Saturday Review magazine cover with headlines reading “They’re Young, Restless, Successful and Talented – Who Are The Young Meteors? / America’s Hot New Dancers What they do for love / Bringing A Chorus Line to the Screen: Director Richard Attenborough and Dancer Nicole Fosse,” dated June 1985 with newsstand cover price of $2.50.
A SINGULAR SENSATION
Nicole Fosse doesn’t remember her stage debut at the age of four or five—but her mother tells the story with relish. It was a dancing school recital, and Nicole had a solo to perform right at the footlights. She made her entrance, took her place, turned her back to the audience, and began to cry. And she stayed there, crying, for the rest of the performance.
Her mother was beside herself. “I rushed out and called my analyst and said, ‘Where did I go wrong?’ His advice was just to act normally and not let Nicole know I was upset.” She headed backstage, determined to handle the mother and child reunion as recommended. When Nicole spotted her, she ran over and embraced her, shrieking blissfully, “Oh, Mommy, did you see me on stage?”
Being born in a trunk is supposed to be the quintessential show business beginning. If that is true, you might say that Nicole Fosse was born in a solid gold trunk. The mother who hurried backstage is the legendary dancer Gwen Verdon, who became an overnight star in Can-Can and then made Broadway history in shows like Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town, Redhead, Sweet Charity, and Chicago. Her father is the Oscar (Cabaret), Emmy (Liza With a Z), and Tony (Dancin’) award-winning choreographer and director, Bob Fosse.
Despite this incredible pedigree, Nicole showed little interest in following in their dancing footsteps. She was artistic, loved to draw, and had written a book of poems by the age of eight. But she also loved sports and, especially, horses. Her parents, who were divorced when she was seven, were careful not to push her in any direction. “I thought she would become something like a designer,” Verdon recalls.
At New York’s Dalton School, Nicole rode horses, played tennis, and was on the track and swim teams. She was interested in languages. Then one day she reached a decision and told her father she wanted to learn how to dance and to become a dancer. His response, she recalls, was, “Oh my God, why?”
“Her mother and I discouraged it for a long time,” Fosse says, “but when she made the decision we got her the best teachers we could find.” Verdon adds, “We knew she was starting very late in terms of structure and discipline, and we wanted to make sure she didn’t go to what Agnes de Mille calls ‘the go to heaven in a pink light’ kind of dancing school.”
Nicole was fifteen when she arrived at the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem to prepare for her newly chosen vocation. She loved it and excelled at it and graduated a year early.
She was accepted on a scholarship at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York. She was an eager student and a fast learner, but there was nothing she could do to acquire the tall, willowy silhouette Balanchine’s line requires. “Genetically I had certain attributes that ballet classes could not change,” she says today. “Let’s just say that I looked good in high heels,” she adds, laughing.
After two years she began to wonder what all those plies were for. “I was beginning to ask myself why I was spending hours learning how to point my foot absolutely perfectly if no one was ever going to see it. I was longing to perform.”
So she got her first Equity card and went to tryouts for an Atlantic City dinner theater production of Can-Can. The experience was exhausting and exhilarating. “I loved the responsibility of getting myself together and getting on stage ten times a week. I didn’t care what kind of dancing it was.”
She did a few commercials and got called back for the Broadway production of On Your Toes, but was still attracted to the idea of being a professional ballerina. So she accepted a scholarship to join the Cleveland Ballet.
Having tasted the independence of performing, she found it difficult to undergo the technical stripping-down and starting from scratch her new ballet masters required. And once again the intensity and isolation of ballet life closed in. She mainly remembers Cleveland as the place she did a lot of crying and a lot of reading.
Fate provided a solution to a growing problem when a dancing injury required her to return to New York. While she was recuperating she went to the Chorus Line movie tryouts, and the rest is history—at least it will be after the film opens on Friday the thirteenth of December.
“She’s absolutely extraordinary,” director Richard Attenborough says. “She has the most compellingly opposite qualities: she seems vulnerable and tough and naïve and knowing. She is charming and impulsive, and yet you feel there’s something very deep about her.”
Today, just turned twenty-two, Nicole Fosse is bright, thoughtful, articulate—and, like most gypsies, going to dance classes, taking acting lessons, and looking for work. She is realistic about eh unique situation her familial connections put her in, but aware that it can cut two ways. “I’m sure that when people know who my parents are it opens some doors. But I think that people may also look extra hard at me. Once, I told my mother that she was only praising something I had done because she was my mother. She said, ‘Where dancing is concerned, motherhood goes out the window.’ Where jobs are connected in this business, I think parenthood goes out the window, too.”
ARTICLE as published on page 32 of the Saturday Review magazine May/June 1985.