When talking about Bob Fosse choreography, people tend to list a series of images—the moves captured in photos that, if put together in a flip book, might create a Fosse dance. Teacup fingers. The tip of a bowler hat. A pelvic thrust. A side-step forward. But talk to a Bob Fosse dancer and they’ll tell you it’s so much more than that.
“It’s precise. Fluid. Explosive, dynamic. Small, big. Ironic,” enthuses choreographer Christine Colby Jacques. “Amusing. I won't say comic, because it's not like you’re going to thigh slap and laugh. But it's amusing. It makes you go, ‘Yeah. I've done that before. I've seen people like that before.’ Or it's just a quirky thing where he's making two different joints move at the same time and your eye does not expect it. I'd say joy, fun, dramatic and mysterious. He can evoke all of those things.”
Colby Jacques is one of Fosse’s dancers involved with bringing the new production of Bob Fosse’s Dancin' back to Broadway. Dancin’ begins performances on Broadway at March 2 at the Music Box Theatre for an opening night of March 19. A celebration of the art form that Fosse devoted his life to, Dancin’ originally premiered on Broadway 41 years ago and ran for four years. Already a legend at the time, Fosse earned his seventh Tony Award for Choreography for Dancin’, a show comprising only dance vignettes with no plot or thru-line—unlike the musical theatre stage and films he’d previously worked on. It was just dance.
The new production is spearheaded by Nicole Fosse, daughter of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. She is founder and artistic director of The Verdon Fosse Legacy, an organization created to preserve and promote the artistic memory of her parents. To helm the project, Nicole Fosse turned to Wayne Cilento, a Tony-nominated Fosse dancer turned Tony-winning Broadway choreographer. Cilento, along with Colby Jacques, was an original cast member in the 1978 Dancin’. He leads the creative team reconstructing Fosse’s work, with Colby Jacques credited for “reproduction of Mr. Fosse’s choreography” and Cilento’s long-time collaborator Corinne McFadden Herrera serving as associate director and providing “additional choreographic reproduction.”
This first-hand knowledge of Fosse’s work, and Dancin’ in particular, was crucial for bringing this production back. It is not meant to be a copy of, or in the style of Fosse. Rather, it’s a reproduction of Fosse’s choreography. And since no full recording of the original 1978 show exists (although there is some tour footage and a recording a 1979 Japanese production), having Cilento and Colby Jacques’ memories and saved notebooks became key. “Even if you don't remember exactly the order of the phrase of steps, or exactly what count it was on, there is an essence, a tone, and a cadence to where it came from—being in the room when it was created—that you can't really replicate,” says Herrera. “There's an authenticity there that can't be mistaken.”
Herrera points out that Colby Jacques has also been teaching Fosse’s work for many years now through The Verdon Fosse Legacy Professional Training Program. She knows the work deep in her muscles. And sometimes it was muscle memory that brought something back in the reproduction process. “It was kind of a surprise to me,” admits Colby Jacques. “Corinne would go, ‘What about that little crossover in ‘Dancing Man?’ Do you happen to know it?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t, I’ll have to think about it.’ But then I did the step and I put my body in the form, and my body knew where to go. It did the next step.”
Colby Jacques and Herrera began the reconstruction phase with only seven dancers and three weeks, creating the framework of what would become the whole show. It was an incredibly detailed and painstaking process for the pair. “She was pumping out phrases and steps and which way they travelled. I was busy with my assistant charting it and putting people in the places they needed to be,” says Herrera. “We just pieced it together that way, number by number.”
They would then bring it to Cilento, who would also dip into his own performance and muscle memory and often demonstrated the work with the dancers. “The dancers really were incredible, too,” says Herrera. “They just devoured it.”
After that initial reconstruction phase and subsequent full rehearsal period, the new Dancin' had a tryout run at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in the spring of 2022.
But again, Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ isn’t a copy. Above all, Fosse was always a storyteller. So, in addition to reconstructing steps, the creative team has been tasked with recreating story and intention. "He knew how to create intrigue. That was the thing about him. It was intrigue before you even got into the dance," says Herrera. Teaching the steps and the moves to dancers who never even met Fosse is much more than teaching swivels and isolations. It starts with story, with ideas, subtext, and feeling. "They have to be able to communicate not just with their bodies, but with their soul. With a performance that's authentic to them," says Herrera. "It can't be recreated the way that Christine danced it, or the way that Ann Reinking danced it or the way that Wayne Cilento danced it or the way that Linda Haberman danced it. They have to find their own way with it. And it's very tricky. Those lines are very tricky when you're recreating somebody else's work."
In some places, Cilento has found it necessary to revise the story for modern audiences. But to stay true to Fosse's intentions, the creative team had to go back in time and try to figure out why Fosse made some of the choices he did, and what choices he might make today. Such as in “Mr. Bojangles,” an homage to the legendary dancer Bill Robinson, a Black hoofer from the early days of film who Fosse deeply admired. In the original production, the song was sung by a white man and danced by a white man, with a spirit dancer who was also a white man.
"We had to go back and psychoanalyze Bob's thoughts at the time. Why did he do that? Was it just those were the cast members that were available? Was he even thinking about [race]?" explains Colby Jacques. "Because he's a really smart guy, and he had a brilliant way of displaying political thoughts and opinions through his musicals. He could inject them and still make it palatable and make a political comment. So, he must have given that some thought. We still were in the '70s, and just coming out of the Civil Rights Movement." Cilento has recreated the scene and setting for "Mr. Bojangles." And now he precedes it with a Langston Hughes poem. And now in the dance, the spirit is played by a Black actor, while the other two actors in the sequence are POC.
“I know some purists might not be happy about a change like that, but even Bob has changed his own work,” says Colby Jacques. “Even after a couple of years go by and he revisits something, he kind of sees where he could make that better, or he didn't quite like that—it didn't exude the right atmosphere or the right attitude. So, I don't think he'd have a problem with some of the alterations that were made. I think if he were alive and recreating Dancin’, I think he would have changed a lot, too.”
Audiences will also get the chance to see a brand-new Fosse piece in the number “Big City Mime.” Fosse cut the piece during the Boston tryout in 1978, but Cilento has constructed a new number, using Fosse’s original intentions—Fosse’s notes that Nicole Fosse found in his notebooks, and steps from the original “Big City Mime,” as well as moves and steps culled from very early Fosse works.
“It’s so exciting. I was just floored,” says Colby Jacques of seeing the new number. “I couldn’t stop talking about it. [Wayne] managed to pack so much in. I was saying, ‘Yes! It’s got this and it’s got that.”
What she means is, it’s got Bob Fosse.