Who Is The Next Bob Fosse? Iconic Dancers Weigh In On The Future of Musical Theatre Dance

News   Who Is The Next Bob Fosse? Iconic Dancers Weigh In On The Future of Musical Theatre Dance
American Dance Machine for the 21st Century transports us to the glory days of theatre dance with numbers like "I Hope I Get It" and the famed Oklahoma! "Dream Ballet." We asked some of Broadway's most iconic dancers who they think could lead the next revolution in musical theatre choreography.


Bob Fosse. Jack Cole. Jerome Robbins. Agnes De Mille. These visionary choreographers forever changed the way we perceive dance in musical theatre. Their legacies are great, but the pieces that built those legacies are in danger of being lost. American Dance Machine for the 21st Century was founded in 2012 as a continuation of Lee Theodore's machine to preserve these iconic piece of choreography and the techniques behind them.

The resulting show, ADM21, opened Dec. 21 at The Joyce Theatre. We sat down with director Wayne Cilento, artistic director Nikkie Feirt Atkins, stagers Pamela Sousa and Donna McKechnie, and current ADM21 dancer Tyler Hanes to talk about the dance moments that changed their lives and who will lead the next dance revolution in theatre.

Wayne Cilento, Director ADM, Choreographer Holler If Ya Hear Me, Sweet Charity, Wicked

What was the moment that you said, "Dancing, that's what I want for my life?"
I always watched MGM musicals, didn't know it was going to play any part in my life at all. I went to school to be a pharmacist. I did a musical in my high school and I was cast as Curly in Oklahoma! with my [now-]wife who was Laurie. Then we did Li'l Abner and then I started feeling "Well this is kind of interesting" and I started ghosting and taking jazz classes at night. I was in school to be a pharmacist and I said this is it. I can't stand this. I don't want to do this. I opened up a Dance magazine and I pointed and it said Brockport University and I applied and got in and became a dance/phys ed major.
When did you switch from wanting to perform to wanting to choreograph?
It never switched like that because I wanted to go to L.A. and be Gene Kelley. I never wanted to choreograph. When I was in Chorus Line, I stared doing commercials as a dancer and then Bob Giraldi who was the director started asking me to choreograph commercials for him. It's funny because I started off as a choreographer doing commercial and film work. Still never really thought that I was a choreographer. Then I started doing industrials, then I started doing Off-Broadway stuff and then I got my first Broadway show which was Baby. I was the choreographer and I got a Tony nomination and I went "Oh shoot. I guess now I'm choreographing." But I used to flip flop. I used to dance, choreograph. I used to do everything. I mean I'm a dancer first. I really love what I'm doing now.

The company of <i>American Dance Machine for The 21st Century</i>
The company of American Dance Machine for The 21st Century Photo by Karen Steinberg

We're talking now about the current revolution in theatre. So many people compare Lin-Manuel Miranda to Stephen Sondheim because he has changed the way musical theatre is done. Is there a dancer or choreographer you see pushing us forward?
I haven't seen that yet. There are some young new fresh choreographers coming up that are doing good work. Innovative choreography on Broadway… you know I did Holler, which was the Tupac show, and I used street dancers, so I try to push the envelope. Andy Blankenbuehler is great. I think Chris Gatelli is an up-and-coming choreographer. I think Josh [Bergasse] from "Smash." There are a couple of young fresh kids out there and I hope they get the material to showcase. [But shows today] are showcase-y. Even the dancers today, it's like dance room competition. Choreographers get carried away with "that guy can do a trick — I have to use that trick so let's face front and everyone get in a formation." I think directors need to push choreographers to stay true to the story and actually choreograph and physicalize what this show is about and keep that journey going as opposed to "I got five minutes now, I'm gonna dance my pants off." It's not about that. In American Dance Machine, these choreographers we're representing — and hopefully I'm taking it a little bit further with myself included and Mia Michaels coming in — and showing more of a progression of where dance started with [people like] Jack Cole and where it evolved to and where it's going and where it could go.

Ed Kresley, Wayne Cilento, Gemze de Lappe, Pamela Sousa, Robert la Fosse, and Donna McKechnie
Ed Kresley, Wayne Cilento, Gemze de Lappe, Pamela Sousa, Robert la Fosse, and Donna McKechnie Photo by Karen Steinberg

Donna McKechnie, ADM stager and Cassie in the original A Chorus Line

What was the moment that you knew you wanted to be a dancer?
I was three years old. That story that was in A Chorus Line was my story. I always fantasized — you know, little kids have a great imagination, and I never lost that. I remember when I was young I never had a baby doll. I never had fantasies of a prince on a white horse, but I saw myself dancing on a stage. I always saw that, I don't know where I got it. But every time I heard music, I mean that was the thing that touched my soul. When I heard music, I just got up and moved to it. I felt compelled to move and be part of that musical thing I was hearing. That never left me.
Is there a song that you have not yet choreographed or danced to that you feel you need to tackle?
No. Everything comes out for me of a character, out of a story in the show. I'm a theatre animal. But I want to keep dancing as long as I can. I still go to class. It's very important for me to keep that going and they keep me going, working with young dancers like this. They're very inspiring.
We've been talking about a current revolution in musical theatre. In a dance capacity who are the dancers and choreographers to watch? 
Andy Blankenbuehler is one of them. Chris Gatelli is like a visionary, and I think I know there are others. It gives me hope because in the 80s, the generational bridge of dancer-choreographer-director was broken and I felt lost forever with [the] AIDS [crisis]. So now to see these young talented dancers turned choreographers turned directors, it's very exciting to see the work that they're doing because it's original, and we love that.

