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Broadway dancer Mary Ann Lamb guest teaches at ECB

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published August 18. 2012 4:00AM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Dancer Mary Ann Lamb, center, works with Claire Ianelli, left, and Kerry McManus on demonstrating a move as students in an advanced dance technique class at the School of the Eastern Connecticut Ballet learn the Bob Fosse choreography for "Hot Honey Rag" from "Chicago" Thursday.

Mary Ann Lamb is an esteemed Broadway dancer - she was in the original company of the 1996 revival of "Chicago" and an array of other productions, from "The Visit" to "Curtains."

She danced in the film versions of "Chicago" and "Rock of Ages."

She also happens to be a huge proponent of ballet and its importance in learning other forms of dance - as she explained during her time as a guest teacher at Eastern Connecticut Ballet in East Lyme.

ECB often brings in visiting artists during the summer, to augment ECB's resident professional faculty. In addition to Lamb, this year boasts Arantxa Ochoa, Martha Chamberlain and Alexander Iziliaev, who are principal dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet, and Eran Bugge of Paul Taylor Dance.

Lamb has been leading sessions on musical theater performance this week. During a lunch break, she spoke passionately about how the detail required in ballet helps someone excel in other dance as well.

Lamb, who teaches all over the world, sees hundreds of dancers each year.

"What is special about this school is the dancers are so well-trained in ballet," she says.

While kids nowadays tend to want things to come to them easy and quick, she says, "The hard thing about ballet is there's such detail, you've got to slow down, and you've got to learn ballet as a craft. ... This school really focuses on the craft and the artistry of ballet. You can see that in the kids. The kids are extremely disciplined."

Lamb recently broke bones in her foot during a rehearsal for a musical version of "Roman Holiday" - an errant overhead lift as the culprit. (Lamb, by the way, is 53 years old; she tells people her true age but adds, "Just don't ask me my height.")

But she didn't let a little injury stop her from getting on the floor with the ECB dancers and leading them, during a recent session, through warm-up moves and then Bob Fosse's "Hot Honey Rag" from "Chicago." Lamb - who was encouraging and full of positive energy - had never tried that number with such young dancers before because they usually can't get that kind of detail. At ECB, though, they did.

Lamb knows the "Chicago" material well, of course, having done it on Broadway and on film. Actually, she was performing in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" starring Nathan Lane when "Chicago" was being revived onstage as an Encores! concert version.

Although "Forum" was a huge hit, Lamb says, "I just had to do 'Chicago.' As a young girl, I came to New York to dance with Bob Fosse."

She never did, but she was thrilled at the prospect of performing in "Chicago"; Fosse co-wrote the book and choreographed and directed the original 1975 production. "Chicago," of course, went on to be a major success on Broadway.

Then, Lamb says, "When (director-choreographer) Rob Marshall asked me to do the movie, I could not believe it."

She's in most of the dance numbers in the Oscar-winning film.

"If you watch 'All That Jazz,' I have bright red hair on. I'm a dancer through the whole (movie). They keep on changing my hair color," she says.

Lamb was particularly impressed by one of the movie's stars. She notes that it's unusual for a performer to be a true triple threat - meaning equally adept at singing, dancing and acting - but says Catherine Zeta-Jones is that rare talent.

"We did rehearsal for six weeks and put up the movie like a show. So we were together in those rooms, working just like you're putting up the show 'Chicago.' What was cool was, everybody was treated exactly the same. She and Renee (Zellweger) were in the trenches right with us," she says, as was Richard Gere.

Lamb thinks that Zeta-Jones later recommended her for "Rock of Ages." Representatives for that film called Lamb and offered her the job - no audition necessary. Lamb danced in the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and "We're Not Gonna Take It" numbers.

Lamb has kind words, too, for another star of "Rock of Ages": Tom Cruise.

"He is so open. He had never danced before. He just embraced it completely," Lamb says.

That, she believes, is something every performer should try to be: open.

"When I did the show 'The Visit' with Chita Rivera, I never heard her say no. She tried everything. She never said, 'No, I don't want to try that lift' or 'No, I can't do that.'" Lamb says. "I've learned when you come in and you say no, you close up the room creatively."

Rivera is just one of the people Lamb has worked with whom she calls geniuses of the dance world - Jerome Robbins to Gwen Verdon to Ann Reinking. And Lamb says they're all ballet-based.

"I feel like modern, lyrical, contemporary, jazz is all ballet with just style and energy," she says. "Really, contemporary dance is just ballet with a contemporary song. Jazz really is ballet with style and energy. That's it. So if you skip out on the ballet, you're never going to have the structure."

On a practical level, too, ballet has its benefits for musical-theater dancers. Lamb recalls one teacher telling her, "There's no difference between pointe and working in three-inch pumps."

It's true, Lamb says; in both cases, a dancer is on the ball of her foot, with all her weight forward.

"All that pointe work helped me to get strong ... On Broadway, there's only one show I was never in three-inch heels, and that was 'Starlight Express,'" she says of the musical performed on roller skates.

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