-esque music and the bodies of Fosse's chorus girls and absolutely riveting on screen, becomes merely amusing. Likewise the dazzlingly erotic "Take Off with Us" from All That Jazz, stripped of its corresponding subtexts, has nothing like the visceral impact it achieved at the movies. This may in part be due to changing times; the number's brazenly pansexual exploration of physical coupling shocked as many people in 1979 as it gratified. Now it seems, despite its brilliance, a bit tame.
As a consequence, it's the Dancin' numbers that fare best, like the pugilistic, percussive "From the Edge," "Crunchy Granola Suite," and — supremely — Fosse's jaw dropping "Swing, Sing, Sing," which practically constitutes an entire third act. But the show's designers took Bob Fosse's all-black personal wardrobe to an extreme; Fosse was nearly devoid of color. Dancin' on the other hand, exploded with it.
Worse, the young company who danced Fosse in the Triangle seemed under-rehearsed, if not indeed under-experienced. I don't know that I'd call any one of them bad, exactly, and a few (Noel Becker, Omar A. Merced, Sae La Chin, Tammy Gibson) were superb. But dancing as rhythmically complex as this demands a precision of which many in the ensemble seem, for the moment at least, incapable.
Note too that the show at Duke featured "recreations" of the original show's direction and choreography, as though Reinking and her co-director Richard Maltby Jr. couldn't be bothered. The whole thing had the feel of a pre-tour tryout, as though we'd been sent the third-string company. And at those prices! Did the producers assume we hicks wouldn't notice?