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Passing of a muse

Gwen Verdon helped define the dance styles of 20th century musical theater


The most influential and innovative Broadway dancer of the 20th century was also its greatest muse, not only inspiring but also collaborating with choreographer Bob Fosse to create a whole new stylistic genre of dance performance. With one shoulder hunched, one bony hip protruding, chest caved in and back arched to a slouch, Gwen Verdon created the classic Fosse first position, slinking and strutting with insouciant power. She brought the postures -- the provocative hip swivel, the chin-jutting pout, the shoulder toss -- while Fosse connected them into a choreographic voice, with an in-your-face attitude that only Verdon's radiant good humor could soften.Gwen Verdon's death last week at the age of 75 caused a long overdue retrospective summing-up of pre-Fosse versus post-Fosse Broadway. The current hard-edged physicality certainly owes its debt to Fosse -- and to Verdon, who could make a come-hither gesture using only the tips of her fingernails. After her sensational debut in Can-Can, critic Walter Kerr wrote, "She comes upon sex with a magnificent astonishment, rueful, dismayed, interested and deeply pleased all at once."

Just like the rest of us. And this was her greatest power, her real gift to the Broadway audience -- communicating a sense of comradeship. There was an intimate, one-on-one quality to her dancing. She played both toughness and vulnerability with an ingratiating, self-deprecating twinkle, as if she were letting her audience in on some grand, wonderful heist -- not only sharing the joke, but also bringing us along for the ride.

And what a ride it was. That debut in Can-Can served as a metaphor for her career. In a secondary role whittled down by the show's temperamental star to a couple of dance numbers, Verdon compelled the audience to fall in love with her. They literally stopped the show, hollering for her, until she was hauled out of her dressing room to take a solo bow, dressed in her bathrobe like a victorious prizefighter. In that moment, not only a new star dancer but a new style of dancing was born.

This lovable quality remained always with her. After a stormy marriage to Bob Fosse, the two became the closest of friends and colleagues. He created the show Chicago for her as a valentine -- and also as part of a prospective divorce settlement. He felt he owed her one last great show, and she closed her Broadway career with it. This diva of dancers was game enough to quit when she could still do it but didn't want to anymore.

Verdon was with Fosse at the moment of his death on a Washington sidewalk during the 1987 revival of Sweet Charity. She devoted the rest of her life to his legacy, and her influence -- both past and present -- can be seen in the current Broadway retrospective revue Fosse, which opens in Atlanta next week. Verdon helped to develop the show, along with Fosse's later companion and muse, Ann Reinking. It serves as a reminder that Fosse's best work was with Verdon. His cynicism needed her good nature as ballast.

In the show Damn Yankees (which gave Verdon her first starring role and her second Tony), the recurring musical refrain tells us, "Ya gotta have heart." As a dancer and as a performer, Gwen Verdon had heart. This is what set her apart from all the rest. She wore her heart on her garter like nobody else -- before or since.

Fosse runs Oct. 31-Nov. 12 at the Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. For ticket information call 404-817-8700.

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