A dance is never just about the steps. But what if Gwen Verdon hadn’t happened to Bob Fosse?
Nicole Fosse, their daughter, has a suspicion that her mother had a good deal to do with Fosse’s 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.
“He’d be trying to find something in his body, and she would get next to him and start imitating him,” Nicole said. “He’d 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 Bob 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 Verdon’s 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.
“She’d say, ‘Leave the room, Bob, come back in 10 minutes, come back in 20 minutes,’” Nicole said. “And he would peek in, and he’d go, ‘Can I come in?’ And she’d 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 wasn’t limited to rehearsals. “Maybe what even happened in the studio wasn’t 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. Verdon’s 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 that’s 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 that’s what drew me to the project: This chance to really steep myself in a new dance language.”
Haberman, who performed in “Bob Fosse’s 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 they’re very soft and sweet, and there’s no dark thing,” Haberman said. “There’s no irony.”
They’re 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 Verdon’s lead — generosity and playfulness. It’s what made her dancing so delightful. “To me, that’s why it’s so attractive, and that’s why I hate so much of the interpretations now,” Haberman said of Fosse’s work, “because it’s hard — it all has hard edges and it doesn’t 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, it’s just like ahhh. There is just this ease. It was kind of Gwen’s 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t work with Verdon closely but spent some time with her after “Dancin’” opened and Fosse left to work on his semi-autobiographical 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 that’s the step?’” Haberman said. “And she goes: ‘No. Why are you leaving him?” She wanted a narrative right there. “She’s got a whole dialogue going on in her head, and that’s what’s informing everything she does, but it’s so simple and sort of so innocent. She makes an instant connection with whatever is coming out of her brain.”
Haberman’s staging of “Sweet Gwen” is taken from Verdon’s point of view. For the first section, a trio, Haberman told the men they should think of themselves as being Pazcoguin’s best friends. “But for Georgina, it’s how you felt when you were a young dancer and you were starting to make it,” she said. “There’s still a great innocence, and it’s fun and light, and you don’t even know how good you are yet. That’s 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 Verdon’s 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. “It’s that time of life when you’re like, Oh. It’s not sad, but it’s all of those feelings. It’s 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 doesn’t come completely naturally to Pazcoguin. Generally, she dances strong roles. But it’s happening at a good time: Pazcoguin recently published “Swan Dive,” an incendiary memoir about her life as a ballet dancer.
“It’s been a huge practice of vulnerability, just sharing my story in that way,” Pazcoguin said. “I’m looking back to the past and being like that is the past. The past is fact, and the future is possibility. And I think that’s where it bubbles up in my chest and makes me want to cry. That’s 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 they’re dancer nerds or they won’t — it doesn’t matter,” she said. “But I think it’s just feeling of a grown, confident woman who owns everything about herself. And that, again, creates an ease because you’re 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 doesn’t buy into that anyway — it’s about dancing. The simple joy of good dancing. That’s 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 father’s and mother’s work to have a home outside of being embedded into a Broadway show,” she said. “I think that there’s a dozen or more pieces that can live in the concert dance world.”
“Dancin’” is aiming for a Broadway revival in 2022. “I imagine it’s going to have a wonderful run,” Nicole said. “But then when the show closes, it’s gone. And it’s a shame that ‘Big Deal’ or ‘Sweet Charity’ has to run on Broadway for those dances to be seen.”
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