Broadway World Review By Cindy Sibilsky
July 29, 2019
Last year, in 2018, the third annual Dancers For Good Benefit supporting the Actors Fund Dancers Resource in East Hampton was so impressive that I challenged the founders to "high-kick it up a notch even higher next year". I'm thrilled to announce that not only did they clearly accept that challenge, they superseded all expectations! The nearly sold-out evening with exclusive VIP after-party on July 19, 2019 was launched with a special teaser event at the luxurious Fifteen Hudson Yards on May 20th, where the only thing that upstaged the delicious cocktails, CBD concoctions and breathtaking panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline were the masterful performances of Paul Taylor Dance Company dancers--Laura Halzack and DFG co-founder Michael Apuzzo, who debuted the first public performance of a Dancers for Good commission--"The Offering" by another renowned Taylor, choreographer and Artistic Director Eryc Taylor of Eryc Taylor Dance Company.
This year's Dancers For Good could have been described as one of the most diverse a la carte sampling platters of the very essence of what dance is in its myriad expressions. If there was a dance novice or an alien visiting from another planet, this magical evening would have been a perfect introduction to the art form. There were solos, duets, trios, group numbers, singers, drag performers, contemporary pieces, theatrical works, storytelling, the honoring of legends and incomparable contributions in a full-out celebration of the manifold expressions of human body (and voice). The day began bright and early at 7:30am when the dancers, staff and choreographers (all of whom volunteered their time and talents) boarded a bus headed for the Hamptons.
Charming and charismatic bonafide Broadway star, Cady Huffman, served as the 2019 DFG host. Never send a typical host to do a true showman's job! Huffman threw cautions and scripts to the wind and brought humor, humility and humanity to the evening with all of the joyful and bawdy, almost vaudevillian flair that she's become known for over her many years and incarnations on the Great White Way and beyond. While Huffman may have played the Ringleader of the multi-ringed dance circus, but there were many others involved. The first and foremost were the founders--Michael Apuzzo and Eric Gunhus--who have tirelessly continued the relatively new tradition inspired by such iconic fundraisers as The Fire Island Dance Festival and Broadway Bares. Speaking of the latter, one of the honorees for DFG 2019 was none other than the Broadway Bares creator, famed choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who accepted the Humanitarian Award. The other honorees, whose legendary contributions have and continued to shape the dance and Broadway, film and television worlds, straddling generations and decades, was The Verdon Fosse Legacy, which recently garnered intrigue and attention from the acclaimed FX series Fosse/Verdon. In life or even in death, the influence of these icons continues to manifest, grow and expand like ripples in a pond.
If there was ever proof of the worthiness of supporting causes to benefit dancers, DFG 2019 was it! The performances got off to a strong start with the return of Amy Marshall Dance Company in a work called "One Breath" with original music (that utilized the dancers' actual breath) by Kevin Keller and exquisite flowing, pale-blue costuming reminiscent of a clear sky or gentle waves, by Meredith Van Scoy. Along with the vigorous athleticism and dynamic partnering executed by the dancers, there was a strong sense of community, groundedness and working together that permeated the piece. The work, rooted in the deliberate, slowed-down Tai Chi movement, served as an exploration of union and commonality as a human race, united by one breath, regardless of any menial, surface differences.
The next performances were two solo pieces that marked two major events for Paul Taylor Dance Company members Laura Halzack and Michael Apuzzo. For Halzack, it would be her last dance as a recently retired member of the company, and for Apuzzo, a deeply personal commissioned work by the choreographer Huffman described as "the other famous Taylor"--Eryc Taylor. Halzack performed and excerpt from "Images" to music by Claude Debussy with a furious flurry of keys that both compelled and complimented her erratic, dramatic and angular movements with fluttering hand gestures that juxtaposed a regal demeanor (costumed by Gene Moore) with a sense of madness. For Apuzzo's piece, "The Offering", he collaborated with Eryc Taylor to tell his own voyage from a Tae-Kwon-Do master to a modern dancer. He began garbed in his dobak and 2nd Dan Black Belt, shrouded in a mysterious veil of low lighting. The heady, exotic and meditative music of "The Feeling Begins" by Peter Gabriel transitioned into powerful percussive soundscapes that propelled his inner and outer hero's journey. All of the movements were rooted in air and earth. As a martial artist, his gestures were masculine and strong, utilizing roundhouse kicks and sharp, arrow-like gestures while remaining firmly rooted. Ceremoniously, he sheds his dobak and Black Belt and offers them to the audience, signifying a transformation, like a butterfly shedding its cocoon. With this he uses all of his Taylor (Eryc and Paul) training and truly takes flight, leaping and spreading his wingspan like a bird in flight, utterly free. With one last sudden boom he halts, open arms outstretched.
