In show business, there are always people who can celebrate the spirit of an age. But only a very few can also capture its contradictions.
The choreographer Bob Fosse was one of them. His work endures, as "Fosse" the splendid musical that opened last night at the Broadhurst demonstrates, because it is full of tensions that may never be resolved.
Fosse worked in a period when attitudes to the choreographer's basic material the human body were changing. He is part of the sexual revolution. Sex is the fuel that makes his dancers move.
In a typical Fosse number, the shape of the body is frankly and fully revealed. The silhouettes are slim, stark and brazen. The dancers have it, and they flaunt it.
Before Fosse, in the era of Fred and Ginger, of Gene Kelly and of Donald O'Connor, the choreography usually draws attention to the dancer's feet and legs.
In Fosse's work, re-created here by Ann Reinking (who worked with him on "Chicago," "Pippin" and the movie "All That Jazz"), the focus shifts to the belly and the hips. Even the elaborate arm movements have the effect of concentrating the dancer's energy on the naughty zones around the waist.
In this sense, Fosse's work, especially from "Sweet Charity" in 1966 onwards, literally embodies the new era of flagrant sexuality.
But if this was all there is to Fosse, his choreography wouldn't last. Sexy dancing is hardly hot news, these days.
The fascination of Fosse's dances now is that woven into this up-front eroticism is a strange despair about sex. For even while he's celebrating the sexual revolution, Fosse seems haunted by a bleak vision of what it amounts to.
The range and power of the choreography in "Fosse" is so stunning that it's easy to miss the significance of what is not there. In the long, comprehensive show, there is not one straightforward pas de deux. Never, in other words, is there a simple enactment of mutual attraction between a man and a woman. Fosse's dancers tend to perform either in groups or alone. Sex is either a public display or a private fantasy.
It's striking, too, that when the basic pas de deux is used in the show, it is in the form of three separate couples two women, a man and a woman, two men performing at the same time on different parts of the stage. The form is used only to shatter the ideal of heterosexual love.
The same feeling runs through most of the dancing. The keynote is aggression, not seduction. The typical Fosse pose legs and fingers splayed, hat tipped over the brow, hips cocked, all sharp angles and jutting geometry spells out a defiant challenge rather than a soft invitation. It's no accident that the choreography that still comes through with awesome force is from the dark, cynical shows like "Cabaret" and "Chicago."
Likewise, the big numbers for women such as Jane Lanier's performance in "Steam Heat" from "The Pajama Game" and Elizabeth Parkinson's in a solo from the climactic "Sing, Sing, Sing" are fierce and athletic. Conversely, the sweeter pieces, like Neil Diamond's "Crunchy Granola Suite," are the weakest and most dated.
The brilliance of "Fosse" is that its creators Reinking, Chet Walker and director Richard Maltby Jr. had the guts to insist that these tensions and contradictions are a story in themselves, and don't need another narrative imposed on them.
Instead of using a narrator or some other linking device, they let the dancers do the talking. The show does feel coherent and beautifully shaped, but it gets that feeling from the rhythm and drive of the body in motion.
Fosse's bleak vision of people putting the moves on each other may not uplift you but it will sweep you along. For those moves have the unstoppable force of people caught in the spotlight, tripping the dark fantastic.
The ghost of the man being celebrated -- blurred and fleeting but definitely there -- first shows up when the girl bursts onstage with a scream. That's the signal for a sequence lasting just 45 seconds, and it occurs halfway through the first act of ''Fosse,'' the hard-working but oddly affectless evening of dance by the choreographer Bob Fosse that opened last night at the Broadhurst Theater.
At the sound of that scream, which echoes not with terror but with irrepressible energy, a slender, elfin-faced fellow with a goatee shoots into view, sliding on his side like a runaway roller skate. The orchestra is playing Cole Porter's ''From This Moment On,'' as the couple perform an acrobatic, exuberant and exasperated mating dance, an ode to percolating hormones. You've just received, in darkest January, a quick infusion of springtime, and it's impossible not to grin.
Those 45 seconds are famous. They had much to do with propelling Bob Fosse's career as a show-business-shaking choreographer and director of musical comedy. The vignette, here vibrantly performed by Andy Blankenbuehler and Lainie Sakakura, is a re-creation of the first sequence Fosse choreographed for film, a scene from the 1953 movie of ''Kiss Me, Kate,'' danced by Fosse and Carol Haney. It was a calling card, of sorts, announcing that an audacious new choreographic talent had arrived, and when you watch the film today, Fosse's pas de deux still seems to tear through the celluloid.
