At the height of his creative genius, choreographer Bob Fosse was a gritty puppeteer working the strings above Broadway and Hollywood.
His style of dance was both contradictory and unique.
Drawing on what he absorbed working in burlesque houses as a teenager — as well as the adaptations he had to make as a bowlegged asthmatic not graced with the fluid extension of most professional dancers — Fosse forced his troupes in shows like "Chicago" (1975), "Damn Yankees" (1955) and "The Pajama Game" (1954) to look at their art in a strange new way.
Traditionally long, flowing steps gave way to hip-swiveled, knock-kneed moves and angled limbs galore. Routines were Charlie Chaplin funny, or sweetly intimate. Armed with black bowler hats, Fosse’s army reclaimed the art of the musical and injected a big dose of sex into the mix.
Fosse asked his dancers — he prized ones proficient in ballet — to jeté everything they’d learned right out the window. They traded in tights for fishnet stockings, pliés for pelvic thrusts. His steps were tough, painful, exhausting. And yet his students always came back for more.
"You have to retrain your body and your muscles to do things they would not normally do," said Michael Barnard, a longtime Fosse devotee and artistic director for Phoenix Theatre, whose extended production of "Chicago" ends Saturday. "But those who’ve danced with Fosse are very loyal to his style."
Nearly half a century since Fosee’s first Broadway hit, choreographing George Abbott’s "The Pajama Game," and 16 years since his death from a second heart attack, his fans continue sending love letters to his legacy in the form of the Tony Awardwinning "Fosse," a greatesthits collection of numbers from such favorites as "Chicago," "Pippin" (1972) and the 1972 film version of "Cabaret."
First staged in 1999, "Fosse" has become a successful touring production. It comes to Phoenix’s Orpheum Theatre for a run Tuesday through Oct. 20.
Absent from the show are the allusions to Fosse’s excessive lifestyle — promiscuity, drinking, drugs — apparent in works like his autobiographical 1979 film "All That Jazz." But that same obsessive personality that led to a neverending chain of cigarettes dangling from his lips is partly what caused Fosse to craft what became his identifiable dance style.
"I think addiction permeates his work," said Desert Stages Theatre artistic director Gerry Cullity, whose Scottsdale theater recently sold out a 10-week run of "Cabaret." It reopens there in December.
"The compulsive personality has to find its vent in something. In him, you can almost see an obsession with a certain movement, a certain way of moving, and it will be in every part of a show. (Addiction) destroyed him, but it certainly left great work."
Cullity saw a production of "Fosse" in New York and promises the touring show will be a treat for fans of pure dancing.
"It’s a great show to watch the span, the scope of (Fosse’s) work," Cullity said. "You’re talking about a guy who did some of the most ground-breaking work. ‘Hey Big Spender,’ geez, it doesn’t get better than that. It’s so small and so little done and yet so powerful."
The touring cast is made up of mostly younger performers, including Michael Scott, 22, an Orlando, Fla., native reached by phone during one of the show’s tour stops in California. He’s been in the show since December 2002.
Scott performs what Ben Vereen did in the Broadway version, including the numbers "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" (from 1986’s "Big Deal") and "Bye Bye Blackbird."
"It’s just such an honor," Scott said. "But it keeps me on edge every night. You can never do a perfect show with this show."
Being involved in "Fosse" has allowed Scott to embrace sexuality in dance.
"You get so in touch with your sensuality, you can’t help but go there," he said.
It’s been much more difficult, Scott said, to embrace the dark undertones of some of Fosse’s works. ("To be able to go to that dark side, you have to tell yourself it’s OK.")
But that’s what Fosse had been trying to say all along: It’s OK. Life’s sticky endings, tragedies and weird twists of fate belong on stage as much as the easy romances do. It’s OK to make fun of the past. If there are three main themes that permeate Fosse’s oeuvre as a choreographer and director, it’s (1) life just might be an illusion, (2) dreams and ambitions can turn Faustian quicker than you can tap your toe, and (3) a little sex ain’t so bad.
"I think if he didn’t, he should have coined the phrase, ‘We need to make this sexier,’ " Barnard said. "He had a way of making things sexier without crossing a line. He was able to capture that taunting, that teasing."
Bob Fosse at a glance
• Born June 23, 1927, in Chicago.
• In 1973, won an Academy Award for directing the movie ‘‘Cabaret’’ (which also won a best actress Oscar for Liza Minnelli), three Emmy awards for directing, producing and choreographing Minnelli’s TV special ‘‘Liza With a Z’’ and two Tony Awards for directing and choreographing the Broadway show ‘‘Pippin’’ — a feat unmatched in entertainment.
• Other hit Broadway shows included ‘‘Sweet Charity’’ (1965), ‘‘Chicago’’ (1975) and ‘‘Dancin’’’ (1978).
• Was married three times, most famously to his dance partner Gwen Verdon, and was also famous for his extramarital womanizing and freewheeling lifestyle. He told his own story in the semi-autobiographical movie ‘‘All That Jazz’’ (1979).
• Died Sept. 23, 1987, of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., during a revival of ‘‘Sweet Charity’’
• A 1998 revue, ‘‘Fosse,’’ collected his most famous dance works into one show.
• A 2002 film version of ‘‘Chicago’’ won the Academy Award as the year’s best picture; it starred Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart, the role originated by Verdon.