Tyler Hanes, dancer ADM
What was the moment that you said "That's what I want to do, I want to be a dancer?"
I went to performing arts high school in Mableton Georgia called Pebblebrook High School, and every year we would take a trip up to New York City. It was my first trip up to NYC and the first night we saw Chicago on Broadway and I remember it so clear as day because BeBe Neuwirth had come back into the show and the minute she came up from the elevator doing the classic Fosse port des bras, that was the moment for me. That whole moment — how the lights hit her, how the music built. I was like, "I wanna do that."
Do you have the itch to choreograph? When does that switch from dancer to choreographer come into play?
I think, for me, it's something I've always kind of dabbled with. I was lucky enough to have some choreography things fall into my lap. I've choreographed for "Dancing With The Stars." I choreographed Kristin Chenoweth's tour. But I still have the desire to perform and to work with more directors and choreographers just to learn from them. For me, I do both. The trajectory of [Wayne Cilento's] career is something that I want to follow. He is a phenomenal dancer. If people haven't watched his stuff, watch Big Deal's "Beat Me Daddy" from the Tony Awards because it will change your life. He will change your life.

If you could only choreograph to one more song, what song would it be?
That's tough. Here's an idea. It's a song that has been in my family forever and I think about it now: "Rhapsody in Blue." That's actually something I would love to do once I've found my voice as a choreographer, to say what I want to say with that.
We're talking now about the current revolution in theatre. Who is the dancer or choreographer to watch in terms of revolutionizing dance in theatre?
The two that come to my mind right now: 1) Andy Blankenbuehler. I think of how his choreography has evolved along with Lin-Manuel's work. He's one, and then I think Josh Bergasse. They both have very distinct voices. There are so many choreographers out there that are genius, but as a male dancer I love dancing their stuff because it's so athletic, so grounded and feels so good to dance, but there's a story behind it. It's smart.

Pamela Sousa, ADM stager and Player in the original Pippin

What was the moment it struck you, "I want to be a dancer?"
I think [it was] when I was a young girl and television had a lot of dancers on it. My parents watched, I don’t remember what comedy show, but they had the [Sings] Tom Hanson Dancers! They'd come on and open the show and I thought, "Oh, I always want to be a Tom Hanson Dancer." Little did I know that Broadway would take me right away and that's where my career would go.
When did your desire transition for you from dancer to choreographer and wanting to see others do your movement?
I think [it's about] paying it forward, getting this generation to understand what we had — the style we had — and if we can pass that on to them. People think they know someone's style by watching it on camera because we're able to tape a lot of things, but that's only the outside physicality of it. We try to share with them what was said in the room when we were creating it. What imagery was set, what intent was being asked of you. I'm trying to help them understand why that was done.
Is there any song that speaks to you that you want to choreograph some day?
I can't answer that. You know what it is, you hear music (which for a dancer it starts your inner rhythms going), but then it's always a situation for me, either the character situation, the story situation, the lyric that then says to me, "Oh my G-d, I'd really love to show that through dance."
We've been talking about a current revolution in musical theatre. In a dance capacity who is revolutionizing?
I see glimpses. I see possibilities. It's a different world. We should always leave that door open because [someone] will step through, and that's the beauty of the theatre: knowing that somebody will come along that you will resonate with or love and we encourage that. Hopefully that will happen.

Full company of <i>American Dance Machine for The 21st Century</i>
Full company of American Dance Machine for The 21st Century Photo by Karen Steinberg

Nikki Feirt Atkins, Founder and Producing Artistic Director ADM

What was the moment it struck you, "I want to be a dancer?"
I came out of the womb dancing. There was no moment. I just danced from the time I—I walked early and I danced as soon as I could.
Is there a song that you have not yet choreographed that you feel you need to tackle?
Every song. Almost every song that's melodic and even rhythmic speaks to me. I'm always choreographing in my head. Always. I actually have this set of Hebrew liturgy pieces — one's a cello piece by Max Brook of Kol Nidre and then a suite of liturgy that I've actually choreographed that I just haven't had time to put out there. But when I'm in a car driving, I have this game with my husband where I say, "Ok, what would the dancers be doing now?"
We've been talking about a current revolution in musical theatre. In a dance capacity who are the dancers and choreographers to watch?
Josh Bergasse for sure. Chris Gatelli. Chris Wheeldon — but he's of a different genre, he's more of a ballet choreographer, but his work is exquisite. Of course, Susan Stroman. Jerry Mitchell. Sergio [Trujillo] also. It's a different world now, choreographically. The choreographers that we're representing [in American Dance Machine] have a specific style. You could see Fosse in this [hip movement] Jack Cole in this [hand]. So there's a stamp, even Robbins, they had a certain signature, which I guess is lost because I think style has been emphasized less today. Even among the ones I think are up-and-comers, you don't look at the work and think "Oh that's so-and-so's." There was a very heavy emphasis on style back then, and we're trying to reintroduce that.

American Dance Machine for the 21st Century plays Dec. 21-Jan. 3 at The Joyce Theatre (175 Eighth Avenue in New York City). Directed by Wayne Cilento featuring original works by Michael Bennett, Wayne Cilento, Jack Cole, Mia Michaels, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Susan Stroman and Tommy Tune staged by Donna McKechnie, Robert LaFosse, Pamela Sousa, Gemze de Lappe, Mia Michaels, Ed Kresley, Niki Harris and others. Tickets from $20 at Joyce.org.

(Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.)

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