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Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer's Journey
by Bob Avian with Tom Santopietro
Book Review by Kevin Winkler
That self-effacing, matter-of-fact approach to his work is reflected in the book's style and tone. It's full of juicy backstage stories, but the dirt is seldom dished. Avian tells his story the way he lived it, with modesty and discretion.
Avian's career is easily divided into three distinct periods, starting with his early days as a professional dancerthe busy, bustling era of 1950s and '60s summer stock and Broadway theater when a good dancer could move easily from show to show. Avian worked with everyone, including Jerome Robbins on West Side Story; Jack Cole on the ill-fated Zenda; and Ron Field on two short-lived Broadway musicals, Nowhere to Go But Up and Café Crown. There are harrowing stories of being an unrehearsed swing dancer on Jennie with Mary Martin and Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand. ("Oywho are you?" the young star asked when an unexpected Avian suddenly appeared as her dance partner.)
Avian was part of the Hello, Dolly! tour that played Vietnam in 1965 at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and one of the book's most startling photographs catches Mary Martin and the Harmonia Gardens waiters framed by soldiers brandishing military assault weapons for protection. His connection with Martin led to him to a job as assistant stage manager on I Do! I Do! where his duties included star-wrangling for Martin and Robert Preston. Avian's affable storytelling style doesn't stop him from offering pungent observations on the abusive behavior of Robbins, Field, and Cole toward their dancers, or the alpha dog brusqueness of Gower Champion, and he took a much more even-handed approach as he earned more responsibilities. In Dancing Man, Avian is quick to name (and praise) the many dance captains and assistants he has worked with over the years, and his loyalty is apparent in the number of names that appear over and over again.
Refreshingly, for a gay man of his generation (he was born in 1937), Avian's sexuality caused him virtually no turmoil, and he enjoyed a supportive relationship with his family. His 35+ years with husband Peter Pileski are discussed with warmth and great affection. Michael Bennett liked Pileski, too, but reminded Avian, "So he, of course, understands that I'm really your lover, right?" That assumption conveys the intensity of the Bennett-Avian partnership, one that was as passionately committed as any marriage or love affair.
Avian, who first met seventeen-year-old Michael Bennett on a European tour of West Side Story in 1960, understood from the beginning their complementary talents and temperaments. Bennett's dance strengths were tap and jazz, while Avian's was ballet. Where Bennett could be hot-headed, Avian was low-key. Bennett was a creative dynamo, while Avian was happiest serving as the dynamo's editor. Their bond was also one of deep, brotherly friendship, with Avian the solid older sibling to Bennett's unruly kid brother.
Their early years together found them staging television specials and industrial shows, including two editions of the legendary "Milliken Breakfast Show." One of the book's nuttiest moments involves Bennett and Avian cooking up a number for Gina Lollobrigida for a televised opening of a Las Vegas casino. The glamourous film star was game for anythingfloating in a cage above the casino or walking a tiger among the gambling tablesas long as she was exquisitely gowned.
Other star director-choreographers had loyal assistants, but Avian played a much richer collaborative role alongside Bennett. Avian came up with the idea of taking the personal stories of the dancers that Bennett had recorded in a series of tape sessions and setting them at an audition. He is candid about the stress of maintaining A Chorus Line, with its multiple touring companies. When three companies needed to be mounted at the same time, it was Avian who arrived at the innovative idea of rehearsing all three simultaneously and creating a "Chorus Line factory."
Throughout, there are intriguing glimpses of Bennett-Avian projects that never happened, such as a stage version of Love Me or Leave Me starring Ann-Margret and Mandy Patinkin; the abandoned Scandal, a frank, provocative musical about a woman's sexual adventures; and, most intriguingly, Roadshow, a proposed film about a bus and truck tour of Seesaw to star Bette Midler and Robert Redford.
Chess was the last project Michael Bennett worked on, and his pre-production ideas included the use of video footage taken on stage during the show, an innovative idea at the time that has since been used successfully by others, including director Ivo Von Hove in his new, re-imagined West Side Story. But the specter of AIDS, on the horizon since the early 1980s, now fell on Bennett, who was forced to withdraw. Bennett had always used "we" rather than "I" when he talked about the projects he would direct with Avian as his loyal backup. The same dynamic played out as Avian accompanied Bennett around the United States seeking experimental drug treatments after his diagnosis.
These later chapters are less interesting because the shows are less interesting in terms of their choreographic demands. The heyday of dance-driven musicals like the ones Bennett and Avian created gave way to sung-through, special effects laden spectacles that didn't tax Avian's skills. Conversely, Avian enjoyed some of his biggest successes in this period. At one point in the mid-1990s, he had three shows running simultaneously in London's West End: Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard, and Martin Guerre. And there are the continuing revivals of A Chorus Line, with Avian providing the connective tissue from the show's beginnings to its present-day incarnations.
Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer's Journey offers a panoramic view of half a century of Broadway musicalsfrom the twilight of the golden age to high tech 21st century global theater. All the major figures are present and accounted for, all the high (and low) points duly noted. Avian was present for all of it, and the book's true accomplishment is that it at last brings into focus one of the unsung, essential figures in musical theater.
Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer's Journey