Masters of the Universe

by Judith Fein

When I travel, one of my guilty pleasures is attending master classes. Sometimes I’ll catch an artist who can change young painters’ lives with the flick of a brush. Other times a famous violinist will teach a technically proficient young musician how to bow with more passion, and the latter’s playing transforms before my eyes. This past weekend, there was a master class in my hometown and I dropped everything to attend.

Photo Slide Show by Paul Ross

If there is a dancer with larger shoulders, bigger blue eyes and a closer tie to Bob Fosse, I don’t know who she is. Ann Reinking was in Santa Fe, teaching a master class to excited teens and helping to stir up interest in the New Mexico School for the Performing Arts, which will open in Fall 2010. At one moment, I thought I felt a strange breeze blowing through the Dance Barn where the class took place. It was probably the spirit of Fosse himself, conjured by his illustrious star and ex-partner.

Reinking’s best-known performances include Goodbye Charly, Dancin’, Chicago, A Chorus Line, Sweet Charity and, of course, All That Jazz, which was a fictionalized account of her relationship with the brilliant, chain-smoking, overworked, burned-out, womanizing Fosse. If you haven’t seen the latter, stop reading and go rent the DVD or place your order with Netflix.

Inspiringly assisted by Michael Kubala, Reinking put her students through the paces with Fosse’s choreography for Gwen Verdon when they did a Bob Hope Comedy Hour in the l960’s. “It was the first thing he choreographed for her after she gave birth to their daughter Nicole,” Reinking explained.

Her instructions to the future Reinkings and perhaps Billy Elliots were evocative and easily understood by the students: “Show me that tattoo” (rotate the shoulder forward), “flourish and flick” (for hand movements), “do something Mr. Fosse called ‘tabletop hands’”(placing flat hands in the crease between the hips and the legs). Reinking insisted that the hands be cupped when they clapped and listened for the tone they created when they “hit their tummies;” she said that sound was very important to Fosse.

Reinking instructed the eager young dancers in techniques like “broken ankle,” stabs, lunges and glissades performed with a torqued chest. When they had a bit of difficulty, Reinking quipped, “Let’s just do that for a million years and then we’ll move on.” The teens gamely performed isolations, tendus, sweeping bandit gestures that partially concealed their faces, and created strong Fosse-like lines when they looked over their shoulders.

The most moving part of the master class was when the teacher talked about imagery. “The bottom half of you is a horse and the top half is a rider. You’re in a ring in Spain. You are one of the best equestrians in Spain and your horse has practiced for 17 years to get to this point. You are as erect and beautiful as your horse. Your relationship to your horse is one of survival. You are one and the same. You can’t tell where one stops and the other begins.”

As Reinking evoked the mystical bond between horse and rider, the students’ torsos grew more erect and their feet pawed the ground. “Remember, you’re the greatest horseman in all of Spain. You are in a ring. Outdoors. There is dust on the ground. The audience is watching your every move. Put the tension in.”

Reinking’s gestures are sinuous, angular, brilliantly articulate. The students tried to imitate her, but that will take a lifetime of practice. “Skim like you’re skimming the top of the water. Even the simplest gestures must be performed well. A great dancer holds the stage with nothing,” she coached them.

“Don’t rush. Savor each moment,” Kubala chimed in. “Think of a plant growing. Fill, fill, so I see expansion.”

When the teens slumped a little, Reinking had them repeat dutifully after her: “ I feel good. Even if I don’t. I’m an actress. I can fake it.”

She was in her actorly element when she adopted a Spanish accent and instructed her students in how to act and speak with machismo. Then she asked the students to stride across the floor with energy and purpose. Kubala told them that “one of the hardest things to do is walk well on stage,” and Reinking looked at each student with her piercing eyes,” Walk now. I’m watching.”

During the short break, I asked Reinking if Fosse spoke a lot about imagery to his dancers. With an easy smile she replied, “There was always a subtext for every step.”

At the end of the class, I sighed, wishing I were a teenager and could follow the steps of the divine Miss R. The master class had transported me out of my daily life, into a world where the most important thing is the way a foot contacts the floor or a hand reaches into the air. I felt as though I had traveled far from work and daily concerns, and I was only a few miles from my home.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 80 publications. Together with her husband, photographer Paul Ross, she also gives travel talks, teaches travel writing and sometimes takes people on exotic adventures. Her website

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