Ann Reinking on the Brilliance of Lady Gaga and Working with Thodos Dance Chicago

Cheryl Mann
Ann Reinking is best known for her work in the Broadway revival of Chicago, in which she starred as the infamous character Roxie Hart and won a Tony Award for her Bob Fosse-style choreography.
“I’m what you call semi-retired,” Ann Reinking says, unconvincingly.

The actress, dancer, and choreographer has a long roster of Broadway kudos that include her portrayal as Roxie in the revival of Bob Fosse’s Chicago, for which she earned a Tony Award for choreography. Reinking was a protege of Fosse and had a romantic relationship with the musical theater legend.

These days, the 67-year-old self-described semi-retiree lives in Paradise Valley with her husband, Peter Talbert, and their two dogs and two horses. That is, when she’s not in Santa Fe working with the National Dance Institute, or in New York checking in on Chicago, among other things.

“I do enjoy slowing down a little bit,” she says of her schedule, which is less hectic than it once was. “It gives you an idea of what it was like before.”

On Friday, February 17, Thodos Dance Chicago will perform Reinking's most recent work, A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. New Times caught up with the master to see what else she's up to and got her thoughts on the local arts scene, Fosse's influence on performers including Lady Gaga, and Reinking's formula for creativity.

click to enlarge
Pictured from left to right is Thodos Dance Chicago founder and artistic director Melissa Thodos, and Broadway legend Ann Reinking. The pair co-choreographed A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, which will be performed by Thodos Dance Chicago in Scottsdale on Friday, February 17.
Cheryl Mann
A Light in the Dark is Reinking's fourth collaboration with the contemporary dance company. Originally, Reinking and Melissa Thodos, the company's founder and artistic director, hit it off as friends. But they quickly realized their dance connection. Later, Thodos invited Reinking to choreograph for her company.

“I’ve always liked the company and I’ve always liked her a lot, so [our work] morphed into a very natural organic current,” Reinking says. “There’s always artistic nourishment there, so I always say yes if she [asks me to work on] something.”

Friday's show is based on the storied relationship between Helen Keller and her instructor, Anne Sullivan, who worked with Keller, who was blind and deaf, to develop communication skills.

A Light in the Dark is the result of an idea from friend and fellow choreographer Gary Chryst. Dancer Jessica Tomlin caught his eye in a scene where she portrayed a woman in an airtight, pitch-black room in The White City: The Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was co-choreographed by Reinking and Thodos and performed at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre on November 29, 2014. It was named Best Dance of 2011 by the Chicago Sun-Times.

click to enlarge
A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan will be performed by Thodos Dance Chicago at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. on February 17.
Todd Rosenberg
“She was so good playing and dancing as a blind person; it was mind-boggling how true to the reality she was,” Reinking says.

She would know. Although she's well known for theater, Reinking is a trained ballet dancer, too. She earned two prestigious scholarships as a teenager: one with the San Francisco School of Ballet and another with Joffrey Ballet, and her impressive career began with the Corps de Ballet at Radio City Music Hall.

Here in the Valley, she's found the performing arts scene vibrant, particularly offerings from Ballet Arizona.

“There’s an incredibly rich culture here that goes beyond what people always feel," she says. "Ib Andersen’s work [with Ballet Arizona] is at a real eclectic level, and the company’s capacity to do all these different styles with great quality and finesse and artistry is stunning. And it's kind of the way of a lot of companies these days, but to see it realized so brilliantly, it’s really exciting.”

This mix of artistic precision, reference, and open-mindedness, she says, yields creativity.

“You need history, education, and an open mind. Your real focus for a while has to be on one love and then you can spring off of there," she says. "I have always been grateful to my parents for making me do extracurricular activities after school, not just dance. At first, I didn’t like it, but in retrospect, they were right. I could have stayed in classical ballet, but because I like so many things, my life has always had an artistic richness.”

click to enlarge
Thodos Dance Chicago performs A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.
Todd Rosenberg
That artistic richness is far-reaching, as Reinking appreciates everything from classical ballets to Lady Gaga's performance at Super Bowl LI. The pop star attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Ann says it shows.

“To have her level of organic talent and innate wildness, and to contain it in structure — that’s brilliant. It looks like she’s really kind of flying off the seat of her pants, but it’s very structured. You could do structure or crazy, but to put them together in a framework, that’s talent. I’ve liked her almost since the word go.”

She notes Fosse’s influence on Gaga’s halftime choreography.

“It’s gratifying to see Bob’s work morph into other things. The sign of a really great choreographer and director is when [their work] becomes part of the universal language and morphs into our everyday life.”

A Light in the Dark: The story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan will be performed by Thodos Dance Chicago on February 17 at 8 p.m at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts Virginia G. Piper Theater. Tickets are $39, $49, and $59. Get details and tickets on the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts website.