Providing a community of support for mature dancers.
Working with Legends
Valerie Harper Joins Advisory Board
DO40 and Barnes and Noble Partner for Dance/Theater Events
(Back Row) Clarke Thorell, Cortes Alexander, Johnny Rodgers, Jim Caruso
If you had told me several years ago that I would be a dance assistant to not one but to two living legends at the same time, I never would have believed it. Even though my career has been more than I ever dreamed, for example; dancing behind Gene Kelly or having Twyla Tharp take my class, I never thought I would be relied upon by two other show-business icons. A highly coveted job of assisting a choreographer and super-star was given to me during the winter of 2007, January to March, by the first artist, a pioneer and grand professor of jazz dance, Luigi. This special man asked me to assist him as he choreographed a new section for the touring concert of the world-renowned entertainer Liza Minnelli.
Whether you are aware of it or not, Ms. Minnelli continues to give sold-out performances of her concert around the planet. It is fantastic that for over forty years this incomparable woman keeps going strong and attracting new legions of fans. Since becoming an international celebrity from her lead role in Bob Fosse's film, "Cabaret," she continues to make history while heightening the standards of quality entertainment.
"Liza," as she instructs her fans to call her, has her choice of venues to work in; film, theatre, television and more, yet she continues to perform her own concerts whenever and wherever she so desires. Usually traveling with her 12 member band, which includes conductor/ drummer Bill LaVorgna who worked with her mother Judy Garland, Liza commands her stage for at least two hours. Her song selections always change, with material by Charles Aznavour to Stevie Wonder, but her signature numbers from composers John Kander & Fred Ebb, ("Cabaret" & "New York, New York") are always there; otherwise, audiences would never let her exit the stage door!
As for Luigi, another artist who remains active teaching dance classes six days a week in New York City, he is the revered innovator of the the world's first jazz dance technique. He has been helping generations of people to move and to "feel from the inside" since being brought to New York in 1956 to perform with Broadway
It was in Hollywood that Luigi met Liza as a child, while working on the sets of her mother's and father's, director Vincent Minnelli, films. Then, after Liza moved to New York in her mid-teens to pursue a career, she became a student at Luigi's Jazz School. Today, these two artisans continue to work together and she even refers to him endearingly as "Papa." With Liza's strong determination to properly rehabilitate from recent physical adversities: a near death case of encephalitis; two hip replacements; a broken kneecap; it is Luigi who has been a guide. Along with their inter-relationship they have bonded more through the healthy benefits of dance. They found that if the body is put in the right position, it can have healing powers.
People like Luigi and Liza are links to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Film Studios of the "Golden Era of Musicals." Many studios produced savvy films that were a relief from grief, a medicine for society, yet MGM was a leader in the musicals. Also in that sophisticated, cinematic world was the only female conductor/arranger ever for MGM, Kay Thompson. Not only was Ms. Thompson a sought-after arranger but she was a huge radio star, an actress, an entertainer with her own nightclub act, Liza's godmother, and the author of "Eloise at the Plaza," which she based on Liza. The public may remember her work as a lead in the movie, "Funny Face," along with two film giants, Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Kay also wrote the popular song for that film, "Bonjour Paris!" (cont. on next column).
The new section of Liza's concert, on which I assisted, honors her incredibly talented godmother by performing six of the songs that Kay arranged for MGM plus her own act in the late 1940's into the 50's. Some of the material was done by Kay when she used four male singers she discovered and put in her show who were named, "The Williams Brothers." Liza originated the idea of the project; then, she enlisted the help of her arranger, Billy Stritch.
Cleverly Liza then coaxed Luigi out of a hiatus from choreography to work on her homage to recreate part of Kay's wonderful era. Luigi not only has an extensive performing career from that time but he continues to teach that classic jazz style today. Another amazing thing; Luigi saw Kay's act performed at the New Frontier Casino in Las Vegas and it was his mentor, Robert Alton, who originally choreographed Kay's show!
Since Liza is miraculously dancing with a new finesse and more sensuality, the four male singers that she has chosen to work with are called upon to dance even more than the Williams brothers did. Luigi has choreographed them to keep up with her. "My boys," as she calls her new, gifted vocalists are Clarke Thorell, Johnny Rogers, Cortes Alexander and Jim Caruso. They are professional singers with some or no dance training yet theyworked hard during the one month rehearsal to execute Luigi and Liza's staging. Louise Quick, a quintessential Bob Fosse dancer then assistant, and assisted Liza and helped with the production. She and I were the overseers, the "dance captains" of the homage to help it run smoothly.