The dramatic and modern solo performances gave way to a tender musical film ballad and dance duet as internationally-acclaimed ballet dancer Mikey Cusumano (who, at age 15, was the youngest male dancer to join ABT) forgoed tights to pick up a mic and sung "Never Enough" from The Greatest Showman, while one of his star students from Pace University--Sophia Hall--embodied the soul of the song with her passionate, emotional portrayal. Only three numbers in and DFG 2019 already featured a vast variety of impressive expressions of dance and theatre!
Troy Britton Johnson, actor, dancer and close friend of Dance Humanitarian Award honoree Jerry Mitchell, turned his bestowal of the acknowledgement of Mitchell's phenomenal contribution to helping others by utilizing the sexiest members of dance and Broadway communities to offer funding to assist and support those living with the HIV/AIDS virus, into a playful roast of his Will Rogers Follies castmate. Johnson recounted many fond and funny stories of the two performing under Tommy Tune's direction, particularly involving Mitchell's astounding good looks and undeniable charisma that would serve as an impetus for folks to open their hearts and wallets at the very first Broadway Bares at the now defunct Chelsea gay club, Splash, in 1992. The event raised $8000, an impressive sum not only for the time but for the first foray of the event that would go on to raise over $21.2 million dollars to date. But there was a little glitch to the debut fleshy extravaganza for a cause--Mitchell's beautiful bum had a blemish! Johnson relished recounting how a strategically placed temporary tattoo solved the crisis and the strip show went on, and on and on for a few years shy of three decades, with no doubt many more to come.
To celebrate Mitchell's distinction and the continued success of Broadway Bares, a rare vintage number--first presented in 1997, again for Bares' 10th anniversary and yet another time for Fire Island Dance Festival's 20th Anniversary, amongst others--that embodies love, tenderness, sensuality and exquisite movement was revived yet again. The piece, aptly titled "Menage a Trois", set to Enya's haunting "On Your Shore" featured dancers Kristine Bendul, Ryan Daniel Beck and Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva and was choreographed by a beloved fixture in the dance and Broadway world, Arte Phillips, who passed away this year at age 49. Host Cady Huffman, who knew Arte, could barely contain her tears as she introduced the piece. Illuminated in golden light mimicking the sunrise or twilight, the trio performed acrobatic feats, statuesque poses and nearly impossible-looking male/male, male/female and female/male lifts with the slowness of dripping candle wax. It is easy to understand why the piece has been requested so many times, particularly for events benefiting queer concerns and communities--it demonstrated passion and love that knows no boundaries, limitations or restrictions.
A favorite of DFG 2018, Luke Hawkins returned with his high-energy, classic tap with a twist that has garnered him a steady gig with Harry Connick Jr. Only this time, he brought along some company in the form of Eloise Kropp. The duo delighted the crowd with their spirited rendition of the 1947 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers memorable number from "the Barkleys of Broadway". They even shuffled off the stage.
After an announcemen and word of thanks from the Actors Fund COO, Barbara Davis, the exceptional curation took another direction and returned to solos from modern and contemporary dance masters with a flair for drama by showcasing pieces from Buglisi Dance Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. In "Prelude" choreographed by Jaqulyn Buglisi, dancer Ari Mayzick demonstrated astounding physical prowess with a feline presence akin to a panther or jaguar. Drenched in red light, his regal elegance was offset by the intense journey portrayed--one of letting go and also the beginning of something new. His gestures were that of incredible strength and discipline--some of which had him hovering over the ground in agonizing yet glorious postures. Like "Menage a Trois", slow-motion movements prevailed. In complete contrast, the Alvin Ailey solo choreographed by Robert Battle performed by Megan Jakel was an irreverent, wild and outrageous exploration of jazz. Dubbed "Ella" (after Ella Fitzgerald whose voice and demeanor served as both music and muse) the piece was the embodiment of jazz with erratic, unpredictable movements, sudden jumps and drops, the body moving with explosive emotion like the scat vocals that directed the physicality. Several of the other dancers made cameos but a hysterical dash across the stage. When all was said and done Jakel collapsed. It may have been part of the choreography but was understandable regardless.
