BWW Interviews: Fosse Veterans, Culbreath and Pettiford Pass on Legendary Choreography to Next Generation of Dancers
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."
BWW: What was your first impression of Bob Fosse?
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.
VP: Passionate! For me, on a personal level, I have never felt so much like a woman - a beautiful, strong, sexy woman - as when I'm doing his choreography.
BWW: How does that feeling translate to you (LC) as a male dancer?
LC: His style was very sensual, but still masculine. The material is emotionally mature. There is a maturity level that's needed to do the work properly.
VP: I agree. You had to have "lived" a little before you could do "Fosse." But that doesn't necessarily mean you had to be older. I auditioned for "All That Jazz" when I was sixteen but I could handle the material...And on a very basic level, I love that you have to have strong technique to dance "Fosse." Everyone immediately thinks that because much of Fosse's choreography is "turned-in," you don't need to have technical training. No, no, no! You have to have the ballet.
LC: Yes, you do have to have the ballet technique. But also, stylistically you must be well rounded in your dance knowledge and have the ability to embrace different types of movement.
VP: Exactly. You have to be able to transition from the ballet of "Crunchy Granola Suite" to the Afro-Cuban of "Calypso" to the jazz of "Steam Heat" because they're all "Fosse." And ultimately you have to be a strong actor. We may not have been speaking lines in the shows, but we had to sing and emote through dance. Our job was almost harder because you needed to convey a story without words. But sometimes Fosse would give you moments of dialogue or he would have you introduce the next number. Often he would call on us to play an instrument, too. You really had to do it all. You had to be a true triple threat.
BWW: What about "behind the scenes?" How was a Fosse show different?
LC: I was very fortunate to work with a lot of different people. I crossed a lot of generations of directors and choreographers. I have to say that in all those experiences, I never felt as prepared to embark on the journey of a show as I did when I worked with Bob. BIG DEAL was a tremendous production. We had a replica of every prop, costume, and set piece in the rehearsal studio. The transition from rehearsal to the stage was absolutely seamless! The attention to detail was elevated to another level of preparedness. It was even a more protected environment because everything was taken care of. It must be like when you're training for the Olympics and you're one hundred and ten percent prepared.
BWW: How did this workshop come about?
LC: We were working on a project commissioned by Nicole Fosse with the American Dance Machine to try and reconstruct the number, "Beat Me, Daddy (Eight to the Bar)" from BIG DEAL. And in that process it just seemed like a great time to keep the ball rolling and explore the material some more. It's just organically evolved and is still evolving.
VP: "Beat Me, Daddy" was part of Bob's last new production, BIG DEAL, a year before he passed away. Kathryn Doby, who was Fosse's assistant for many years (CHICAGO, PIPPIN, and DANCIN'), was at the helm of this project and was pivotal in the process.
BWW: What are the goals for the future of the workshop?
LC: Reconstructing, definitely. We're hoping to jump on a lot of things that haven't been seen quite as much as "Steam Heat" or "The Frug."
VP: "Beat Me, Daddy" was a spark for us. We're trying to find those gems that people haven't seen in a while. We want to sort of rediscover and connect with those works, especially because we have a lot of his [Fosse's] dancers still with us. We want to get that information about REDHEAD and NEW GIRL IN TOWN for preservation because there is no archival of those shows. But we want to keep those amazing works alive for future generations.
LC: It's important, I think, for younger dancers to study [Jerome] Robbins, [George] Faison, [Bob] Fosse, and [Michael] Kidd. The landscape of dancing has changed. You know, every year when the New York Times predicts who will win the Tony Awards, choreography isn't even mentioned anymore. I just think its important for us to see some of these older works so we can move choreography back into the forefront where it belongs.
BWW: In terms of Fosse's work ethic, did you try to bring that into the studio this week?
VP: Well for me, when I did BIG DEAL, I had the opportunity to be part of his "skeleton crew" to create and construct the actual numbers. He would always first go into the studio by himself and then call in a core group of dancers to try and work things through once he translated it onto bodies. It was always constantly evolving.
LC: Certainly a lot of the lessons I learned while working with Bob have shaped how I try to run a rehearsal. But in this case we were much more relaxed. It was demanding, sure, but we were not putting on a show. This workshop was mainly about learning and exploring. If we were in a production, the stakes would have been higher!
VP: His work was so much about detail. You have to be so clean and so exact. And the only way to get that is through repetition, repetition, repetition. I don't care if your feet are hurting or whatever. And there's a reason why you do it over and over again: stamina. When you're doing a show like DANCIN' that has three acts, you've got to have the stamina - especially because the show starts with "Crunchy Granola Suite!"
BWW: The three works you chose to teach this week were "Brass Band" (SWEET CHARITY), "Calypso" (DANCIN') and Winnetka" (DANCIN'). Why did you choose to teach those three numbers for this workshop?
VP: We wanted to show the versatility [of Fosse]. And we wanted to show numbers that people haven't really seen. I mean no one has seen "Calypso" or "Winnetka" in a long, long time.
LC: And "Brass Band" is just so iconic that we had to include it.
BWW: CHICAGO is the only Fosse show currently on Broadway but the revival of PIPPIN is set to open soon. What are your thoughts on that?
LC: It'll be really interesting to see. PIPPIN is a show that needs a lot of stage wizardly to make it a complete evening. It's a long show, one that people don't know very well. It'll also be exciting to see the circus art twist on the show.
VP: Well, I'm embarrassed to say that I've never seen PIPPIN! I obviously know the dance numbers, though. I'm very excited to see what Chet Walker (who was part of the Original Cast of PIPPIN back in 1972) does with the show.
VP: I miss him. I really miss him. And I would have loved to see what he would be doing now. I adored him and am a very lucky gal that I got to work with him in my lifetime.
For more information about future workshops and other preservation projects, visit www.verdonfosse.com.
Photo Credit: Christopher Duggan