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A Dream Choreographed by Fosse

It has taken nine years for Gwen Verdon to fulfill the late dancer's vision of a Fosse scholarship program for performers of the future.

August 04, 1996|Susan Reiter | Susan Reiter is a freelance writer based in New York

NEW YORK — When 50 hopeful young dancers audition for Gwen Verdon and a panel of high-profile dance professionals next Sunday at UCLA, they will be helping to fulfill a vision cherished by the late Bob Fosse, the celebrated choreographer-director who was married to Verdon and who guided her to many of her most memorable performances. Two of the auditioning dancers will be selected as the first recipients of the annual Bob Fosse Scholarships, which will cover the costs of a wide-ranging, full-time year of dance study.

It has taken nine years for Verdon to locate a venue and format for these scholarships, a project that is clearly as important to her as it was to Fosse, who died in September 1987. In his will, he left a portion of his money to be used to train young dancers.

For a while, Verdon, who shot to fame in such celebrated Fosse musicals as "Damn Yankees" (1955), "Redhead" (1959), "Sweet Charity" (1966) and "Chicago" (1975), tried to make his dream of a scholarship program a reality through her own efforts. "I was still working, so I couldn't keep going out and auditioning people or going around to all the schools to watch classes," she explained during a recent interview at a dance studio in midtown Manhattan. "I couldn't do it alone, but there was this money sitting there."

She found what she considers to be the ideal partner in the Los Angeles Dance Foundation, a 5-year-old nonprofit organization with a strong educational focus. Verdon has endowed the scholarships in Fosse's name, and the foundation will coordinate and administer the program. "It's a new venture for us, but it's remarkably close to what our original plan was," notes LADF President Grover Dale, a well-known film and Broadway dancer-choreographer.

Exposing young dancers to a wide range of dance styles and encouraging them to explore each in depth is central to Verdon's idea of what these scholarships should accomplish. Excellence is the goal. "Bob was very concerned with how dancers are being trained," she said. "There's no place in California for young dancers to get the kind of rounded dance education that you get in New York, where there are all kinds of dance classes available within a subway ride of each other."

Verdon's own experience taught her the value of learning different ways of moving rather than focusing too narrowly on one style. "You can't believe the things we studied when I was a kid," she remarked. "We even learned how to juggle! I studied Spanish dancing, flamenco, ballroom, East Indian, Afro-Cuban; you name it!" That rich background served her well when she appeared in musicals and films choreographed by Jack Cole and Fosse, both of whom drew on a rich array of movement styles, from ballet to ethnic, in their work.

She wants to see today's young dancers become equally aware of and open to a range of movement possibilities, and hopes the scholarship program will help to broaden those who may become the performers of tomorrow. "It aims to open them up to something other than rap dancing or strictly ballet. They tend to go for extremes rather than being able to put it all together," she said.

The scholarships are available to intermediate-level dancers who are between 16 and 21. Auditioners have been culled from applications submitted in advance, and Verdon and the scholarship program's four Los Angeles directors--Sally Goldin (a former Broadway dancer), Rebecca Wright (former Joffrey and ABT dancer), and Bill and Jacqui Landrum (media dancers/choreographers)--will make the final selection. The recipients will then shape their own curriculum from the classes offered by eight Southern California dance studios and schools.

"We will customize the program for each recipient, according to individual needs, and each will be assigned a mentor," Dale explained. "All the major dance studios have agreed to be part of the program, so this is a real effort at building community."

Although they bear Fosse's name, the scholarships are not particularly aimed at preparing dancers for a musical theater career. Dale emphasizes that the recipients will be encouraged to pursue their own interests. "If they are leaning toward a concert career, we will encourage local dance companies to accept them as apprentices," he says.

In the course of their October to June study, the scholarship dancers will also have a chance to work on Fosse material, since veteran Fosse interpreters such as Chita Rivera and Ann Reinking (another former Fosse wife) will offer master classes when they come through Los Angeles. Verdon plans to check in every three months to evaluate their progress. "I'll see what's going on with other dancers who are studying in the classes and get a head start on what might happen next year."

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