NEW YORK, NY.-
A dance is never just about the steps. But what if Gwen Verdon hadnt happened to Bob Fosse?
Nicole Fosse, their daughter, has a suspicion that her mother had a good deal to do with Fosses steps. Nicole was there when he would ask Verdon to show him a few. He would rearrange them, change the angle. He would connect them.
Hed be trying to find something in his body, and she would get next to him and start imitating him, Nicole said. Hed look at her and then all of a sudden there was this symbiotic thing that happened between them: And then there was the step.
This October, as part of the Fall for Dance Festival at New York City Center, Nicole is giving her mother credit where she believes credit is due. In a festival commission, the Verdon Fosse Legacy which Nicole formed in 2013 to promote, preserve and protect the work of her parents presents Sweet Gwen Suite, a trio of short dances originally performed on The Bob Hope Special in 1968 and The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969. Each featured Verdon, who will be credited, alongside Fosse, with the choreography. (Verdon died in 2000; Fosse in 1987.)
Linda Haberman, a former director of the Radio City Rockettes and a former assistant to Fosse, is providing direction, reconstruction and additional choreography to give the works a sense of flow and arc. Sweet Gwen Suite is scheduled for Oct. 13 and 14 (other festival commissions are by Ayodele Casel, Lar Lubovitch and Justin Peck).
While it may be impossible to know the exact degree of Verdons input, her artistic connection with Fosse they met in 1955 and married five years later created dancing that was brazen, lasting and so impossibly stylish that Beyoncé borrowed some of it for her Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) video. If only she had asked.
Nicole has no hard documentation to prove what Verdon contributed to the dances in Sweet Gwen, but she has studied her parents work and been in the room while they worked. When she was 18, her father choreographed a ballet for her: Magic Bird of Fire. Verdon was there, too, and she helped when he would get stuck.
Shed say, Leave the room, Bob, come back in 10 minutes, come back in 20 minutes, Nicole said. And he would peek in, and hed go, Can I come in? And shed say, No, give us a little bit more time. And she would have constructed something. It was like she could read his mind. She knew what he was after. She could sense where he was going with something and then she could create that.
But their creative symbiosis wasnt limited to rehearsals. Maybe what even happened in the studio wasnt their first pass at it, Nicole said. Maybe it was in the living room. There was a lot of dancing in the living room. A lot, a lot.
Where does a choreographer stop and a dancer begin? The importance of dancers in the creative process is unassailable, yet power dynamics persist. Should dancers who make up original casts be compensated for their contributions? In the more experimental, contemporary dance world, dancers are regularly cited for their choreographic collaboration, but in ballet and on Broadway where the chances of making money are higher dancers are rarely given credit.
The situation of a choreographer and muse is murkier. Verdons dance lineage includes years with Jack Cole, the Broadway and film choreographer, whom she danced with and assisted beginning in the 1940s. She trained in Afro-Caribbean and flamenco and East Indian and several disciplines of modern, Nicole said. So thats what she brought with her. As for Bob Fosse: You see his style change after he meets my mother, Nicole said. It goes from Fred Astaire, Mr. Showbiz to something else. (Mr. Showbiz being her father.)
Sweet Gwen is certainly a celebration of that meeting and of Verdon herself. Taking over her parts is another spirited dancer: Georgina Pazcoguin, the New York City Ballet soloist who has appeared on Broadway and can blaze her way across a stage.
I am in no way, shape or form saying that like, Oh yes, I know this, Pazcoguin said. And thats what drew me to the project: This chance to really steep myself in a new dance language.
Haberman, who performed in Bob Fosses Dancin (she was in the original workshop) and Pippin, was an assistant choreographer to Fosse on the Broadway show Big Deal. In Sweet Gwen, the dances, which never had formal titles, are named after the music: Cool Hand Luke, Mexican Shuffle and Mexican Breakfast, which inspired the Beyoncé video. To Haberman, that final number with its jaunty head bobs and frisky, hip-gyrating walks feels the most like Verdon.
What I actually think is really interesting about these three pieces is that theyre very soft and sweet, and theres no dark thing, Haberman said. Theres no irony.
Theyre also, she said, straightforward. And they add up to more than a pose with a derby hat. In other words, Haberman is drawing out nuance and humor, along with following Verdons lead generosity and playfulness. Its what made her dancing so delightful.
