by Michael Bowen
He called it "the amoeba": a sensual, writhing mass of angled limbs, white gloves and tilted bowler hats -- first coalescing in a dance-orgy, then breaking up into twos and threes. The dancers pinched in their elbows and snapped their fingers, hunched their shoulders and rolled their hips, walked pigeon-toed and made backward exits, pushed out their pelvises and dangled their cigarettes.
The man who innovated these moves had an illustrious stage and film career. Between the mid-'50s and his death in 1987, Bob Fosse won Broadway's Tony award for Best Choreography eight times (for The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Pippin and others). He also directed and designed the dances for two multiple-Oscar-winning films, Cabaret and All That Jazz, and for a 1975 Broadway musical that eventually became last year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Chicago.
More than that, Fosse stood out as his alter ego in All That Jazz - the chain-smoking, hard-drinking and -drugging, serial-womanizing, hyper-manic heart-attack-surviving dynamo who - great balls of fire! - became, simply, "Fosse."
The current version of his namesake dance celebration (at the Opera House, March 4-7) has, in its lead dancer, a strong link to the great choreographer himself. That's because seeing Michael James Scott in action is to see the Fosse tradition as it has been handed down through the three actor/dancer/singers most closely associated with Fosse's work: Gwen Verdon, Ben Vereen and Ann Reinking.
Scott worked in the rehearsal hall with Verdon, Fosse's third wife and main leading lady, when she served, a year before her death in 2000, as artistic advisor for the original Broadway production of Fosse.
Scott has also played two of the theatrical roles for which Vereen is most famous: the Leading Player in Pippin and the (unnamed) lead dancer in this international tour of Fosse. Vereen - who, back in 1971, created the role of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar - joined this tour in Paris for its initial six weeks.
Reinking, once Fosse's girlfriend and muse, now his chief living artistic champion, co-conceived, -directed and -choreographed Fosse when it opened on Broadway five years ago.
Having worked with the people who worked with the master, can Scott attest that the amoeba keeps writhing on? "We do all those things and more," he says. "Just in the prologue, you probably get all [those moves], literally in the first five minutes of the show.
What was it like to learn from Ann Reinking (who was in the original stage production of Chicago)? Scott reports that she and Debra McWaters, her co-choreographer, "kept very true to the teachings of Fosse." At rehearsals, he recalls, "it was literally a demonstration, and it was very fast. I mean, we had time in the studio to work it, but Ann comes from the Fosse world, and with her there, you're expected to learn it fast and to keep moving on."
When it comes to dancing the Fosse style, says Scott, a willingness to break the rules and display one's sensuality is paramount: "Whenever I teach master classes, that's the first thing I tell [dancers]: You have to be willing to let yourself go. You can't hang onto feeling awkward or feeling embarrassed. That's what Fosse was known for - there was no inhibition."
Certainly the show's most frenzied numbers don't show any inhibitions: "Hey, Big Spender" from Sweet Charity (1966), "Razzle Dazzle" from Chicago, and the slam-bang finale, "Sing, Sing, Sing" from Dancin' (1978).
Even the transitions between numbers are choreographed - and edgy. In "Divine Decadence," Fosse presents three pairs of dancers: two women, two men, and a straight couple. "That's a good example of -- if you like it or not, it didn't matter -- Bob was going to put that up onstage," says Scott. "He was always on the edge, pushing those buttons.
"If you haven't seen [same-sex couples] live and up onstage before, it can bring up some uncomfortable feelings - especially if you're there with your parents," he laughs.
Scott's big solo, "Life Is a Bowl of Cherries," packs a different wallop when it's reprised near the end, right after "Bojangles," in which Scott has to impersonate an elderly Bill Robinson - one who's aware that for him, the dance is over.
"At the end of the number, Bojangles is dying," Scott says. "And then right after that, I sing 'Cherries,' which is saying that life goes on, and don't get too worried, don't take it too seriously."
Just as Fosse can change viewers' attitudes, Scott wants potential ticket-buyers to alter their expectations about the production itself. "It's not a show that's intended to give you a book-story," he says. "It's a show that's intended for you to literally sit back and enjoy a celebration of Bob's work. It's a musical concert - take it as that, and not as traditional musical theater.
"Some people have no idea that Bob created some of these numbers. But they'll start singin' along, and then you overhear people saying, "Oh my god, he did that?"
Publication date: 02/26/04