The transition from idea to execution is the process of creation. The creation often needs a transition to tie it all together. Sometimes the hardest part of creating is the transition. But when you get it right, the transition can be magical.
I went to Ann Reinking’s Broadway Theater Project four summers in a row. It was like Broadway boot camp. Singing, dancing, and acting all day everyday for three weeks straight. At the end of the three weeks, we did a show at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. It was put together by the teachers and guest artists including Gregory Hines, Gwen Verdon and Ben Vereen. We did all sorts of numbers, musical, dance and scenes from a wide variety of shows that had been on Broadway or were born onto Broadway after being workshopped on the students.
Ann Reinking is a protégé of Bob Fosse. She was in some Broadway shows with him, choreographed the revival of Chicago and starred as Roxie Hart. I idolized her. Along with listening to the cast album for Chicago nonstop, I watched her in the movie All That Jazz and on the Tony Awards with Bebe Neuwirth when they were nominated. Ann and Bebe danced the Hot Honey Rag together on the Tony’s and I dragged my tape around with me everywhere practicing the dance over and over. I wanted to know the choreography perfectly, just in case there was an opportunity to dance it with her. Oh, how I would have died over that. I went over and over it, trying to get it just right.
When I found out about her theater workshop I had to go. Everything just happened to fall into place and I went for the first time when I was 17, one of the privileged 150. The first time I saw Ann Reinking I thought I might have a heart attack. It was the first night of BTP and we were in the extra room at the dorm cafeteria for orientation. I was so anxious and nervous. What if she didn’t like my dancing? What if I couldn’t move my hips just the way she wanted? What if I couldn’t make her laugh? What if she didn’t notice me at all? She was sitting off to the side as the counselors started the meeting. I silently shook in the freezing Florida air conditioning watching her as I halfway listened to them give us the run down on what we had gotten ourselves into. I couldn’t wait for her to speak. I wanted to hear everything she had to say.
She was seriously intimidating. You did not want to be on her bad side. She kept us on our toes. Slowly but surely we saw she could be nice too and the new students and I eased up a bit. Everyone called her Annie. We felt lucky to be close enough to lose formalities. She made us laugh so hard we cried and so scared we would shake in our dancesneakers. She had so much wisdom and experience to share and we ate it up like a model after a runway show. I wanted so badly to step into her shoes and see the world she knew. I wanted to know what it was like to work with the late Bob Fosse. I wanted to know what it was like to be his muse.
I was intrigued by her and paid close attention whenever she was around. She always wore the same outfit, a slinky long sleeved black top with a white collared button down underneath and tight black pants. She even wore it presenting at the Tony’s and an for an interview Regis on Kelly. I remember watching her in rehearsals sit in the front row with her plastic bag of make up putting it on as we warmed up. I marveled at her bullet shaped lipstick. How very Roxie Hart. When she surprised us and performed the Roxie Hart monologue I didn’t move an inch except to take a picture until it was over. I focused on the choreography of each and every finger. The slight turn of her head but still looking at us out of the corner of her eye. She never lost her focus. Every step had a meaning and it delighted my heart. We all lost it with applause and excitement over our private performance.
Her presence at the project was always dictated by her schedule. Some years the students were lucky to get her there at all. One summer we pretty much had her to ourselves the entire three weeks. We kept expecting her to disappear but she showed up everyday. We were a tight ship that year. She learned more about us from teaching and watching than the summers before and we grew closer to her. I was incredibly lucky to be in a new number she created especially for our show. We all worked together to choreograph it.
Watching her work never ceased to fascinate me. After we had learned and rehearsed our numbers for the big show she started to weave it together like a Technicolor dream coat. She would watch us all perform our numbers individually. Then right away she found the order and put the pieces in their places. She would find a way to make one number transition to the next so the show never stopped and became one long creation. I loved watching her perform her magic. She had a lot of different transitions, some as simple as one group bleeding into the next as they left and the other entered. Others were more complicated and took about half an hour of work to finally execute. She would pick a person and have them speak or move and then wave her magic wand to make it flow with the next piece. Sometimes I doubted her choice. I could see the wheels were turning but I couldn’t see where they were going. I knew it was going to be interesting when she left her perch in the audience to get closer to the action. She would talk to the people she was transitioning and give them a thought, sometimes choreography. There were times when I thought she had gone too far, that her idea wouldn’t come across. But I was always wrong. Somehow, she pulled the most random things out of the air and made it seem like the most natural thing on earth.
I always tried to sit close to her during the transition rehearsals, so maybe some of her genius would somehow transfer to me. I wanted to overhear her reasoning as she talked to her partner and they smoothed out the details. I wished I could just follow her around and watch her work all the time. There was always a buzz of the older students going in for the first night of transition rehearsals just waiting to see the magic unfold. It was an unspoken rule that everyone wore all black and behaved. What would she come up with this year? How would she combine Burt Bacharach, Burns and Allen and a contemporary piece some of us had written and choreographed ourselves? No matter how uplifting, disturbing or mesmerizing the material she found a way to make the puzzle seamless, complete and unforgettable.
Sometimes I wish I had her around to make my transitions in life go more smoothly. Life would be much more magical with Annie to wave her hands around and make the pieces to fall into place. I would have her cast the perfect leading man to spend the rest of my life with instead of blindly stumbling around the dating world. She would find the perfect timing to make comedy out of the missteps. She would help me stretch through the tightness on days of exhaustion and frustration. She would make the most of my dark moments and help me to fly across the stage in the spotlight. I would never worry because whatever the choice, I would know it would all work out. She would commend me for my mistakes because I committed to the actions that caused them. She always told us to commit. If you screw up, screw up big because you committed to what you were doing. I would relish every moment of creating with her.
I loved BTP so much I wrote a parody of the song NYC, from the musical Annie, about it. The day I gave her the lyrics I had so lovingly written, I cried. She cried too. She had a special place in my heart. I was so privileged to have those opportunities to learn from her. I was so sad when I finally had to say goodbye. My time at the project was over and it was time to transition into life after BTP. It’s been a long time but I still use the things I learned there and think about the fun we had.
I miss you Annie. You may not remember me but I’ll never forget you. I think about you when I’m trying to make sense of what I’ve been given to work with. When I’m trying to make all the pieces fit. I don’t always get it just right but when it works it really works. And when it doesn’t I just give ‘em the old razzle dazzle.