Three Teachers Who Will Give You a Direct Link to the Masters of Musical Theater

July 31, 2008

If you’re a musical-theater baby, names like Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, Agnes de Mille, Michael Bennett and Gower Champion probably already top your list of must-knows. Their iconic moves are the foundation of musical theater today, and they also continue to inspire new generations of dancers. Their legacy is alive and thriving in teachers who are directly linked to them—and who are renowned in their own right as well. So get into the studio with these experts and learn from those who made the Great White Way great—and who keep it that way!

Diana Laurenson

Focus on performance with this Fosse-show veteran.

“It’s showtime, folks!” from Bob Fosse’s movie All That Jazz punctures the silence. Diana Laurenson stands front and center, commanding attention like a revered director: “Curtain’s up! There is no mirror anymore. Raise your eyes to the balcony. Now slowly lower them until you reach an audience member in the fourth row orchestra—this is a performance.” The studio becomes a stage and the students are remade into an ensemble.

With a generous smile and the mantra “gracious confidence,” Laurenson is an authentic and accessible musical-theater treasure. She first moved to NYC as an aspiring journalist and auditioned for Fosse’s Dancin’ on a dare! Her natural talent, guts and personality—not to mention legs for days—got her noticed. But it was a unique mix of what Fosse saw as sexuality and innocence that earned her a spot in the ensemble. Laurenson’s class is truly an inside look at musical theater—and she specifically asks students to leave technique class behind.

“I offer the chance to work on performance,” she explains. “Here, they can combine movement with facial expression and vocals. We need to practice performance just like we practice tendus!” Laurenson moves through a warm-up of Pilates, yoga, isolations and even a center ballet barre (facing a partner across the room!) without ever losing the thread of performance.

She then jumps straight into a combination from a musical, often original choreography. Fosse standards like “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” (Sweet Charity) and “Hot Honey Rag” (Chicago) are mixed in with classics like “America” from West Side Story. (Laurenson played Anybodys in the world tour.) An extra treat is hearing anecdotes from her career, which usually start with “Bob [Fosse] used to say. . .” or “I remember when Jerry [Robbins]. . .”! In addition, you’ll learn about the history and context of a show, which makes each class as challenging mentally as it is physically.

Steven Sofia

Learn time-period traits from this song-and-dance man.

At Steps on Broadway, you might be surprised to hear “Margarita!” or “Weekend!” echo through the halls. But peer into the upstairs studio and you’ll find the jubilant Steven Sofia encouraging dancers to smile during barre—what a concept! Holding an unshakable balance in a passé relevé, Sofia calmly explains, “This is just breath, bones and energy. You can still be human up here!”

Growing up in NYC, Sofia was instantly attracted to musical theater. During a summer break from LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, Sofia attended a workshop that included teachers from the American Dance Machine, the monumental company that served as a living archive of musical theater choreography. He was hooked by period-specific pieces, and joined the company after graduating. While part of ADM, he learned choreography straight from the greats themselves: Agnes de Mille, Buzz Miller, Gwen Verdon and Tony Stevens.

His ADM background and experience with these icons is apparent from the very start of his class. Sofia first uses a yoga exercise as “a great moment to close the door and make a conscious effort to commit to learn and become a better dancer,” he says. Next, a short ballet barre inspired by Nenette Charisse (Cyd’s sister-in-law!), followed by isolations in the center culled from the ADM warm-up to work each tiny body part—even fingertips.

While the warm-up concentrates on mastery of the body, once the combination begins, get ready to move—and act! “It’s great to be a technical dancer, but in musical theater, if you’re not also connecting to the piece as an actor, it doesn’t work,” Sofia says.

If you take his class regularly you’ll work through a dizzying variety of choreography, but always with a time period and character in mind. “Unless you’re specifically playing a dancer in a musical like A Chorus Line, you’re always playing a character. You might be a maid, a showgirl or a gangster and you have to embody them differently,” Sofia says. “They’re from a certain time period and that makes them move differently. Indulge in the world you are trying to create, and make the human connection.”

Tony Stevens

Be part of the process with an artist who’s done it all!

Tony Stevens demonstrates with the full force of a star in the spotlight. His blue eyes twinkle with a hint of mischief, and his dancing shames that of a youngster trying to push to the front. Stevens worked as a dancer (On the Town, Seesaw and Hello, Dolly!) and choreographer (Annie Get Your Gun; assistant choreographer to Bob Fosse on Chicago). Plus, he was one of the main inspirations for A Chorus Line!

In Stevens’ class, you feel connected to the golden age of Broadway. Class starts slowly: flat on the back, and then sitting for gentle stretches. His warm-up, created to heat up (but not wear out) dancers before a show, is simple and energized, including isolations, pliés, tendus and developpés, as well as an arm series. You’ll also find trademark musical theater moves, like shoulder rolls and sexy hips; watching Stevens do the steps himself is a lesson in finesse.

His combinations are a blend of classic jazz and musical theater, with plenty of sass, stylization and grounded movement. At Steps, Stevens teaches one phrase through three classes in a week. While the Monday class concentrates on general choreography, the next two classes focus on reworking, improving and imbuing the character in the piece—with input from the students.

“In my day, the choreographers created on us and integrated it with us to make it better,” he explains. “When you see a piece on bodies, it morphs. The students become my clay. Everyone is part of the process.”

Throughout class, Stevens stresses two things: style and acting. “The difference between theater dance and other genres is that you’re required to be an actual person!” he says. “You must tell the story with a point of view. Every dancer needs to say something. Dancing is your vocabulary.”