Switching it up again to another song and dance, dancer and choreographer Sean Rozanski unleashed all of his emotional energy and gusto to accompany Nedra Belle, the unique combo platter of drag performer, worship leader and chair-turning vocalist who wowed the judges on Season 13 of The Voice. Belle certainly brought the DFG patrons at the Guild Hall in the Hamptons to church on a Friday night by bringing the house down with her powerful rendition of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" fromDreamgirls while Rozanski flew across the stage as if pulled on strings by her resplendent, earth-shattering vibrato quivering with longing and pain.
After founders Michael Apuzzo and Eric Gunhus--flushed and beaming from the success of the evening--thanked their sponsors, supporters, cast and staff, Carolyn Dorfman Dance returned for the second large group work with excerpts from "Interior Design". This glimpse of the larger multilayered piece explored our internal and external worlds, how we relate to each other and how technology, society and crowd mentality affect the individual. The flexible, modern art costumes designed by Anna-Alisa Belous complimented the eclectic, synth-heavy and vocal-laden original composition by Svjetlana Bukvich that contained quirky elements such as dialogue about being bored, not finding this interesting and the sounds of zippers. Varying from a quad to trios, duets and a solo portion, the piece finally accumulated into a massive group formation that created physical barriers like that of a maze or labyrinth. Several lone dancers attempted an escape only to find themselves blocked at every corner.
The Broadway diva Cady Huffman returned to give honor to two legends of the dance world that she had the privilege of working with on their last and short-lived original Broadway musical, Big Deal, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. In this posthumous accolade, Huffman reprised Johnson's "roast" qualities by recounting a story about Fosse and Verdon she deemed "too racy for the Hamptons" but decided to tell it anyhow because it took place there after Big Deal closed due to Frank Rich's incendiary and ruinous review. To keep it clean, essentially, Verdon said that while everyone is saying "screw Frank Rich" she hoped he'd never get screwed again! Thus set the stage for the remarkable couple whose unparalleled talents--separately but especially together--altered the style and history of dance forever. A video highlight reel showed only the tip of the iceberg of their myriad accomplishments, but the most touching moment occurred when their grandson, Noah Fosse, who admitted to never getting to meet his grandfather, recalled his grandmother as being his "best friend" and--as a senior citizen--still building forts by toppling the couches in the living room. Thank goodness for (their daughter) Nicole and Noah who continue to honor and promote the Verdon Fosse Legacy! In a titillating trio that displayed exactly why Bob Fosse has maintained such an exalted status, the star of the FX series Fosse/Verdon who played Chita Rivera--Bianca Pamela Marroquin--along with the slinky, sexy dance studs Nicholas de la Vega and Nicholas Sipes, performed the number "I Gotcha" from Liza With a Z that garnered Fosse awards and recognition in his landmark year, 1972. The scintillating threesome brought sizzle to the evening with their red-hot presentation. With her swinging ponytail, long legs, knocked knees and quirky attitude, Marroquin channeled Minelli on stage as flawlessly as she did Rivera on the screen. Mimi Quillin, who worked with Fosse and Verdon, reconstructed the smokin' dance from a video, which the talented dancers adapted to in almost no time. The two Nicks referred to one of the most thrilling, iconic and challenging signature Fosse moves--the scoot--where they crawl across the stage, stiff upper body, shuffling feet and bent knees (a bit like Voguing but more painful) as "the thigh burner."
Cady Huffman ended the night with the reflective and hopeful song, "Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries" from Big Deal. With her ability to own the stage and consume rapt attention from a place of stillness, all the while utilizing only her remarkable voice and presence, it became clear (though she is still young for the role, but it's show business after all, and there is suspension of disbelief) that we are overdue for another Mama Rose from Gypsy and Huffman deserves that chance.
The evening of an overwhelming plethora of the very best in dance and entertainment all for a good cause, ended with a swanky VIP affair in the back garden of Guild Hall where guests mingled with the dancers and enjoyed hors d'oeuvres like lobster rolls, cocktails infused with Papa & Barkley's relaxing CBD tinctures and plenty of relevelry under the stars. But the real post-show extravaganza was on the bus carrying the hard-working dancers back to NYC. Despite the discipline it takes to accomplish what was presented on stage, once the curtain is drawn and the bows are completed, dancers really know how to have a good time! This is particularly true of some of the top artists in the nation and worldwide who only come together once a year to celebrate and support something that matters to all of them and their fellow movers and shakers.
Now entering its fifth year and recently officially incorporated, it seems like the annual Dancers For Good Benefit for the Actors Fund Dancers Resource--much like Broadway Bares and the Fire Island Dance Festival--is planning on staying for a while. Hopefully for dancers and dance aficionados, as its double entendre suggests, this annual event and benefit is here for good!