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Sunday November 2, 2003. It was an ordinary day for most people, but the charge of electricity that was running through Times Square thirty minutes before show time was felt by everyone. At the Ambassador Theatre on West forty-eighth street, we all shuffled to our seats, fell silent as the house lights dimmed, listened to the obligatory announcements about shutting cell phones and pagers off, and anxiously waited for the music to start. “Curtain up, light the lights” (Gypsy), oh wait, wrong show. “Come on babe, why don’t we paint the town….and all that jazz” (Chicago). Ahhh, there it is. The sweet sound of Velma introduces us to 1920s Chicago. A time of wild parties, wild night life, and wild murders.
This revival of Chicago is choreographed by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse. All throughout the show we see the trademark amoeba, which is when several dancers are grouped together and move in unison from one point to another with the only distinctive movement coming from their arms and hands. It is an amazing sight to see fifteen dancers move across the stage with their feet in precision timing. At times, these dancers were in brighter light which made it easier to see their feet and enjoy their movements, other times they were in darker light or shadows which made seeing the movements difficult. Another unifying feature was the fact that all of the dancers were wearing black. They each had different styles of clothing for their costumes, but all of the costumes were black, which made the dancers melt together when they were in this amoeba formation.
The use of minimal sets, props and costuming allowed the audience to focus on the dance and the storyline, which may have otherwise been lost in large, ostentatious sets or big, bright colors of costumes. Reinking was a protégé of Fosse, so it is imaginable that she strived to maintain choreography as close as possible to what he would have done. The dancer’s movements were sharp and clear, which varies from a more traditional ballet look of smooth and flowing. Angles were used in the way that dancers held their hats, sharp pointed elbows with thumb and first finger holding the brim while the remaining fingers were pointed straight up. This gave the impression that the movements were purposeful, and it also gave the dancers less margin for error. When a dancer was out of sync with the others, it was very obvious.
Watching the dancers, I was able to see many of the moves and steps from ballet class come to life as a part of a complete dance. This was really important for me, because dance is the one area of musical theatre that I have the most trouble connecting to. Seeing professional Broadway dancers utilizing some of the same movements that we have learned in our classes showed me how these techniques apply in the “real dance world.”
In the first act, there was a song called the ___________which featured Roxie and three dancers. The dancers were in a triangular formation doing a soft-shoe dance. I instantly was able to recognize rond-de-jambs which made me connect to the dancers. Other moves that I was able to identify were the turns done attitude derriere since we had done those in the pointe class I attended, as well as bourrees when the dancers were moving from place to place in the song Razzle Dazzle.
Another feature that struck me was the dancers’ ability to walk with such style. The dancers needed to be able to move from one spot to another, but it seemed that they did not just walk there. They really just floated from one spot to the next. Their arms were generally slightly behind them with a slight bend in the elbow giving them a nice rounded look. Oftentimes, featured dancers who were moving had their arms swaying from side to side behind them with their hands alternating in a waving style. When dancers did this movement simultaneously, it was almost mesmerizing. Additionally, dancers seemed only to move with the beat of the music, even when no music was playing. It was as if all their movements stayed in time to music that had either just finished, or was playing in their head.
The first time I saw Chicago, I did not enjoy it. In fact, I remember walking out of there thinking “what kind of crazy show is this?” Oh, I liked Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth, and some of the songs were ok, and once in awhile I found myself humming a tune, or trying to recall the words to a song, but overall, it was one of the most painful shows I ever sat through. In fact, the feelings I had from Chicago were solidified when I was dragged to Fosse not long after. This time, looking at the dance, and focusing on a different aspect of the show, I was able to understand and appreciate that Chicago is musical theatre, but it must be seen with dance as a critical element, not an aside. When I watched the show from this perspective, the plot made more sense, and I was able to connect to the characters, which is something I was unable to do the previous time I saw the show. After seeing the show last week, I would recommend it to others, but I would suggest they familiarize themselves with dance before going. A little knowledge goes a long way toward the overall enjoyment of the show.
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