Bob Avian’s memoir begins with a list of 32 “leading ladies,” including Barbra Streisand, Katharine Hepburn and Patti LuPone, which might be misleading in a couple of ways. Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey (University of Mississippi Press, 240 pages) is a fun and easy read that offers a light, slight overview of the six-decade career of an accomplished and well-connected theater artist.
But that list of “leading ladies” may imply that Avian was a leading man. His acquaintance with many of these 32 was in fact tenuous or fleeting. His association with Streisand, for example, was as a dancer in the ensemble of “Funny Girl” in which she starred as Fanny Brice; he had just one line of dialogue: “You were great tonight, Fanny.”
Nor is “Dancing Man,” as that opening list of ladies might suggest, a book of juicy gossip. It’s true that the first chapter, devoted to Katharine Hepburn, begins: “Katharine Hepburn, I’ve just discovered, can’t sing and she sure can’t dance. Which is a big problem, since she’s starring in Coco, the most talked about musical of the Broadway season.” Later, Avian tells the story of Hepburn complaining to her next door neighbor, Stephen Sondheim, for making so much noise at night, because he was up at night composing “Company.” But much of the Hepburn chapter details what a great work ethic she had and how Avian, in his first gig as an associate choreographer, helped the show (and its star) get into shape.
No, Avian comes across as kind, competent and low-key – which may help explain why he has had such a steady and long-lasting career, as detailed in this memoir co-written with Tom Santopietro (who also co-wrote Barbara Cook’s memoir “Then & Now.’)
If much of “Dancing Man” is of the “And then we worked on this,” it can’t help but offer a large, sweet slice of theater history. At the age of 82, Avian, the NYC-born son of working class Armenian immigrants, is old enough to have seen the original production of “Oklahoma!” – his first musical on Broadway. He was eight years old at the time…and largely unimpressed: ”When the curtain went up on an old lady churning butter, I thought to myself, ‘This is it? Where are Gene Kelly and Judy Garland?’ By then he already associated musicals with the lavish and glamorous Hollywood movies that his older sister had been taking him to.
Nevertheless, Agnes de Mille’s choreography made enough of an impression to hook him for life. At 22, he made his Broadway debut as a dancer, joining the cast of the second run of “West Side Story.” During rehearsals for the international tour of that musical, he met and befriended a fellow cast member, then only 17 years old – Michael Bennett. They briefly became roommates, and then for the next quarter century close friends, and the closest of collaborators, with Avian winning Tony Awards as co-choreographer with Bennett of “Ballroom” and “A Chorus Line.” “I was a great second banana,” Avian writes without vanity; he was also a good calming influence.
The book may be at its most engaging in its description of his work with Bennett. There are separate chapters on each their landmark shows together – “Companies,” “Follies,” “Dreamgirls and of course “A Chorus Line.” If much of the story of “A Chorus Line” has been told before, it’s still mighty riveting. The show was innovative in many ways, Avian writes — it marked the first theater workshop, it ushered in the era of computerized lighting. To figure out how to stage the scene where one of the characters gets injured, Michael Bennett pretended to get seriously injured during a rehearsal:
“The company gasped, and in their responses to the accident, their basic personalities emerged: the strong ones ran over to Michael right away, the more passive dancers withdrew, and some stood rooted in shock. Many of the cast members began crying, at which point Michael stood up and said: ‘Everyone stand up and remember what you just did.’ The cast was understandably angered by his manipulation. Baayork [Lee] in particular expressed fury between her tears.Michael understood why they were mad, but turned to me and said ‘The scene is now staged.'”
The collaboration of Bennett and Avian went well beyond their greatest hits. For a TV special starring Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, he and Bennett performed for the couple to show them the choreography they wanted the couple to learn; “Michael would be Steve and I would be Eydie”
Avian had a life and a career both before and after Michael Bennett, who died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 44. Avian went on to choreograph “Miss Saigon” and “Sunset Boulevard.” As recently as 2018, he directed a production of “A Chorus Line” at New York City Center. But I am partial to the stories he tells of his life as a young dancer. (He quit by the time he was 30.) There is the fascinating story of the dangerous and surreal tour he did in Vietnam at the height of the war as a member of the company of “Hello,Dolly”, ordered by President Lyndon Johnson and overseen by the Department of Defense. And then there was the time when he had to tap-dance his way up stairs in “Funny Girl,” but didn’t know how to tap-dance (his training was in ballet.) So he unscrewed the taps on his shoes, so they wouldn’t make any noise when he was dancing — which somehow seemed like an allegory, as well as one of those tiny throwaway but essential stories about how artists survive.