By Jon Teeuwissen, MOT Artistic Advisor for Dance
Early in my arts management career, I had the privilege of working with Lee Theodore’s The American Dance Machine, a theatre dance company. Theodore was a protégé of Jerome Robbins. She originated the role of “Anybodys,” the female tomboy character who wanted to belong to the Jets gang in West Side Story on Broadway. Conceived, choreographed and directed by Robbins, West Side Story set a new standard on Broadway for placing dance front and center.
Prior to the advent of video tape, when a Broadway show would close, you would be left with the book and the score, but there was no record of the choreography. In 1976, Theodore founded a company that would reconstruct these “lost dances” and become a “living archive” of Broadway theatre dance. She invited the original choreographers to recreate their show-stopping dance numbers from Broadway musicals. In cases where the original choreographer was deceased, Theodore gathered former cast members who had danced the works hundreds of times during the show’s run and held “muscle memory sessions” from which they would recreate the work.
Broadway theatre dance is a uniquely American art form; for this reason, Theodore named her dance company "The American Dance Machine." Although formed as a nonprofit dance company, Dance Machine operated more like a musical theatre company. All of the artists were “triple threats” in that they had to dance, sing, and act. Because the dances being performed were excerpts from Broadway musicals, the New York unions deemed the company would belong to Equity (the union for actors) as opposed to AGMA (the union for dance and opera). Many of the dancers were “gypsies” who would come in and out of the company based on their Broadway work.
Not everyone enthusiastically embraced Theodore’s concept. Several of the choreographers felt that their original choreography, created to move the storyline forward in a Broadway musical, would not stand on its own out of context. Theodore proved them wrong. While she relied heavily on foundation grants to research and recreate lost works, once the production was fully realized, her efforts resulted in a hugely popular revue of some of the best dance numbers ever performed on Broadway that quickly became an audience favorite.
Theodore’s The American Dance Machine opened on Broadway in 1978. That same year, Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ – a showcase for dance and his first Broadway show with no book - opened on Broadway, winning him a Tony. Jerome Robbin’s Broadway (1989) and Fosse (1999) would follow suit.
Dance Machine's repertoire reflected a "who’s who” of Broadway’s most gifted choreographers. The oldest piece in the Dance Machine repertoire, circa 1943, came from Katherine Dunham’s Tropical Review, the first black dance musical on Broadway. In addition to Dunham and Fosse, the repertoire boasted the choreography of Agnes DeMille, Michael Kidd, Ron Field, Gower Champion, Robbins, Joe Layton, Peter Gennaro, Donald Sadler, Onna White, Buddy Schwab, Danny Daniels and others.
Theodore was a huge fan of the choreographer Jack Cole, who is considered to be the father of Broadway theatre dance. Her mission to preserve and promote theatre dance included developing dancers. In addition to directing and choreographing, Theodore was a master teacher who developed a specific half-hour warm-up which is still used today. Theodore felt that theatre dance was informed by social dance, and she developed a curriculum for teaching that focused on dances from different decades which were offered on different days of the week at Harkness House on New York’s Upper East Side (not far from the Martha Graham Dance studios).
The Dance Machine administrative offices were several blocks away from the Harkness House studios, which sometimes made me feel disconnected from the art. But if ever I was lacking inspiration a quick fix was to go observe Theodore teaching class – especially Latin dance with live percussionists.
Theodore was a force with which to be reckoned. She could criticize you to the point of making you feel worthless, and your response would still be “What can I do for you?” A passionate director, she embodied the ability to push you to be your best and inspire you to push beyond.
I left Dance Machine in 1986 to join the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Theodore died of cancer the following year. The company she founded ceased operations but was later resurrected by a former company member in 2012 as the “American Dance Machine for the 21st Century.” The company continues the legacy by preserving and performing Broadway dances, past and present.
Following are two videos. The first is a video of the dance number “Charlie’s Place” from the Broadway musical Over Here, choreographed by Patricia Birch in 1974. It is a large ensemble piece that features many characters: a soldier on leave, the girl next door, a Women’s Army Corps member, a couple of sailors, two prom girls, a ballroom dance couple, a tourist, an elderly couple, the “mysterious woman in black,” the bartender and a “lounge lizard,” all dancing the jitterbug, rhumba, and the samba to the big band music of a nostalgic time.
The second video is a full show of Theodore’s The American Dance Machine, hosted by Broadway legend Gwen Verdon.