Fosse/Verdon: Gwen runs the show!
Earlier this year, the FX channel produced and aired their eight-episode biographical miniseries Fosse/Verdon, which follows the artistic, romantic and family life of American choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Broadway star Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). Fosse's turbulent life of addictions – to work, drugs and sex – has been discussed in books about him,1 his film All That Jazz (Fosse, 1979), and in this series;2 however, in order to make a work about him suitable for the current climate, this show tries to shift the focus onto Verdon and her input in Fosse's creative process. This miniseries is timely and necessary in the #MeToo era, yet it is also reductive as, although it highlights Verdon's collaborative contribution in creating Fosse's iconographic choreographic style, it ignores the crucial creative labour of the other dancers who performed in the original productions and their revivals as well as the dancers in this series. The hierarchy at stake isn't simply male/female but, rather, has to do with dance culture, which often favours the work and artistic genius of choreographers (most often male) over those of dancers (predominantly female).
A possible way to remedy the feminist issue at stake is to rethink the idea of Fosse as the sole creator of the repertory of his dances and concentrate on the work performed by the female dancers. Fosse/Verdon stresses Verdon's input on the choreographic process as a dancer and artistic advisor. A rehearsal scene for "Whatever Lola Wants" in the second episode of the series with Verdon and Fosse exemplifies the way she affected his work. In a typical cinematic move, she appears to know and anticipate a movement before he has taught it to her, even though it is the first time they have worked together. The physical and verbal dialogue between the two dancers showcases her influence. As she juts her hip out and places her arms over her head, Fosse says, "Where'd you learn that?" indicating that it is her move. Verdon then performs "Fosse's signature" foot sickle scratch, rubbing the top of her foot on the back of her knee.
Fosse: "What's that?"
Verdon: "She had an itch. She had to scratch it"
Fosse laughs: "You already adding steps?"
Verdon: "I am already making it better"
Apart from Verdon, many other female performers can be credited as collaborators in the creation of the recognisable style of Broadway jazz. Anthea Kraut argues that "choreographic works are corporeal in nature" and "carry strong ties to the bodies that generate them,"3 therefore the original choreography is often "anchored in the individual personalities and corporealities of the dancers" with whom the work was made.4 Pieces of reconstructed repertory, including rehearsal and film set scenes, shown throughout the series, such as "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity (1969) and "Mein Herr" from Cabaret (1972), however, pose an interesting comment on the role of the dancers in the collaborative process. Each dancer that has learnt and performed the work, including the cast in the series, brings their personal mark – their corporeal identity and inscription – to the performance and thus affects the way we think about authorship. Carefully reconstructed and rehearsed by Fosse's collaborators5 in order to ensure authorised body-to-body transfer of physical information, the works presented with new casts point to the idea that each dance has its identity beyond the original casts that fluctuates between bodies and morphs through time to assume a new character dependant on the corporeal history of dancers.
As demonstrated by Williams, Verdon's addition to Fosse's choreography shows that the act of dancing allows dancers to construct female subjectivity with their corporeality. This serves as a political strategy to contest the understanding of the male choreographer and director as the sole producer and bearer of artistic agency. This idea extends beyond Williams to all of the female dancers in the series, whose physical presence challenges the idea of women as passive objects of desire. The close-ups of explosive gestures in the scene of the filming of "Big Spender" draws attention to the active bodies of women, which saturate the screen and materialise their assaultive corporeality. Concentrating on the actions of female dancers in choreography designed by a man disturbs the traditional patriarchal dominance in dance on screen. This is especially visible in the complex gender dynamics of Williams' Verdon performance of the "Razzle Dazzle" number in the "Nowadays" episode, which presents the difficult process of making the musical Chicago (Fosse, 1975–1977) as well as Fosse's and Verdon's infertility issues. Williams performs the number traditionally performed by the male lead in Chicago, wearing the vaudeville uniform of tails, a cane and a hat. She introduces the number by exclaiming, "And now ladies and gentlemen, Mr Bob Fosse and Miss Verdon in the act of creation," accompanied by a drum roll. The number alternates between a soft shoe performed by Verdon and footage showing the beginning of Fosse's and Verdon's marital life, resembling the structure of the film All That Jazz (Fosse, 1979), a fictionalised film about Fosse's life.
Furthermore, the aesthetic of the number resembles the short dance performed by Audrey (played by Leland Palmer, who appeared in a number of Fosse productions), the ex-wife of the main character Gideon in All That Jazz (1979). Audrey, whose character is clearly based on Verdon's real-life persona, performs a disjointed dance of shimmies, exaggerated runs and hat tricks in the same costume that Williams later wears. This song and dance juxtaposes images of Gideon's angiogram and a performance by his doctors delivering his dire medical prognosis in a way that informs the structure of William's "Razzle Dazzle" in the recent series. The vocabulary in both numbers includes Fosse's dance history as a tap dancer, thus introducing another element to the complex corporeal lineage and ideas regarding authorship. With the "Razzle Dazzle" number, Williams represents numerous dance histories, including Fosse's history as a performer and choreographer, Palmer's inadvertent physical influence, the aesthetics of All That Jazz, Chicago, and vaudeville, Verdon's legacy as an inspiration for Leland's solo and this number and, of course, her own corporeal identity. She embodies all these somatic histories as she performs a lexicon of finger shimmies, cane twirling, hat tricks, simple shuffles and ball changes, ending with accented finger snaps, a wink and shoulder shrug. With these various intertexts, the number weaves traces of each performer's experience into a blended web of the political meanings of femininity that the dancers materialise with their physicalised identities. The number is a comment on the fluid gender ideology as it embodies corporeal histories of various female performers and reclaims a number from a male performer. In feminist terms, the simple act of female dancers moving their body, taking up space, asserting their weight and honing their physical skills can guide women "into a heightened sense of their own physical power,"6 therefore providing Williams with a strategy to become a part of the heritage and reclaim authorship through her dancing and corporeal agency.