That was what Fosse, at his best, continued to deliver throughout the 30-some succeeding years of his career: a sassy, confrontational and insistently sexual style that both baited and winked at his audiences. Even at his most ironic, the man behind ''Sweet Charity,'' ''Chicago'' and the film of ''Cabaret'' infused his work with impudent glee, a show-off's satisfaction in performing well. That sensibility is abundantly evident in the long-running revival of ''Chicago'' next door to the Broadhurst. Why, then, does it seem to be hidden for so much of ''Fosse''?
Fosse may have been cynical, but he wasn't cold. And the show that bears his name has a zero-at-the-bone quality that fends off emotional engagement even as you marvel at the contortions of the talented and industrious corps of close to 30 performers onstage. It's all technique and very little soul. This is especially confounding when you consider the pedigree of the team behind ''Fosse,'' a production of the American division of the now notorious Livent Inc.
There are, to start off, the two dancers whose association with Fosse is fabled: Gwen Verdon, his wife, collaborator and the star of his most memorable Broadway shows, from ''Damn Yankees'' to ''Sweet Charity'' and ''Chicago,'' who is the artistic adviser on this production; and Ann Reinking, the evening's co-director and co-choreographer, who was Fosse's muse and companion during the 1970's and the woman responsible for the lovingly reconceived Fosse choreography in the current ''Chicago.''
The choreographer of ''Fosse,'' Chet Walker, who was the dance captain on the 1986 revival of ''Sweet Charity,'' discussed the sort of project that this production would become with Fosse not long before his death in 1987. The show's director, Richard Maltby Jr., had shown a flair for personalizing and vivifying the commemorative revue with his staging of ''Ain't Misbehavin,' '' the popular Fats Waller musical. On hand as the nominal stars of ''Fosse'' are Valarie Pettiford and Jane Lanier, both of whom danced for the choreographer.
There was thus every reason to hope that ''Fosse'' would be steeped in intimacy and insights that could make converts even of determined non-fans. And heaven knows, at a moment in which the most kinetic presence in Broadway musicals tends to be the scenery, audiences are ravenous for the kind of distinctive, personality-filled dance style that Fosse, like Michael Bennett and Jerome Robbins, specialized in.
Yet the overall feeling of ''Fosse'' is both clinical and reverential: part uber master class, part shrine. The worshipful aspect is summoned in the evening's first image, a large projected photograph of Fosse, while seance-esque, astral music fills the air. The sets by Santo Loquasto (also the designer of the elegant, form-framing costumes) seem to have been assembled out of stardust and tinsel, suggesting a heaven in which eternity is one long curtain call.
The production's most emphatic priority, however, appears to be to make a case for Fosse as choreographer qua choreographer, to stand with the Robbinses and Martha Grahams of the world. This bookless three-act show, which has no identifying narrative or standard chronology, devotes much of its early segments to introducing the piquant, particular physical vocabulary that was Fosse's.
You know those elements even if you think you don't: the pigeon-toed stance, the cocked wrists, the twitching bums, the inwardly turned knees, accessorized with the essential white gloves and black bowlers. Here, caught in Andrew Bridge's funnels of light, dancers materialize from sepulchral darkness as pulsing incarnations of the letters of the Fosse alphabet. What follows is a study in how that alphabet can be reconfigured.
Fosse often said that he basically knew only six steps. Although he worked for years on creating a ballet for the Joffrey, it was never completed, and he said he doubted he could sustain a dance work of any length. His field, he said, in 1973, was the musical.
''Fosse,'' which includes several of the more celebrated centerpieces from ''Dancin','' ultimately confirms these observations. He was by far at his best when working off or chafing against the conventions of the established musical form and using his own specific style to bring out the sui generis magic of stars like Ms. Verdon, Ms. Reinking and Ben Vereen. Numbers that, in the context of their original shows, gleamed with wit and vitality often register as repetitive examples of virtuosic proficiency, from the sardonic dance hall hostess come-on of ''Big Spender'' (from ''Sweet Charity'') to the baseball strut of ''Shoeless Joe From Hannibal Mo'' (''Damn Yankees'').
