First Nighter: The American Dance Machine at the Joyce Recalls Great Musical Comedy Dances Greatly

12/28/2015 11:16 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2016

As Americans, we're lucky to have an abundance of national treasures. Some treasures, however, are more prominent than others. One less regularly ballyhooed is The American Dance Machine, which was founded in 1976 by dancer Lee Theodore, perhaps best known as Anybodys in the original West Side Story production. It was her cogent notion that choreography from musical comedies mustn't be allowed to shuffle off to oblivion when shows close.

How right she was! Sure, many of the dances are recorded and even available at, say, the Theater on Film and Tape Archived at the New York Library for the Performing Arts. But it's not dancing alive in the moment, and what a loss that would have been. Theodore went about repairing the loss, but at her 1987 death the company foundered.

Luckily for us and only a few years ago, Nikki Feirt Atkins revived the ADM and in turn has seen to reviving exultant dance routines threatened with a choreography burial ground as obscure as those where elephants go at their demise. Now outstanding dances are again being reconstituted and often by dancers or dancer/choreographers who danced them in the first productions.

Currently in a run at the Joyce, these stalwarts are recreating, among significant others, the work of Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Tommy Tune, Susan Stroman, Donald McKayle and Wayne Cilento, who directed the entire show. As restager/curators for this exquisitely living American Dance Machine museum piece, we're talking about Donna McKechnie, Robert La Fosse, Pamela Sousa and Gemze de Lappe. They've contributed to the current ADM run. De Lappe, at 93, has, with Elena Zahlmann's assistance, redone the "Dream Ballet" from Oklahoma!, which is arguably the most famous dance in musical comedy history.

The opening of the current undertaking is a medley of dances by Jack Cole, whom the lively Batwin + Robin Productions projections identify as the creator of jazz dance. The combination of three numbers, one a showstopper from the otherwise unsuccessful Carnival in Flanders, is a stunner. Possibly forgotten now is that two of Cole's leading interpreters were Gwen Verdon and Carol Haney, both of whom made more than a modicum of Broadway history. (Look for Haney and Fosse in MGM's Kiss Me, Kate.)

Seeing Cole's work and the seminal Oklahoma! ballet now is only one of the irresistible enticements on view. Others in a two-hour program extend to something like 19 thrilling looks back, a couple lifted from movies and television. How about "Coffee Break" from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the beginning and end of A Chorus Line, "Manson Trio" from Pippin, "Turkey Lurky Time" from Promises, Promises, "Gotta Dance" from Singing' in the Rain, "Cool" from West Side Story, "Mr. Monotony" from Jerome Robbins' Broadway, "Our Favorite Son" from The Will Rogers Follies?

And that's hardly all, with plenty to be said about the results, which, given the spectacles from which they're culled, are nothing less than spectacular. Any quibbles pale in comparison to the accomplishments. Yes, some of the dancing isn't entirely as polished as it might be. The orchestra isn't as constantly on top of the arrangements as would be hoped. Sometimes, as in the delightfully executed "Our Favorite Son" number, an exact replica isn't on display.

Forget it. The dancers, who sometimes only have seconds between sequences to reorient themselves, are extraordinarily proficient. It's likely anyone keeping an eye on the corps members will eventually begin keeping watching a certain few. I started focusing on Rich Faugno, Lori Ann Ferreri, Tyler Hanes, Mikey Winslow, Shonica Gooden, Justin Prescott, Tommy Scrivens and Georgina Pazcoguin, who replaced Megan Fairchild in On the Town.

As the dances take place -- perhaps "take flight" is a better way to phrase it -- it's also hard to miss the strong singing called for throughout. Back in de Lappe's Oklahoma! day there were the singers and there were the dancers, and rarely, if ever, the twain met. Now dancers sing with top caliber belts. Gooden, for one, can make the rafters ring whenever she wants.

By the way, watching dancers under the American Dance Machine microscope brings up a wonderful, yet sticky point about recreations. The best dancers are always those whose personalities imbue whatever they do. For all intents and purposes, they're inimitable. (Isn't this Zach's point when he's reluctant to hire Cassie for the supposed Chorus Line tuner he's casting?) So any dancer attempting to impersonate another unique dancer is in trouble. It's wiser to bring his or her unique traits to whatever is being asked.

The upshot for any undertaking such as The American Dream Machine is that the numbers can't and won't be exactly what they were as initially performed and maybe weren't even precise copies from one night to the next. At best they're careful approximations. Nonetheless, when they're as inspiring as this year's American Dance machine approximations, they're unquestionably something to dance about.