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Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid interviews Sweet Charity’s choreographer, Jessica Hickman, about paying homage to Bob Fosse while developing original choreography.
In the 1998 edition of New York’s satirical musical theatre revue Forbidden Broadway, a Bebe Neuwirth sound-alike belts out some advice: “All you have to do is a little grave-robbing!” It’s aimed at those who want to increase the chances of their musical winning a Tony Award, as her Broadway hit Chicago did.
“Give ‘em the old saucy Fosse, glossy Fosse ‘em,”, she croons to the tune of Razzle Dazzle, the Chicago showstopper. “Twist and contort and throw some trash in it, and the reviews will all be passionate.”
So innovative was the late Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse’s signature style – turned-in knees, heels flexed, sideways shuffling, extended fingertips and bowler hats – that the dance legend whose unique moves have often been mimicked has become a verb.
Considering the original Broadway production of Sweet Charity was staged and choreographed by Fosse, you might assume it would be a daunting experience for Jessica Hickman, choreographer for the “Company C” Studio Ensemble production that opens Friday, to have to follow in Fosse’s footsteps.
Hickman knew better, however, than to impersonate Fosse’s original steps.
“There’s no style like his. It’s very difficult – unique but challenging,” said Hickman, admitting with a laugh: “Actually, there was no way to NOT attempt it.”
When Hickman and director Barbara Tomasic first chatted about the staging, the creative collaborators agreed that while using the original choreography was out of the question, they didn’t want to do a Fosse homage, either.
“So that’s where we landed. You need to have a hint of the style, but I’m putting my own movements into the show. I always try to not copy so it’s not a direct lift, but it’s a nod. It’s like choosing an ethical line of where his choreography begins and mine ends,” said Hickman, a Canadian College of Performing Arts alumna and faculty member who teaches modern dance and musical theatre.
Hickman, who has worked with Belfry Theatre, Chemainus Theatre Festival, Theatre SKAM, Intrepid Theatre, Victoria Operatic Society and other regional companies was chatting during her dinner break before the Sweet Charity cast had its first second act “stumble-through’ Jan. 23 in the Performance Hall.
Her choreographic prowess was immediately evident as the cast, accompanied by music director Brad L’Écuyer, danced with wild abandon during “The Rhythm of Life,” the “crazy fun number” in which Oscar and Charity attend the cultish, new age sixties-style “church” of the title beneath the Manhattan Bridge.
“It’s very wild, like Woodstock. ‘Absolutely ecstatic’ is how I’d describe the movement, to the point they almost lose control by the end of the number, having completely lost their minds,” Hickman explains.
Other dance highlights include “Big Spender” and “Rich Man’s Frug,” a highly stylized instrumental dance piece set in a classy nightclub Charity visits.
“You can picture Austin Powers, with a very sixties look, with ruffled shirts and everyone’s smoking. The women have high ponytails and super long hair that they’re whipping around, go-go dancers, all of that,” she explains. “It’s got that really quirky dance style that is very Bob Fosse.”
Since rehearsal time was limited to just over three weeks, Hickman spent almost as much time doing advance preparation in her home studio using wireless headphones while doing dance routines “so my husband (composer Brooke Maxwell) didn’t have to listen to showtunes all the time,” she said, laughing.
“I’ll try and find recordings or get the musical director to do simple ones for me and then I map out everything in advance. When you get into the room almost all of it changes but there’s a clear structure going in. Some numbers Barbara and I stage together in the room, so I didn’t come in with set moves but I did research the style I wanted and other times I did have set moves for efficiency of time.”
She said having both a director and choreographer was a plus.
“It’s so refreshing because as a director Barbara’s main focus is the story and mine is the movement through the story,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll be teaching movement and Barbara will add onto that and say ‘Remember that the reason you’re doing that move is for this…’ Our goal is to have a through line from dialogue into them singing and dancing, and it should be completely natural.”
Hickman’s upcoming projects include directing and choreographing The Drowsy Chaperone for Open Pit Theatre, the company she co-founded in the Yukon, and resuming her yearly contract staging the Canadian Badlands Passion Play in Drumheller, Alta. – a large-scale dramatic re-enactment of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a 3,000-seat amphitheatre with a 250-person cast.
She said teaching at the College provides the security of a “base gig” that allows her to live in Victoria while also giving her the freedom to take other contracts.
“They’re incredible that way,” she said. “And I get it because I think they want their faculty to be working, to be out there in the world and come back and share those experiences with the students.”
Sweet Charity opens Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and runs until Feb. 9. Visit ccpacanada.eventbrite.ca for tickets.