To me, thats why its so attractive, and thats why I hate so much of the interpretations now, Haberman said of Fosses work, because its hard it all has hard edges and it doesnt have any intention except kind of like counts and sex.
At a rehearsal in July, Haberman broke down the movement, fixing accents and shifting focus, but also urging the dancers two men along with Pazcoguin to be as effortless as possible. I keep saying, when we get there, it has to be like nothing, Haberman said. I mean the beauty of watching Gwen in those videos, its just like ahhh. There is just this ease. It was kind of Gwens brilliance. It just was easy.
For the new suite of dances, Lynne Shankel has orchestrated and arranged the music, by Herb Alpert, Lalo Schifrin and Johnny Mandel. While Haberman sees the first two works as being choreographed by Fosse in terms of their clear structure, it doesnt really matter to me in some way who choreographed it, Haberman said. Bob and Gwen she gave him stuff, he gave her stuff.
Their approaches were different. Haberman said that while Fosse would give dancers images for inspiration you should feel like a horse behind the starting gate Verdon was driven by narrative. Haberman didnt work with Verdon closely but spent some time with her after Dancin opened and Fosse left to work on his semiautobiographical movie, All That Jazz (1979). Verdon was there to keep an eye on the production. Haberman was rehearsing a pas de deux when Verdon asked her why she was leaving her partner at a particular moment in the dance.
I said, Because thats the step? Haberman said. And she goes: No. Why are you leaving him? She wanted a narrative right there. Shes got a whole dialogue going on in her head, and thats whats informing everything she does, but its so simple and sort of so innocent. She makes an instant connection with whatever is coming out of her brain.
Habermans staging of Sweet Gwen is taken from Verdons point of view. For the first section, a trio, Haberman told the men they should think of themselves as being Pazcoguins best friends. But for Georgina, its how you felt when you were a young dancer and you were starting to make it, she said. Theres still a great innocence, and its fun and light, and you dont even know how good you are yet. Thats the beauty of it.
The second section, a solo for Pazcoguin, has to do with being in the middle of a journey, not just as a dancer but as a woman. The dances were created at a particular time in Verdons life, after the film adaptation of the musical Sweet Charity, in which Verdon originated the title role on Broadway. (The screen role went to the younger, better known Shirley MacLaine.)
By then she had Nicole, and she was older and a mom, Haberman said. Its that time of life when youre like, Oh. Its not sad, but its all of those feelings. Its mourning for the past when you were young but hopeful that the future has got better things for you.
It also requires a quality of vulnerability, which doesnt come completely naturally to Pazcoguin. Generally, she dances strong roles. But its happening at a good time: Pazcoguin recently published Swan Dive, an incendiary memoir about her life as a ballet dancer.
Its been a huge practice of vulnerability, just sharing my story in that way, Pazcoguin said. Im looking back to the past and being like that is the past. The past is fact, and the future is possibility. And I think thats where it bubbles up in my chest and makes me want to cry. Thats what I hope to be able to portray and make the audience feel.
The third piece, Haberman said, is about owning it. This is like, I can come out here and be sassy and have a good time, she said. I can turn around and do my take right back to Beyoncé.
The dancers, in that moment, look into the direction of the audience and give a purposeful nod as if to say, yes, we know about the video. To Haberman, people will get it maybe if theyre dancer nerds or they wont it doesnt matter, she said. But I think its just feeling of a grown, confident woman who owns everything about herself. And that, again, creates an ease because youre comfortable in your own skin and you can have a good time.
To Haberman, the suite is not about celebrating some sort of Fosse style she doesnt buy into that anyway its about dancing. The simple joy of good dancing. Thats what Fosse was after. And Verdon, too. Lee Roy Reams, an original dancer in both trios, said that when Verdon danced, it was more than that just her body.
She danced with her face and everything else that went with it, he said.
And with Sweet Gwen, Nicole Fosse is hoping for something else. I would like some of my fathers and mothers work to have a home outside of being embedded into a Broadway show, she said. I think that theres a dozen or more pieces that can live in the concert dance world.
Dancin is aiming for a Broadway revival in 2022. I imagine its going to have a wonderful run, Nicole said. But then when the show closes, its gone. And its a shame that Big Deal or Sweet Charity has to run on Broadway for those dances to be seen.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times