by Meredith Morris-Babb, Director, University Press of Florida
A Books That Matter Essay
The Fosse Style, by Debra McWaters, Foreword by Ben Vereen (University Press of Florida, 2008)
“Dance as though no one was watching.” When the opportunity to acquire books in dance can into my life, I tour jetté-d at the chance. What better way to express one’s love for dance then through books for everyone?
I love the ballet and all of its force of emotion and music, but my heart is drawn to jazz dance, specifically, the dances and choreography of Mr. Bob Fosse, Mr. Jazz Hands himself. Now there was a man who knew how to break from the known, go to the edge with unflinching conviction, guided by a vision and style that remains unique and complete. His signature movements were so subtle yet so powerful in their expression, sensual in their delivery, cynical in their purpose, provocative in their meaning. Most people regard him as the guy behind Cabaret and Chicago, and those musicals do indulge in his singular style. But if you want to see classic Fosse, watch him as the Snake in “The Little Prince.” It’s like Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark—only that man could play that part so well. Fosse simply was the snake. However, I am drawn to other works—The Pajama Game with Gwen Verdon dancing “Steam Heat,” and the movie All that Jazz with the number “Bye-Bye Life.” How many performers get to choreograph their final performance? Genius.
What bothered my editorial sensibilities though, were the Fosse knockoffs; those crass imitators who saw nothing more than hip thrusts and cocked wrists as Fosse-style. Here, in Bob Fosse as much as in the dances of Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharpe, was the American jazz style. So was this magic to be lost simply because Fosse never had a dance company? Stars have had their careers made with his dance—Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minnelli still make his dances the center of their one-person shows. You know it when you see it, and, if you know it, you know when it is done badly. So the editor in me wanted to codify that style, capture that genie of technique and pedagogy in a Fosse-style bottle.
About four years after making my move to the University Press of Florida, a press with a strong list in music and dance, my chance arrived. The Carr Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida had booked the show Fosse!, a retrospective of Fosse’s work created by Ann Reinking, a protégé and romantic partner of Fosse’s, in collaboration with Gwen Verdon, his wife and mother of his daughter. The three-act musical is a marvelous tribute and a wonderful documentary of Fosse’s evolution as a choreographer. Of course, I had contacted Ann Reinking about a book project, but she expressed no interest. I wanted to meet the person who was staging and directing the show—perhaps here was the author for my dream book. It turns out, in a surely serendipitous sign, that the dance director, Deb McWaters, was living in Tampa.
Deb and I hit it off immediately. We both shared the same vision and the need for a collaborative effort to preserve that which we both found precious and special in Fosse’s work. Many issues needed to be fleshed out before we could begin with a proposal, however, much less a contract. Were the dances in copyright? Did Nicole Fosse, his daughter and artistic estate heir, own the trademark on his image, name and use? What was Reinking’s role going to be? Did the estate of Gwen Verdon have any say? Was this going to be a legal nightmare like a book on Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley? Almost, almost…
First, we contacted Nicole Fosse. We received approval to do a book on the dance style of Fosse using the production Fosse! as the basis, but Reinking would have to pre-approve everything. Well, that made sense, and we proceeded with the estate’s permission. But of course, things never go quite that easily. For reasons that are still unclear, Ann Reinking suddenly opposed the idea, stating that if anyone should do this book it should be her, an idea she had already declined once.
I wrote to the Fosse estate lawyers asking if the dance moves (not the choreography) were trademarked or copyrighted in anyway. In other words, was there anything preventing us from showing moves as being in the Fosse STYLE but not recreating any single Fosse dance in toto. The lawyers reluctantly agreed that we could proceed in this manner, but of course that meant no endorsement from either the family or Ann Reinking. This was the dilemma. Do we honor the wishes of the ex-girlfriend, or do we preserve for posterity that which was not going to be done otherwise, for it was evident that this denial of participation had a personal element in it. Deb, it appeared, had fallen out of favor and no longer was of the tribe. But Reinking made it quite clear that she had no intention of creating such a book herself or with Fosse’s daughter. Posterity or publicity: that was the question.
We opted for posterity.
The book required defining Fosse’s funky names for all of the moves and postures, then photographing dancers performing them. This was very challenging as Fosse’s choreography is filled with small, subtle, nuanced, movements. Fosse once described himself as “turned in:” rounded shoulders, knocked-knees, and fallen insteps all lead Fosse to create a closed-up, tightly wound, style with bursts of unexpected openness and freedom. The signature wrist rolls are called the “Soft-Boiled-Egg Roll,” and are to be performed as if holding an egg. Sequential photography to show the Fosse version of the Mosh Pit (“The Clump”) and its variations the “amoeba” and “seaweed,” the hat flip with fingers extended, and so on, were needed. Fosse’s dancers are so highly stylized, yet you can see how easily a dancer can put their own mark on this choreography.
How to capture this? Dance is so visual, all mirrors upon mirrors, that dance technique is quite demanding to capture on film. We opted to use both male and female dancers, two of each, to demonstrate how personal the movements could be. Each movement was done in at least three sequential photos. The book was divided into body parts because that was how Fosse taught his classes. The book closes with a sequence of photographs from the earlier chapters that show how the moves can be put together into a Fosse-style dance. We really wanted to re-create “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” but the lawyers said “no.” So we created a fake Fosse dance using Fosse-style moves. It worked brilliantly. Deb was able to capture in the narrative how necessary it was for dancers to perform a move perfectly AND improvise within the style, for the dancer to be utterly fearless because the first eight counts belong to them alone.
As we neared the end of both our budget ($1200 for the photography alone!) and our endurance, Ben Vereen called me out of the blue. Yes THAT Ben Vereen. He had heard about the book and offers to write a foreword. Hallelujah, the Fosse angels are here! The foreword is a loving tribute, and Deb is most gracious in her acknowledgements even to Reinking. Once final piece was needed: the essay or prologue that would place Fosse into the dance historical context. Why did this man’s vision matter? What did he contribute? Dance critic and historian Mindy Aloff provided the prologue and we were done.
The book has done reasonably well, but it did not earn back its costs in Year One. It remains a solid if not stellar backlist contributor. But that was not the point. Deb, I, and all the dancers put into the written record, for all the ages, the genius that was Bob Fosse. That is so satisfying and rewarding. Because every time I walk into a big meeting or presentation I always think…
“Give ‘em the old Razzle Dazzle…..”