To San Diego, for Fosse’s Dancin’!

Dance · Theater
bob fosse’s dancin’ in rehearsals. Photo by julieta dervantes

It will be a reckoning. I have been researching Bob Fosse through his several biographies and of course, critically, through his movies. So, the advent of a major revival of Dancin the original Broadway production created, directed, and choreographed by Fosse, this time directed and staged by a wonderful dancer/choreographer and original Dancin‘ cast member, Wayne Cilento, gives an unparalleled opportunity to see how the jazz-dance master’s work has held up over years. Certainly as danced by the glorious racehorse dancers in the rehearsal photos on this page.

Fosse is far from my favorite choreographer, but he is undeniably a giant of 20th Century dance. So I am eager to experience Dancin‘ as a kind of Fosse living museum, in real time. The bumps, grinds, sleaze, robot women, unabating sexuality; physical distortions (some quite ugly); lack of flow; the mincing, shuffling, and posturing all give me pause. (But, other than that, I love his work!) I consider my struggle with the work of an influential dance artist to be worthy; and lately I find myself moving out of a rigid response. Recently viewing a minor work from Sweet Charity (”I’m a Brass Band“), I marveled at its structure, disciplined movement vocabulary, humor, and performative excellence. Its craft. So I am absolutely game, Bob, to give it a go in real time. That’s why I am Amtrak’ing to the marvelous Old Globe Theatre in San Diego to put my eyes on the real deal. I’m hoping to review the show, which means watching with a different set of eyes — ones less affected by feelings — eyes that are fine-tuned by critical distance.

photo: julieta cervantes

In its day, critics squawked about Dancin‘ — a famously “book-less” show, it was assembled by Fosse more or less bereft of a unifying theme, merely as a compendium of 24 disparate dance numbers. Doing so was at the time a cheeky act; it came in the wake of the success of A Chorus Line — equally dance-filled, A Chorus Line had a book. Many criticized Dancin‘ as too much of a good thing: a nice way of saying too long! That will be my first critical response.

The New York Times theater critic, Richard Eder, at the time, was not a fan.

“[p]recision and style [that] mark the evening at its best … too frequently … are in the service of very little. The hollowness shows; it becomes a gaudy and elaborate mask covering nothing; a deification of emptiness.”

Richard Eder, “‘Dancin’,’ Fosse’s Musical, Opens at the Broadhurst,” New York Times, March 28, 1978

Other critics, notably Arlene Croce, writing in The New Yorker found much to her disliking. She skewered Dancin’, scorning Fosse’s choreography as “without wings.” Croce found the choreography “locked into … [the] convulsive, writhing movement-chunks [he] habitually makes his dances out of.” Croce further lanced Fosse by pointing out that the music for his big blowout number set to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” is “after all, jazz, and Fosse’s experience is with show music.” Croce iced that cake with, “He hasn’t developed the range for the jazz epic that Sing, Sing, Sing is.”

Enter the grand dame of theatrical jazz dance, Agnes de Mille, who in 1980 dipped her quill in acid ink.

“Most of [Fosse’s work] is just gymnastics, squirming around seeing what they can try it on with next. I never thought it was possible to take sex out of eroticism, but that’s exactly what Fosse does.”

Peter Buckley, “The Fiery Miss de Mille,” Horizon, September 1980, p. 31, sourced in Kevin Winkler, Big Deal, p. 238

These critical words notwithstanding, Fosse’s Dancin‘ was a massive popular success, running 1,774 performances from March 1978 to June 1982 — four years! It was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including best new musical, and it earned Fosse a Tony Award for choreography — his seventh of a record-holding eight.

One add to this production are new costumes by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme, costume-design darlings for New York City Ballet among many other dance companies.

With this writing, misgivings are officially put aside. It’s exciting that we have the show first in California and that it is heading toward Broadway. Let’s go to San Diego! For Dancin‘!

Bob Fosse’s Dancin‘ | Old Globe Theater | April 19 – May 29

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