“The hope is that in rediscovering Chicago, audiences will rediscover what theater was. It was sophisticated, complicated, adult.” — Ann Reinking

It’s her birthday today. When she died last year, the outpouring of tributes and appreciation was truly heart-warming to see. Here’s what I wrote.

Ann Reinking’s talent was like her performance persona: larger than life, epic in scope, intimidating.

She was a muse who – crucially – didn’t resent being a muse. She owned it. She was one of the few, the mighty, the Amazonian, who understood Bob Fosse’s style implicitly and could carry it: others included Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon, Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minnelli. But in many ways, Reinking saw her muse-status as a huge responsibility, particularly after Bob Fosse died. She was one of the torch-bearers of his style, his choreography. She made it part of her life’s work to pass on her knowledge.

“People forget that the same man who did Star 80 and All That Jazz also did ‘Pardon Me Miss But I’ve Never Been Kissed.'” — Ann Reinking

Not only did she teach/direct his style, she was eloquent on the IDEAS behind it. If you didn’t understand his ideas and his conceptual understanding of the world – and sex – then his choreography would be closed to you. It’s not enough to do a little pelvic thrust. You have to know what’s BEHIND the pelvic thrust, his particular flaws and interests and inspirations.

“Fosse would say that it’s important to trust silence. He very much liked the use of the tacit, or silent, count, where nothing is happening. He also liked percussion. His is a world of angular movement and mystery, quiet, semi-taciturn and percussive.” — Ann Reinking

In her career post-Fosse, she was there, as a reminder, a coach, a choreographer, a scholar really … to pass on her knowledge to younger generations.

To be a dancer means being obedient to the choreography and also obedient to the generally punishing demands of being a dancer. But Fosse was something else (I wrote a lot about this in his “birthday post”): the demands he made on his dancers were not just physical, but psychological.

His choreography is not fluid. In fact, it’s ANTI-fluid. It involves atomization, dissociation, aggression, with so many strong feelings, yes, but ALL of them have to be repressed. Repression is key. Fosse’s choreography is ANTI-catharsis, and his work is like a cork in the bottle holding back a tidal wave.

“Bob’s work gleaned from hoofing, from vaudeville, from ballet.” — Ann Reinking

My friend Meghan Murphy, a brilliant performer in her own right, said this in the comments thread of my post on Facebook, and I thought it was interesting to get a dancer’s perspective:

I’ve had the privilege of being in many Fosse shows in my life and the greatest/hardest challenge is what my director at the time (who worked with Fosse himself) called “the pressure cooker.” If the move is too big or too free, you blow it too early. The smaller the isolation, the nastier it is. It’s the tension that makes it so damn HOT.

Amazing! And I love how she calls it “nasty”. That’s it, exactly.

Not every dancer could get into his twisted headspace. Empty Fosse moves are not Fosse moves. For Reinking it was natural.

“There’s a lot of heart to Bob’s work that doesn’t always get recognized because of all of the sensuality, dark statements and wit of his work.” — Ann Reinking

But it was not just the dancing that made her so great. Or her LEGS, as awesome as they were. It was about the look in her eyes. The look is not “come hither” and it’s not “stay back”. It’s BOTH, simultaneously. Mixed messages are totally Fosse, and she projects both like a klieglight.

You can see why Bob Fosse was in awe. Why he watched her, thinking, “Yes … yes … that’s JUST what I meant to say.”

And then there’s this scene, from All That Jazz. It is that rarity: a perfect scene. Which does not lessen its impact, no matter how many times I have seen it, and I have probably seen it 300 times.

I saw All That Jazz when I was around the age of Erzsébet Földi in that film. In other words, I saw it way too young, way too young to get all the sexuality in it, although I felt it, and it disturbed me. But it had an enormous impact. I wanted to join that world. I wanted to move to New York. I wanted to take classes in big drafty dance studios. I wanted to be part of show business. I wanted all this young. 11, 12. Much of it can be traced to All That Jazz, and that scene in particular, which transported me somewhere, somewhere really really intense and personal. I didn’t just love it. I YEARNED for it. And … I actually did end up doing those things. This scene was a guiding star.

