BWW Interviews: Fosse Veterans, Culbreath and Pettiford Pass on Legendary Choreography to Next Generation of Dancers
Bob Fosse, Pippin, Lloyd Culbreath, Valarie Pettiford, Gwen Verdon, Verdon Fosse Estate, Fosse
BroadwayWorld [BWW] sat down with Broadway veterans, Lloyd Culbreath [LC] (DANCIN;' BIG DEAL; SOPHISTICATED LADIES; THE TAP DANCE KID; HONKY TONK NIGHTS; ANYTHING GOES; GUYS AND DOLLS; Chita Rivera: THE DANCER'S LIFE; NO STRINGS, Encores; HOUSE OF FLOWERS, Encores; CARNIVAL, Encores; PROMISES, PROMISES, Encores; MAN OF LA MANCHA, Asst. Choreo.; ON THE TOWN, Asst. Choreo.) and Valarie Pettiford [VP] (TV/Film actress; CHICAGO, as Velma, London with Chita Rivera; SHOW BOAT Revival Tour, Julie; 30th Anniversary Tour of WEST SIDE STORY, Anita; SOPHISTICATED LADIES; GRIND; BIG DEAL; FOSSE, Tony Nominee), to discuss their efforts to preserve Bob Fosse's legendary choreography for the next generation of dancers. The pair held an exclusive Fosse Workshop in early February and invited fifty professional dancers to learn the signature style and articulation of Fosse choreography. Nicole Fosse, the Director and Artistic Advisor for the Verdon Fosse Estate, remarked, "I want this current generation of working dancers to get the best possible people teaching them my father's material. There are so many false impressions out there of what my father's style and technique is...By using Estate sanctioned teachers, I feel a new generation of dancers will have a much cleaner understanding of performing Fosse material."
BWW: What was your dance training growing up?
VP: I'm a native New Yorker so I started here with a teacher by the name of Bernice Johnson. She was one of the premiere teachers back in my day. All the dancers at the time who were doing television shows, Michael Peters, the choreographer for Michael Jackson, Candy Brown, one of Fosse's girls, all came from there - a lot of your top black dancers came from Bernice Johnson. With Bernice, you had to do everything: Afro-Cuban, ballet, tap, jazz, and Flamenco. She would bring in teachers from all over to teach and to choreograph - Michael Peters, Lester Wilson, Frank Hatchett - all "the greats." That's how I started. I am very blessed to have had such extensive training. And then I went to the Performing Arts High School as a ballet major because I originally wanted to be a ballerina. But once I had to take modern dance - you know, you had to take both - I started learning Graham [technique] and I fell in love with my teacher Penny Frank. So I ended up changing majors! I went on to study at the Ailey School, the Joffrey Ballet, and the American Ballet. But then I saw my first Broadway show: THE WIZ. And I said, "I want to do that! I want to go on to the 'Broadway.'" I had always loved to sing and act. So I kept taking class. I am a firm believer that you have to keep "oiling your instrument."
LC: I did not have that experience. I am an asthmatic and when I was a kid, my family almost had to leave New York to move to the dessert because of my health. But my doctor thought that maybe if they put me in some kind of activity it might bolster my system and make me a little healthier. So, I always used to watch "American Band Stand" and my mom decided to put me in dance class. I thought I would learn how to do "the Twist" or something! But I ended up starting in tap at a neighborhood dance studio. My teacher was a former Rockette and she would take me to shows in the city. Dancing professionally, though, never really occurred to me until the time I was about fifteen and saw CHICAGO. There was a dancer in the show, Ross Miles, who I just became fascinated with. And I think something clicked - "Well you dance, and they dance, and they must come from someplace...so I can be up there, too."
LC: Well, I was actually Bob Fosse-obsessed coming into town. The first time I saw him was as if you saw Michael Jackson or something! I was definitely a little leery, though. I had auditioned for DANCIN' several times before I actually ended up getting the job. The first time I met him personally was in BIG DEAL. And of course you're trying so hard not to appear as freaked out as you are! When really you want to pinch yourself because you can't believe that you're here. But once you get into the work process, you're calling him "Bob." All bets are off. Your focus is somewhere else and it somehow becomes almost oddly "regular."
VP: The first time I saw Fosse's work was in the film "Kiss Me Kate" in his duet with Carol Haney. Once I found out that he not only danced it but also choreographed it, I was amazed. Then I saw SWEET CHARITY and I was just overwhelmed. It took my breath away. It was an obsession - I felt like I had to do his choreography. The first time I met Bob was when I auditioned for his film, "All That Jazz." I was maybe sixteen and green, green, green! I fell in love with him in the audition room because you can just feel his appreciation for dancers. He loved dancers - he loved their work and he loved their look. You felt appreciated and knew that you were not just another body to act out his choreography. It was intimidating. It was scary as hell. But you wanted to do your best. I got all the way down to the end - pretty good for someone so green! A while later I picked up a copy of Backstage Magazine and saw a call for the first national tour of DANCIN.' I had never seen the show but all I needed to know was "Bob Fosse." I started hyperventilating and said, "Oh my God, I'm getting this show!" And I got that show. But like Lloyd said, once you start working with Bob its still intimidating and challenging, but at the same time you can breathe and enjoy the ride.
BWW: What was your (LC) first Fosse show?
LC: My first Fosse show was when I closed DANCIN' in New York - but I didn't meet him then. I had auditioned for the dance captain and stage manager. So my first show with Bob first-hand was BIG DEAL.
BWW: Can you try to describe Fosse's style in words?
LC: It's very, very specific, focused, structurally intricate, and unbelievably musical.