On the surface, it looks simple: three dancers, one man flanked by two women, easing their way forward across the stage. But take it from “Fosse/Verdon” star Margaret Qualley: It was one of the toughest routines she had to learn in order to play dancer Ann Reinking in the FX drama.
“It’s deceiving. It seems like it wouldn’t be that physically challenging,” Qualley says, “but there’s a lot of restraint. It’s harder than it looks.”
To embody the real-life Broadway great, who was also one of legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s romantic partners, Qualley worked extensively with the “Fosse/Verdon” team’s directors and choreographers, including actor, dancer and choreographer Susan Misner.
“Margaret worked her ass off, and I think she absolutely nailed it,” Misner says. “When you charge forward and your hands are splayed outward and your hips have to lead the charge — it’s a problem for every dancer that comes into it for the first time. It’s incredibly detailed. It’s incredibly nuanced. And it’s actually very painful after many hours of doing it.”
Growing up, Qualley trained as a ballet dancer and watched dance movies like Fosse’s “All That Jazz” “on repeat” — thus, she was more than familiar with Reinking’s work prior to getting cast. “It’s the first time I’ve played a real person — and I’m playing one of my heroes,” she says.
Director Thomas Kail notes that casting someone with dance experience was essential for the role of Ann, especially because of the Manson Trio sequence. “That was going to be our introduction to her. We knew it had to be someone that could deliver, and Margaret certainly did.”
The Manson Trio gets its name from Charles Manson, who was front-page news as Fosse was developing “Pippin.” “I think Bob Fosse was very much about juxtaposition and irony,” Misner says. “So he’s like, I’m going to have them do this dance where they’re smiling, while heads are being thrown onstage.”
Pam Sousa, who was an original Broadway cast member of “Pippin,” and Lloyd Culbreath of the Verdon Fosse Legacy came in to teach the intricacies of the Manson Trio routine, for which Qualley was grateful because “the choreography is so specific and it’s so easy to mess up.”
But in the context of the show, the routine is never seen in its finished form. Instead, it’s the centerpiece of a rehearsal scene in Episode 4, “Glory,” as Fosse (played by Sam Rockwell) is taking out his frustrations on a dancer who has jilted him, and using the opportunity to give the spotlight to Ann, who is just at the beginning of her career.
While seen only in snippets, the sequence still manages to showcase what made Fosse’s choreography so special. As Qualley put it, “What I think is so exciting and unique about his style is that the things that are perceived as his flaws, he ends up really highlighting and making those things sexy and exciting. He didn’t ever try to change a dancer to be the idea of perfect. Instead, he would look at a dancer and highlight the thing that was strange and cool about them.”
“I wanted to preserve as much of the choreography as I could, while really putting narrative first,” Misner says. “Story has to come before choreography — that was Bob’s m.o. all over.”
Meanwhile, Qualley faced a different challenge, as Misner encouraged her to add an element of seduction to the routine, “which is not something that comes too naturally for me,” she says. “[Misner] made me practice that a lot.”
Qualley ran through the routine constantly during the four days of rehearsal, even when she was off the clock. “We couldn’t find her a cane on the first day, so she took an umbrella home and she practiced every day. She was nonstop,” Misner said.
Because for Qualley, the most important thing was “trying to do Ann Reinking justice.”
Fortunately, she was able to actually reach out to the real woman for advice. “I talked to her before shooting on the phone, and she’s just such a lovely human being,” she says. “I basically told her how petrified I was, how much I’ve looked up to her for so long, and she ended up giving me a pep talk. We ended up talking probably once a week for the entire shoot. She’s an angel.”