In February I could only escort Liza's bandwagon on the start of a four-city tour, at the Frank Sinatra Theatre in Florida because I left to teach in Paris and Munich. The audience in Florida, like the invited people to the dress rehearsal in New York City, gave Liza and her cast a terrific standing ovation for her tribute to Kay Thompson. The music, singing and choreography all came together wonderfully and evoked that joyous musical period.. The people involved and the ones who have seen it report that they hope the production will be expanded one day into a Broadway and/or TV special, for the whole world to see.
I have to say that being with this crew of multi-talented people has been more than a wish-come-true. I have grown from working with all of them in uncountable ways yet it is the two main people that have given me the most knowledge. They have given me life lessons in being a better human being which in turn makes me a better artist.
I found Liza to be a consummate professional. She is warm, highly intelligent, witty, considerate, a quick study, and fun loving yet a hard worker. As a performer she is aware of every part of the details, the orchestra, music, lyrics, staging, lighting, costumes -- everything onstage. As the executive producer, she is involved in all of the goings-on offstage as well: from the technical crew to the catering. Her huge, lovely brown eyes are deceivingly adept at recording moments like a cinemascope movie camera. She always has the conviction to do well and present quality work. (Liza should and would be an awesome full-time director.)
I marveled at Luigi with his cool, calm, caring demeanor that allowed the people around him to mature and rise to his level of understanding. Even though we just celebrated his 82nd birthday, he was forever bright, clever and possesses an infectious youthful spirit, a pied-piper of dance. When he demonstrated movements for us to try to replicate I saw him as, "liquid gold." It is no wonder because he lives by his lifelong motto, "Never Stop Moving." After working with Luigi and Liza, I can testify that they are tenacious survivors, and true masters of their crafts.
Especially because of the roster of talent involved I urge everyone to go to see this new section in Liza's spectacular, as there is nothing else like it today.To find out where the tour is at log on to her website at www.officiallizaminnelli.com, then run to experience the combined work of legends.
Valerie Harper Joins Advisory Board!
DO40 and Barnes and Noble partner for Dance/Theater Events
Richard Seff book signing with Chita Rivera, September’s book signing with dancer/actress Sondra Lee, and October’s CD signing with Chita Rivera – all with Scrumptious support from DO40!.
DO40 has a history of supporting its members and friendswhenever and wherever they appear, and opportunities came knocking over the past few months. It began a few years ago with Donna McKechnie’s book signing at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble.
President John Sefakis saw a fun, easy P.R. opportunity and a way to make these B & N events more enjoyable – by supplying refreshments for the crowd – and the talent.
This Summer’s activities began with author/agent/actor Richard Seff discussing his new book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage. He brought along DO40 Advisory Board Member Chita Rivera to also regale the audience with stories, anecdotes and jokes from both their careers (it did end up on occasion sounding a bit like to “We dined at 9.” “No, we dined at 8” “You were early.” No, you were late.”)
Mr. Seff (above right with Chita Rivera and below left at the podium) is an observer of people. And boy, he observed the big guns of theater, from Ethel Merman to Bob Fosse, Rex Harrison to, well, Chita Rivera (above left). The book shows his love of the theater and theater trivia, and never gossips, but provides extremely colorful stories. Seff also describes the changes in the acting industry and the emergence of television, and how and when the power moved from New York to Hollywood.
DO40 will also provided deserts and beverage at dancer/actress Sondra Lee’s book signing I’ve Slept with Everybody on September 15. (above right, DO40 President John Sefakis and Sondra Lee – when they were both blondes, in 2002!) Lee, who began her career in Jerome Robbins’ High Button Shoes (1947) and jete’d to fame as Tiger Lily in Robbins’ 1954 production of Peter Pan, was interviewed by author and theater connoisseur Tom Santopietro.
On October 19th, the evening of DO40’s Peter Gennaro event, Chita Rivera will be promoting her new CD that drops October 13th, “called And now I Sing (above right). After the CD signing she will dash over to St. Luke’s theater to participate in the final panel of DO40’s Gennaro event. DO40 will also promote Chita’s CD with info in the theater lobby. The album contains some of Chita’s classic theater songs as well as some of her favorite standards rearranged and recorded by a group of NYC’s best jazz musicians.
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