A slim hand slides around the base of a bowler hat. A cloud of sleek bodies cloaked in black moves in perfect synchronicity. The look is unmistakable: Fosse.
First a dancer, then a choreographer, and, finally, a director, Bob Fosse became one of the most—if not the most—important figures in 20th century jazz dance. He brought a style to the American stage and screen that would make timeless, canonical performances, from the long-running Broadway musical Chicago to the iconic films Cabaret and All That Jazz. Beloved by Broadway and film, Fosse will get the television treatment as FX airs the miniseries Fosse/Verdon starting next week, April 9, 2019. Based on the choreographer’s life with his longtime on-again/off-again partner, actress Gwen Verdon, it stars Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams as Fosse and Verdon.
Fosse’s influences first came from burlesque houses around his native Chicago, where he would perform in a tap duo. He was also deeply inspired by the classic dance stylings of Fred Astaire. The famed burlesque bump and grind would show up in his work later—its presence is indisputable in his choreography 1969’s Sweet Charity, for example—as would Astaire’s long lines and lean sprightliness (like in Fosse’s “Alley Dance” from 1955’s My Sister Eileen). By high school, Fosse began developing what would become his choreographic aesthetic, dark humor, and sly sexuality at the vaudevillian venues where he performed.
After joining the Navy, Fosse performed as a dancer in nightclubs and on television with partner and eventual wife, Mary Ann Niles. Fosse would ultimately leave Niles for Joan McCracken, a classically trained dancer beloved for her musical comedy background. McCracken was deeply influential to Fosse, encouraging him to take acting and dance classes to further his skills. She was also the first person to push him to be a choreographer. A friend of Broadway producer George Abbott, McCracken was instrumental in Fosse landing his first role as choreographer with The Pajama Game.
That production led to more work on Broadway, starting with the musical Damn Yankees. The show provided a professional introduction to actress, dancer, and singer Gwen Verdon, who would later not only become Fosse’s muse but his third wife. Verdon, with her impeccable skill and training, pushed Fosse to develop his choreography even further, moving from his vaudeville antics into his own, more refined signature. Producers and directors often tried to suppress the underlying sensuality of Fosse’s choreography, however, so he moved into directing and choreographing his own work without apology.
Through the 1950s and into 1960s, Fosse would morph his Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly-like litheness into a detailed, dark, and sensual style that he himself distilled: all shrugs and props and slouches and turned-in knees, movements even the most highly trained dancers had never seen before. “They were the culmination of taking something that looked broken and making it perfect,” Fosse muse Ann Reinking wrote in 2007. “And these movements had to be extremely clean and tastefully done.”
Fosse’s style blossomed on screen and off. His once upbeat and playful choreography became grittier, bolder, more sexual. He also filmed dance as it had never seen before, in perspective or in jump cuts, a technique that would later be used in infinite music videos. He found particular success directing and choreographing the 1972 film version of Cabaret, a tale of seedy 1930s Berlin, which would win eight Oscars. It was followed by Chicago, a musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb which Fosse also helped write.
Arriving at his own style made Fosse a legend. In his lifetime, he would win eight Tony Awards for choreography and one for direction of a musical. And while he would find success with his earlier work, it was with his later work, like Cabaret and Chicago, where he would truly find himself as an artist and access the darkness and desire that fueled him. It’s this work, this style, that showed his truest self and, perhaps accordingly, has become most cemented in American memory.END
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