Some of these numbers do indeed feel timeless (the fancy-free trio ''Steam Heat,'' from ''Pajama Game''); others are hopelessly time-warped (the antiwar sequences from ''Pippin'') and still others, while definitely period pieces, remain absolutely delicious (''The Rich Man's Frug'' from ''Sweet Charity''). Segments from Fosse films, including ''Cabaret'' and ''All That Jazz,'' remind you that Fosse was a genius in choreographing for the fragmenting camera in ways that don't necessarily translate back to the stage.
The singing and dancing of the ensemble can't be technically faulted. Yet there's a weirdly mechanical quality abroad. As in ''Smokey Joe's Cafe,'' the Broadway jukebox musical of the songs of Lieber and Stoller, the hits just keep on comin', but without the animating spark that made them hits in the first place or any sense of their place in history.
There are a couple of dazzling big numbers, synchronized full-strength ensemble pieces from Fosse's all-dance show ''Dancin' '' (1978), including, the evening's climax, ''Sing, Sing, Sing,'' the Benny Goodman piece in which dancers become the physical embodiments of the individual instruments in the band. (That band, for the record, is terrific, as are the orchestrations of Ralph Burns and Douglas Besterman throughout the show.)
What's almost always lacking, however, is a sense of character, and in a Fosse show you were always aware of every person onstage as an individual. The singing dancers in ''Fosse'' have been instructed to gaze out into the audience with that familiar Fosse stare that says both ''Please love me'' and ''Go to hell.'' But it's just a surface sheen on the eyes. There are only a few instances in which an infectious rush in the joy of performing gets past the footlights.
You feel it in the athletic pride generated by Desmond Richardson's gymnastic ''Percussion 4'' solo in the first act; in Scott Wise's satisfaction in turning tap steps into a personal stairway to heaven in ''Sing, Sing, Sing,'' and in, of all things, the salacious, watch-me delight that a young woman named Shannon Lewis draws from a 1970's artifact called ''I Gotcha,'' choreographed for Liza Minnelli's 1973 television special.
Fosse's wry personal philosophy is suggested, at the show's beginning and near its end, through Ms. Pettiford's smooth-voiced interpretation of the Lew Brown and Ray Henderson standard ''Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.'' Every phase of Fosse's career is evoked, including his early days as a nightclub dancer. You may not know this, however, unless you pay close attention to your program. There is no narrative, no time-and-place signaling supertitles. As for the poetic biographical references, like the illuminated arched doorway that evokes Fosse's days as a boy dancer in burlesque houses, you have to bring your own knowledge to appreciate them.
Watching ''Fosse'' is something like looking at an album of glossy, uncaptioned photographs. The pictures are arresting and beautifully composed. But it takes your own memories of what they represent to animate those scenes with the sorcery they once possessed; otherwise, they're just pictures.
If only Livent could dance its troubles away! There's surely enough kinetic energy onstage at the Broadhurst Theater, where the company's latest -- and possibly last? -- musical, "Fosse," opened Thursday, to splash away even the deepest rivers of red ink. If only such a feat of physics could be concocted. That's a fantasy, of course, but the thrilling charge that this dance revue sends off at its best is enough to make Broadway-watchers forget the dire straits of its troubled producer. "Fosse" celebrates at length and in high style the long moment of a director-choreographer of unique and indelible gifts, as distinctive a dance artist as Broadway has produced.
The show, in three acts and 2-1/2 hours, is an abundant collection of dances created by Fosse over the course of four decades and in almost as many mediums, including career landmarks from musicals "The Pajama Game," "Damn Yankees," "Sweet Charity," "Chicago" and "Dancin'," and selections from the shows that famously won him showbiz's triple crown in 1973 (an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony): the movie "Cabaret," the TV special "Liza With a Z" and Broadway's "Pippin."
But it's also, at times, a subtle and artfully crafted comment on the forces that drove him and the endless striving that led to his untimely death in 1987. One of the sad ironies of Fosse's career -- and paradoxically one of the driving engines of his genius -- was an unshakable feeling that nothing was ever enough. That trio of '73 accolades didn't leave him feeling complacent, for example -- they only drove him to push himself harder, to prove to himself and others that he was worthy.
