Bob Fosse’s Lasting Legacy?

By Rachel Straus

To many, Bob Fosse’s style, with its pelvic thrust, razzle-dazzle hands, and slumped over set of shoulders, is immediately recognizable. Fosse championed the vaudevillian delinquent, the burlesque maven, the professional huckster. He bucked the post World War II musical theater tradition of happy boys and girls and their dancing feet. Yet despite Fosse’s unquestionable influence on musical theater dance, his most important contribution may be his film work. Fosse rejected the tradition, best exemplified by the dance numbers in Fred Astaire films, of capturing the dancing figure from head to toe. Press on the link below to see Astaire dancing and singing to Irving Berlin’s tune “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)”; the camera is more or less stationary, and the dancing section of this scene looks like it was shot in one take: Astaire in Top Hat (1935)

In contrast to Astaire, Fosse dispensed with the notion that a good dance sequence had to be continuously shot, that dancers had to project bodily ease, and that the viewer was a good samaritan ready for some light entertainment. In Sweet Charity (1969) Fosse’s dancers appear as burlesque matrons. They barely move, and when they do, they look like zombies trying to be sexy. Through his directorial and choreographic choices in the film, Fosse makes the viewer complicit in the vulgarity of The Big Spender number. He shoots, in fast whiplash cuts, the dancers’ bodies from the perspective of one male customer, sitting in the front row and smoking a cigarette. By shooting their body parts in isolated shots, Fosse aggressively tenders the idea that these gals are broken. Bust and flanks, bones and flesh, brimstone and fire. That’s what Fosse captures. Take a look: Big Spender number in Sweet Charity (1969) No doubt, the Big Spender number is a brilliant conceived use of film and dance.

So what’s Fosse’s ultimate legacy? For my money it’s Fosse’s mature dance-film style, seen in the Big Spender number. Too many people have imitated it. His gestural-driven (and sleaze-riddled) dance numbers are completed by the camera’s close-ups and the subsequent multiple edits, which give one the sense of a hungry eye, roving from one dancer to the next. This pasting and cutting approach to filmed choreography became, after Fosse, the defacto tradition for mass media dance film. It can be seen in Michael Jackson dance videos, the famous Maniac (1983) dance number from Flash Dance, and in Maddona’s Vogue (1990). In each case, the choreography takes second place to the ingenious, energetic filming and editing. Jackson’s music video Bad may be the pinnacle of the Fosse dance-film style. The performers are shot from below (as though one is begging the gang members for mercy—underneath their very chins). The dancers’ pelvic thrust isn’t insouciant, as in the case of Fosse dancers, but outright aggressive. Jackson and his crew’s gestures are mechanical. The zombies have become machines.

Michael Jackson’s Music Video Bad (1987) In the next posting, I’ll explore how mass media dance, like So You Think You Can Dance and Bunheads, may not be doing much for the art of choreography, but they have shed the Fosse dance-film style. The powers that be have actually returned to the tradition of shooting the full dancing body instead of parts of it. What is conveyed, however, is not a integrated moving figure, but something quite different.

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