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Moving Fosse's Legend Forward

For these dancers, staying true to the master's form is deeply personal.

October 11, 1998|Janice Page | Janice Page is executive producer of sidewalk.com for Boston

BOSTON — The next time you're at some swanky dinner party, try putting forth the argument that Symphony No. 9 can't be properly played or conducted by anyone who hasn't personally known, or been taught by someone who worked with, Beethoven.

Expect not to be invited back.

Yet propose to four dancers in the 36-member company of "Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance" that the artistic legacy of this late, great contemporary choreographer depends largely on their personal commitment to passing the torch and you'll get little argument from any of them. What's more, they seem happy to shoulder the responsibility.

Bob Fosse, they say, was unique among choreographers, dancers, directors, actors and just about any combination of the above. Because the subtext of his works was always at least as important as the text, his canon must be passed down from dancer to dancer in the same way that folklore survives best via personal storytelling. You don't "do" Fosse, they say; you "feel" Fosse--inhabiting it in a way that can't be communicated through film or other bloodless mediums.

For Valarie Pettiford and Jane Lanier, two veteran dancers who star in this three-act "Fosse" revue opening Oct. 21 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles on its way to Broadway, feeling Fosse means something deeply personal.

"I can still see him doing [the steps]," says Lanier, who danced the 1987 "Sweet Charity" revival on Broadway. "I can see him in the studio and what he looked like."

Pettiford, who was cast in Fosse's last Broadway debut--1986's "Big Deal"--and the first national tour of "Dancin'," remembers "the elbow, wrist, hand. The cleanliness, the focus, the preciseness. And, through all of that, the acting of it all. The passion."

She remembers, too, a sense of compassion that elevates this director-choreographer to something just short of sainthood in her eyes. During one set of auditions, Fosse asked her to point out any dancers who she thought could "cut it" but might be a little nervous that day. He promised to keep them in the running for as long as possible.

"I wanted to cry," says Pettiford. "That's got to be the nicest thing ever."

Where Pettiford and Lanier don't have a personal image of their mentor to access, they almost always have a visual of dancers Gwen Verdon (former Fosse wife) or Ann Reinking (former Fosse girlfriend) to tap into. Reinking choreographed the recent revival of "Chicago" and is listed as co-conceiver (along with Richard Maltby Jr. and Chet Walker), co-choreographer and co-director on "Fosse." Verdon, star of too many Fosse vehicles to mention, is listed as artistic advisor for this revue.

The problem for dancers yet to be indoctrinated is that Fosse died in 1987 and Reinking, 47, and Verdon, 73, won't be around forever, blasphemous though such talk is in the company of dancers. Lanier acknowledges the fear, confessing her worry that "when Gwen and Annie are gone, the essence won't be there as much." Because if the stories change even slightly with each generation doing the telling, how long before what remains of Fosse's style is something noticeably different than it was at birth?

To get an idea, witness the gulf that a mere two degrees of separation can create.

"Fosse" dancers Scott Wise and Desmond Richardson are a decade apart in age (the first is nearly 40, the second just entering his 30s) but share the charge of carrying on the Fosse legacy without benefit of being taught by the master. They also share a vision of Fosse far less personal than that of their veteran colleagues, if no less passionate.

Wise, a Tony Award winner for 1996's "State Fair" and 1989's "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," spent some time recently viewing old TV and film clips of Fosse (think "Kiss Me, Kate"). His conclusion: "He wasn't this black creature" but, rather, a "bright soul" made more human by his darker shadings. He seems less inclined to admit to the "sadistic side" that Lanier sees in a choreographer--beloved though he was--who would put skimpily clad female dancers upside down on hard wooden chairs during the "Mein Herr" number from "Cabaret," then ask them to sing. ('I mean, that hurts!" she says.)

At least Wise recognizes that his rosier view is influenced by the "Dancing Bob" numbers he populates in this retrospective of Fosse's 40-year stage and screen career. As Lanier playfully points out, he might feel differently if, instead of the sweetly nostalgic "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal Mo" vignette from "Damn Yankees," he were dancing the supremely raunchy "Take Off With Us" number from "All That Jazz."

And then there is Richardson, the youngster of this foursome that came together for an interview one afternoon in the middle of the show's run here, just before its L.A. engagement. His credits include the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the American Ballet Theatre. "Fosse" is his first foray into musical theater.

So, how does he feel about feelin' Fosse? A lot like Wise feels, it turns out.

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