Hit-makers, hip shakers

Times Staff Writer

Choreographing the film version of "Dreamgirls" looked like a dream assignment and, to make it come true, Fatima Robinson spent a week staging the number "Steppin' to the Bad Side" for director Bill Condon's approval.

She got the job, but it's impossible to see why in the finished film: Condon has chopped the choreography to the briefest glimpses of a male corps gyrating on moving platforms intercut with an array of narrative actions -- unreadable on the screen as dancing.

Embellished with guys and wooden poles, the "One Night Only" disco sequence is just as fragmented, though there's hope: In a couple of months or so, when "Dreamgirls" comes out on DVD, perhaps a bonus feature will show these dances in the form that Robinson intended. For nearly 15 years, she's been creating exciting, award-winning sequences for music videos, and deserves a better showcase than the final cut of "Dreamgirls" provides.

Based on the hit Broadway show that opened a quarter-century ago and confirmed the reputation of director-choreographer Michael Bennett, the film traces the career of a fictional singing trio with lots of similarities to the Supremes. But the movie's conflicts and relationships also evoke career milestones, good and bad, of other rock 'n' roll stars: Tina Turner, for starters, and James Brown, certainly -- even (briefly) Elvis Presley. Take your pick: This is a one-size-fits-all rock saga.

The film, which goes into wide release today, is dedicated to Bennett but takes an entirely different approach to the material. Bennett liked to stylize everything about a production, so even if there wasn't much actual dancing, the result reflected a unified choreographic perspective down to the scene shifts and light cues.

Condon, however, deliberately contrasts lives lived onstage and backstage with harsher realities, often incorporating documentary footage to reflect the wider changes taking place in America during the rise to fame of the so-called Dreamettes (later the Dreams).

In following the trio from the grittiest R&B; clubs to the ritziest disco showrooms, Condon's film introduces a number of other singing groups boasting far from coincidental resemblances to the familiar clothes, hair, sounds and moves of many Motown-era hit makers. And it's here -- in the diverse song stagings -- that Robinson's contribution to "Dreamgirls" remains unmolested and entertaining.

Stylized and updated, her use of characteristic gestural emphases, rhythmic steps and, above all, liquid hips reminds you why so many Motown artists were as distinctive to watch as to hear. The emblematic image of the Broadway "Dreamgirls" was legs, but the film version represents something of a booty call, from the key advertising photo (with its halo around the Dreams' derrieres, backlit and shot from below) to the churning lower-torso moves that Robinson and Condon keep prominent. But whatever the anatomical focus, glamour is a central component of "Dreamgirls," just as it shaped the identity of the Supremes. And back in Motown's heyday, how the women moved proved every bit as glamorous as what they wore.

Although Motown honchos always wanted you to believe that the label's singers staged their own routines, the source of the movement style that Robinson adapts for the Dreams and other groups can be traced to one man: Cholly Atkins, a consummate tap-smoothie who died three years ago at age 89. Atkins joined the Motown staff in 1965 and helped define the performing image of the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and others.

He called what he did "vocal choreography," and it became forever fused with the songs and singers he worked with. "He got the Supremes to Stop! (right hand up, strong) in the Name of Love!" Florangela Davila wrote in the Seattle Times, explaining his effects. "He made those fingers naughty and those hips sassy." Gladys Knight put it much more simply after Atkins' death: "There is not one African American artist that he did not touch in some way."

Written with Jacqui Malone, the man's autobiography, "Class Act," provides plenty of insights about the truth behind the "Dreamgirls" fiction:

"Diana Ross was given most of the leads because it was the opinion of the [Motown] executive producers and the people in quality control that she had the voice that would sell records," Atkins wrote. "We thought that Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard were just as talented. Even though they had very different styles, we felt strongly that some of the development should have gone to them. But that was not the view of the company administrators ... we could all see that in a minute it was gonna be Diana Ross and the Supremes."

Atkins worked with the group after Ross moved on to a solo career and he left Motown. "In 1972, I was still freelancing," he wrote. "I was working with the Supremes. This was a new trio -- Mary Wilson, Jean Terrell and Lynda Lawrence. I thought that was really the most talented set of Supremes. Everybody had leads in the show.... The trio played top-drawer clubs. Their movement was sophisticated, too, no teeny-bop stuff."

In 1988, three years after "Dreamgirls" closed on Broadway and a year after Bennett's death, Atkins won a Tony for his choreography in the tap-revival musical "Black and Blue," and five years later he accepted a National Endowment for the Arts three-year fellowship to teach vocal choreography at colleges and universities.

The secret of this specialty? What he called "different syncopations," specifically getting a singing group moving to one rhythm (the musical background track) while their voices were going in another rhythmic direction (the melody): "You go to the main source, which is the musical track, and you extract the rhythmic patterns, and make sure your movements correspond with them. Not all of them, but what we call in the music game 'the hooks,' the little syncopations down in the musical tracks that will psychologically stick out in the minds of the listeners.... You try to put a funky move to that rhythmic pattern."

Since groups focus on what has to be sung, not the background music-track, Atkins had to break down that track, beat by beat, to teach them how to move to its rhythms. "This is very time consuming," he admitted, saying that it took some groups months to master. "But it's worth it."

Indeed, when polished to a high gloss by any Supreme, Temptation, Miracle or Pip, it's simultaneously sensual, elegant, clever and endearing, the stuff of dreams -- and of "Dreamgirls."

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lewis.segal@latimes.com

Segal is The Times' dance critic.

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