Let’s not just talk personally. Let’s watch Ann Reinking in that number and just take note of how MUCH she is doing. She is dancing gorgeously. The placement of her legs, the jutting-out of her butt, and how that corresponds to what is happening with her legs – sooo Fosse. But she is also giving an acting performance, and it’s a complex performance. Her lover, the Fosse-alter-ego played by Roy Scheider, has just experienced a crushing career disappointment. His work has been trashed by critics. He is devastated. He is surrounded by women he is fucking, an ex-wife, an ensemble of people who need him, use him, look to him. But at home he has … his main squeeze, played by Reinking, and his daughter, played by Földi. He doesn’t allow people into his inner world. He loves ’em and leaves ’em. But Reinking … she’s inner sanctum. He has broken her heart a couple of times, and she knows he is unfaithful, but she is loyal – but not blindly loyal. She understands him. She forgives him. And she also – most preciously to him – has a good relationship with his daughter. She is the child’s second mother. And you can see all that in how she dances with the child, how she supports her, and coaches her during the dance. The quick kiss on the child’s forehead is a particularly favorite moment. I also love the playfulness here, how they both just romp around, enjoying each other. When Reinking plays the piano on Földi’s upside-down rib cage! And look at how Reinking has made her body into a shape in that moment, and it is an indelible iconic shape: you can look at it and INSTANTLY recognize who choreographed it. At the same time as she is doing ALL THIS, the entire dance has behind it an emotional objective: Let’s cheer up the man we both love! He’s going to need this, let’s make him laugh, let’s take him outside of himself, give him joy, laughter. They succeed. The smile that bursts out on Scheider’s face is filled with a kind of sadness/exuberance that pierces my heart. He allows himself to be swept away, to be encircled by their love of him.

Watch Reinking do all that as she dances brilliantly.

She was a wondrous talent.

It’s best to watch her in action:

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11 Responses to “The hope is that in rediscovering Chicago, audiences will rediscover what theater was. It was sophisticated, complicated, adult.” — Ann Reinking

  1. steve shilstone says:

    RIP, Ann. And Sheila, I see what your brain did there with the Roy Scheider/Rod Steiger thing. My brain does that all the time.

    • sheila says:

      I KNOW. It’s been corrected. I legit thought I was saying the right name and now I have been laughing for 5 minutes thinking of Rod Steiger in the role.

  2. Eric Hanchrow says:

    Roy Scheider, not Rod Steiger.

    • sheila says:

      It’s been changed, within 1 minute of it going up. Honest to God, it was a mistake. 100 people have already told me. Any other comment? Any observation about her? Do you want to share your thoughts? Do you want to leave a tribute of your own? Share a little bit of yourself and your thoughts? Or is this all you’ve got.

  3. Cat Clements says:

    I was watching a clip of Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth at the 1997 Tony’s and couldn’t put my finger on what it was that had my attention glued to Reinking, but it’s the “pressure cooker”! Her choices of when to hold it in and when to go big are absolutely mesmerizing. As a teenager taking dance classes learning Fosse felt like tasting the forbidden fruit, it was sex and tension bottled up in restraint, it felt wrong but right and Reinking could show you all of that with such boldness even in the tiniest of isolations.

    • sheila says:

      // As a teenager taking dance classes learning Fosse felt like tasting the forbidden fruit, it was sex and tension bottled up in restraint, it felt wrong but right //

      Cat – wow, this is so fascinating!! I am not a dancer – in the slightest – but I do love it, and have friends who are dancers, so I try to understand what is happening. That’s just a wild memory to have.

      Watching her in the “All That Jazz” number, with the teeny shoulder flips … it’s frightening in a way, and has such a huge impact – I won’t say more than bold big movements because those can have impact too – but it’s just … DIFFERENT, a different kind of impact.

      I will go seek out that clip you mention – I have a vague memory of it but want to re-visit it – so thank you!

  4. DebbieD says:

    Oh, wow, what a fitting tribute and a beautiful piece! Ann Reinking was Fosse choreography embodied — sheer perfection. Such a joy to watch her dance! Thanks for this, Sheila.

  5. Debra T. says:

    My wife and I rarely watch movies together. I have a movie husband. It works better!
    I can always get her to watch this film. Just years of loving it. We sing and dance and suddenly my legs feel so long.
    She was here in Seattle. I hope she got to see her family.
    I enjoyed your tribute.

    • sheila says:

      // I have a movie husband. It works better! // Ha! That’s great.

      // suddenly my legs feel so long. // That’s awesome. I know just what you mean!

  6. Bybee says:

    My favorite scene in one of my very favorite movies!

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