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Cool Finger Fosse 

Celebrating one of the American stage's premiere choreographers

When I was a high school senior, applying to colleges, I made a "parody" application, rounding out my credentials with impressive activities like "Varsity Triangle, 4 years." If only I had taken my triangle playing more seriously, I might have ended up like Bruce Carver, setting the tone for an evening celebrating Bob Fosse with a syncopated triangle solo, getting to the heart of the director and choreographer's style and attitude with a simple "dit dit-dit dit dit" ringing through the Buell Theater.

That minimal sound somehow manages to capture the fascination with rhythm, the precision of physical isolation, and the unmistakable scent of sexuality that combined to color the world of Bob Fosse. Although his place is assured on the very short list of choreographers for the American theater and dance stage, it's hard to fathom how he turned his unique vision into an art form flirting with universal appeal. I'm sure there are those who can deny an attraction to his physical interpretation of the human form, but those hold-outs clearly have issues of repression and need to learn that denial is not just a river in Egypt.

A few numbers into Fosse, those expecting some sort of traditional dance concert begin shifting in their seats as the realization sets in that we could be in for an entire evening in which no two body parts are set in motion at the same time. The flexing fingers on a dancer's splayed hand transform into the foundation of a full number, highlighting the power of the isolated movement. Let gravity reverse the pull on the fingers, and the hand begins to drip into the stage like wax off a hot candle, the rest of the body motionless, not even flickering.

Try this at home -- you can no more replicate the spread and extension of those finely tuned fingers than you could rise up on point or make a perfect, leaping, split. Whoever holds the copyright on the term limbs akimbo can probably retire on the strength of Fosse's choreography. Fosse created a new vocabulary for dance, in part by finding dozens of new limbs, getting as much expression out of a shoulder, a knee, or the derbies that became synonymous with his black-clad dancers as has ever been mined out of arms, legs, and torsos. Finger snaps upstage leg kicks and exaggerated awkwardness steal the focus from the old guard of classical grace.

The show is a collection of scenes and musical numbers drawn from 27 plays, movies, and television shows celebrating Fosse's work. There is no plot, no linear continuity in the sense of a traditional musical, but there is an enduring pathos that moves throughout the show. The show recreates Fosse's original choreography from his projects such as Cabaret, Pippin, Chicago, All That Jazz, The Little Prince, Damn Yankees, Kiss Me, Kate, Liza with a Z, The Pajama Game, and Sweet Charity, and the creative team of Ann Reinking and Gwen Verdon, his proteges (both), lover (former) and wife (latter) give the project ample credibility.

As the prologue to the evening builds to a crescendo in "Bye Bye Blackbird," the company draws the audience in to feel a part of a tribe. There was always something radical and revolutionary about Bob Fosse, something even intimidating to the uninitiated. I can't think of another choreographer whose work is so uniquely characteristic and identifiable as Fosse's, and to have a Tony-award winning musical (Best Musical, 1999) recognizing his impact is a form of redemption for his legions of followers.

Over the course of the evening, Fosse makes mesmerizing dance out of thigh slapping hand jive, hat tricks, and head bobs. We see the choreography of cigarette smoke. It's hard to keep your feet still, to keep from tapping your toes and snapping your own wannabe fingers, but I guess that's kind of like singing along at The Sound of Music.

Fosse was comfortable with composers ranging from pop legends like Cole Porter, Cy Coleman, and Benny Goodman, Broadway songsmiths like Kander and Ebb to renegade country rockers like Jerry Jeff Walker, whose Mr. Bojangles is one of the evening's highlights. He could work with all levels of dancers and non-dancers, ranging from long-term relationships with Liza Minelli, Ann Reinking, and Ben Vereen to miraculous make-overs of lead-footers like Roy Scheider. The show captures everything from the orgiastic "Take Off With Us" to the stunning, ground-breaking roots-break-dancing of "Glory," from the powderpuff feathered-follies send-up of "Who's Sorry Now?" to the big-time production number of "Sing, Sing, Sing," just to show he can.

Mid-way through Fosse, I found myself wondering why his work hasn't reached even further. I want to see Olympic gymnasts incorporating his moves, high school cheerleaders on the football field, shrugging and smirking as they inch their way along the side lines, exotic dancers and strippers putting those derbies to use.

When other audience-challenging shows roll into the Buell, it isn't surprising to see corps of disgruntled first-nighters leaving the theater at intermission, but the seats remained full for Fosse. Like it or not, if you make it through the whole evening, you can't help but go home a little cooler for the experience. And although the audience didn't exactly break into dance as they hit the streets and headed for their cars, it wasn't for lack of desire. At my suggestion that we all go dancing somewhere, one elderly woman in the crowd summed it up for all of us, eyes widening as she said "I wish."

-- owen@csindy.com

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