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A Living Art

Thodos Dance Chicago's preservationist approach to Bob Fosse falls flat.



There's been more talk than usual lately about dead choreographers, due to the passing last summer of Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch. A few weeks ago in the New York Times, Arthur Lubow used Cunningham as a jumping-off point to wring his hands at length over the evanescence of dancing and the difficulty of notating choreography. But Cunningham himself didn't seem to care much about preservation. A member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company board told Lubow the master didn't appear interested in "what happened to the work," and Carolyn Brown, an original company member, wrote that Cunningham paid little attention to revivals because he was usually busy making new work.

Despite the wishes of fans, most choreography lives and dies in the present. But Bob Fosse's is an exception. Though he worked almost constantly on Broadway for more than 30 years, Fosse, who died in 1987, also created dances for television and films—including his own, autobiographical All That Jazz (1979)—that survive in their original form.

The wisdom of revisiting some of those dances by putting them onstage is less than obvious. On November 13 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, the Thodos Dance Chicago fall concert featured the much-touted "world premiere" of three Fosse works, reconstituted by Fosse protege and domestic partner Ann Reinking from pieces choreographed for late-60s TV shows. (The program repeats this weekend at the Harris.) Fosse Trilogy turned out to be the show's low point, while what saved the evening were fresh recent works, many of them created in TDC's incubator project, New Dances. Pieces by artistic director Melissa Thodos and company member Jessica Miller Tomlinson communicated in ways that the Fosse works didn't—and maybe couldn't.

One of the Fosse Trilogy dances is the YouTube phenom "Mexican Breakfast." Taped when it was performed by a trio led by Gwen Verdon on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, it found its way online, where it was judged to have an awful lot in common with Beyonce's 2008 music video "All the Single Ladies." Beyoncé owned up, and response videos proliferated. One, "Mexican Breakfast, Helpfully Explained," pokes fun at the original's frumpy costumes and pelvic thrusts with captions like "I've got a sassy handbag!" and "Stand back! I'm ovulating!"

The costumes are better in the TDC version, but it's still dull, in part because Reinking dutifully uses the dated original music, which drags the dancing down with it. As the YouTube mash-ups reveal, setting the Ed Sullivan clip to hotter music (like Unk's "Walk It Out") vastly improves the choreography.

Fosse Trilogy inadvertently challenges the assumption that live performances of dance are always better than recorded ones. More, it suggests that staged reconstructions might damage a choreographer's reputation. These three pieces are truest to Fosse's limited intention when seen on the small (computer) screen, where "Mexican Breakfast" has been both preserved and transformed.

The Internet also helps render the "world premiere" claim suspect, or at least odd. True, Reinking created new transitional choreography to link the pieces. But she also acknowledges that she included one of them, "Cool Hand Luke," in her 1999 Broadway anthology Fosse. And when you google the third piece, "Tijuana Shuffle," under its alternate title, "Mexican Shuffle," you find that it's been performed live onstage before, in a version taught to one of the dancers by Verdon, who performed it on a Bob Hope television special in 1968. The very notion of a "premiere" is strange when it comes to Fosse, partly because dead men don't make new dances and partly because most of his choreography appeared in the context of larger works like musicals, but also because his style has so thoroughly pervaded the American psyche. He himself said that he only knew six steps—an exaggeration with a grain of truth. Now everyone knows them.

Fosse's dances suffer when separated from the larger-than-life musical theater tradition. The Thodos dancers are no slouches, but they're ensemble players: they lack the star power to sell Fosse's outrageously drawn-out winks and leers. They do better with the swift-flowing Thodos style, which doesn't try as hard to woo the audience. Thodos's septet Driven, first performed last spring, epitomizes that flow—and pushes it to the limit. Set to John Adams's Shaker Loops, it starts fast and gets faster, as the dancers slash into breakneck turns or, like flashing Swiss Army knives, fling and fold their arms and legs. Driven begins with nervous energy and concludes powerfully, with the simple, gut-level energy of running.

Brock Clawson's joyous Nine and Ron De Jesus's racy Departurepoint open the program, which also includes three company premieres first performed as contributions to July's "New Dances 2009" showcase—among them Tomlinson's moody septet Architecture: Splintered and Cracked. Tomlinson won the $10,000 A.W.A.R.D. Show! grand prize in June for Forget What You Came For?, a marvel of quirkily combined tempos, and this newer piece confirms her gift for musical and dramatic timing.

Architecture runs counter to the Thodos aesthetic of seamless flow, which apparently makes it a little uncomfortable for the dancers. But its insistent start-and-stop phrases mesmerize, often ending in unpretty, powerfully suggestive poses reminiscent of Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces. Set to music by Dmitry Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke, Architecture is like a cubist painting come to life, angular solos and duets popping out of a line of dancers as it crosses the stage in an inexorable, glacial march.

The other two company premieres are more in the Thodos vein. Jeremy Blair and Mollie Mock's primitive yet lyrical Reflect features floaty costumes and lots of kicks, runs, flung arms, and quick turns. Awakening, by Wade Schaaf, also foregrounds running marked by turns but has an air of drama thanks to its Philip Glass music and the gesture of a pointing finger. It may be meant to suggest Adam and Eve—but at the end, instead of donning fig leaves, the ten dancers take off their clothes, revealing beige underwear. The stripping comes as a shock, but not in a good way. It merely baffles.

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