"You work, you slave, you worry so..." runs a lyric in the Tin Pan Alley song "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," which opens the show in a coolly elegant vocal rendition by Valarie Pettiford, who is also a sultry, powerful dancer. The tune was used in Fosse's 1986 musical "Big Deal," and it's an apt epigraph for a show about a man whose life, like his dancing, found its inspiration in constant motion on the frenzied, frantic edge. The splayed fingers, twitching, snapping hands, thrusting hips and bobbing heads that were the accents of Fosse's inimitable dance style were manifestations of a tightly wound nervous energy flashing out in spasms of movement. Through the power of his talent, he turned such personal angst into a distinct brand of showbiz artistry -- neurotic inner energy transmuted into entertainment.
That artistry is lovingly re-created and impeccably executed in "Fosse." The choreographer's classic showstoppers and some less familiar setpieces have been carefully stitched together by the show's creators -- who include former Fosse muses Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking along with revue specialist Richard Maltby Jr. and former Fosse dancer Chet Walker -- with smaller dance vignettes that use elements from what seems to be virtually everything Fosse ever created, right down to now-forgotten musicals such as "Redhead" and duets danced with his early partner Mary Ann Niles on 1950s TV shows.
For all the archival interest of these connecting interludes -- and some are more successful than others -- it's the classic Fosse showstoppers that most enthrall, beginning with a pair marked by a simple joyousness that Fosse would soon leave behind for a more hard-edged style. "Steam Heat," from 1954's "The Pajama Game," is a witty piece of locomotion in which key Fosse trademarks -- bowler hats, hunched or stiff torsos and flapping extremities -- first announced themselves. It's danced with a splashy, infectious finesse and clockwork precision by Michael Paternostro, Alex Sanchez and Jane Lanier, a redheaded dynamo who, along with Pettiford, is one of the show's featured stars. "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo.," the goofy ballet for baseball players from 1955's "Damn Yankees," is the other full example of Fosse's early work, in which the exuberant mood of the '50s Broadway musical inspires a rare piece of character-driven choreography.
With 1968's "Sweet Charity," the first musical Fosse also directed, his sexually aggressive style came fully into its own, and "Big Spender" is still the quintessential example of the alternately cool and hot erotic thrust of his finest work. Who can resist the luridly funny come-on of that chorus line of tired dance hall girls, seducing the audience in spasms of frenzied gyrating like a phalanx of battered Barbie dolls jerked unwillingly to life? "The Rich Man's Frug," also from "Charity," is Fosse at his wittiest, turning the cool moves of the swinging '60s dance crazes on their ear in a ballet of attitude run amok, executed with smooth insouciance by a corps whose arching eyebrows and cigarette-sucking lips are just as expressive as their more hard-working limbs.
Among the rarer gems that "Fosse" showcases are some key selections from his 1978 revue "Dancin'." The first act closes with a tribute to the effortless art of Fred Astaire, "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man," that refracts tap and soft-shoe movements through the prism of Fosse's own style. The evening's finale is also from "Dancin' ": a 1940s-themed extravaganza (with rare cheap-looking costumes from Santo Loquasto) that features brilliant turns by some of the evening's finest dancers, including Elizabeth Parkinson, who throws around her tornado of red curls with abandon as she manipulates her elongated body with cool and captivating athleticism.
If "Fosse" has a fault, it is a slavish need to include a virtual encyclopedia of Fosse's creations; the result is a feeling of superabundance that begins to set in when we're treated to the sixth piece from "Dancin,' " for example (particularly extraneous is the unavoidably maudlin "Mr. Bojangles," danced with wondrous sensitivity though it is by Sergio Trujillo). Fosse's dance vocabulary, while distinctly his own, was undeniably limited. So while it's enjoyable to see the ways he combined and recombined certain gestures across the course of the decades, the sheer volume of numbers on display here sometimes points up the confining nature of his repertoire of moves.
Still, a certain overkill is somehow fitting in a tribute to a man who didn't know when to quit, and that jittering, jitterbugging finale from "Dancin' " is an appropriately high-energy climax. As groups of dancers leap on and off in increasingly complex combinations, the number keeps reaching for new energetic heights, throbbing more ecstatically with the feeling of almost sexual release in movement that gave Fosse's work its charge. Dazzled by the frenzied beauty of bodies in motion, you don't know when or where it's going to stop, and almost wish it never would.