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A Dancin’ Man: A Conversation with Andy Blankenbeuhler

The first thing I notice as an audience member at any musical is the choreography. Growing up with a dance background, I’d find myself tracking ensemble members that grabbed my attention throughout an entire performance. The show that solidified this practice for me was Fosse. My family didn’t know how much I’d get from that show, but I thought it was magic. During that show, I couldn’t stop watching Andy Blankenbeuhler, who sang my favorite song in the entire show, “Mr. Bojangles.” A few years later, I saw his choreography in the revival of The Apple Tree, which I can still picture. Most recently, Andy Blankenbeuhler has choreographed Hamilton, as well as making his directorial debut in Bandstand, as well as choreographing the piece. His ability to tell stories without uttering a word really struck me. Every time I’ve left a performance he has been a part of, I’ve come away with a new idea about nonverbal communication, and dance as a means of expression has become more prominent in my appreciation of the artform. Getting to speak with a choreographer whose work has had a profound impact on me was a real treat. We discuss choreographing a story, what collaboration can look like as a choreographer, perfectionism in dance, and so much more. Enjoy!

S: Which came first for you, dance or theatre?

A: Dance came first. I started dancing when I was three. I was always pretty good at it but I didn’t really love it until theatre in high school. Much like I am now, I needed a reason to do something. As soon as I had shows to do, I got much more satisfaction out of dancing. I grew up learning a little bit of everything. I got into theatre for the sense of belonging and community. I started performing in my high school in my sophomore year. It made me feel glad that I had a place to do something I was good at. I went to a college prep school, and academics were really important, but once theatre came into the picture, I knew this was what I wanted to do.

S: Your choreography is so distinct, I’d know it anywhere. I can still vividly picture Marc Kudisch slithering onstage as the snake in The Apple Tree revival.

A: I don’t try to make a style out of my choreography. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve found a comfort zone that I like to work in. It revolves around rhythm more than dance vocabulary. It allows my work to look more consistent, but it doesn’t fit with all music.

S: I can see where you’d say rhythm, but your ability to tell a story is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

A: I now can’t start on choreography without knowing the story. The idea of the story has to make sense to me. I’m working on some more dance-y stuff now, but even with that, if I can’t figure out the story, I can’t figure out the step. The story is the most important part, I’m actually glad you noticed that. When I’m working on a new idea, I’m actually thinking about character and plot before I’m thinking dance vocabulary. Steps are usually the last thing I think about when I’m choreographing. I don’t start with the dance vocabulary.

S: That makes so much sense to me.

A: I mean, when we grew up, there wasn’t always a story for the dance we were doing. You danced because there was music. Now I’m focusing on heightening a story and dance is the tool I work with. All of the steps have a purpose in pushing the story forward.

S: How does your contribution to a show fit in with the rest of the team?

A: All collaborations are different. Tommy Kail, who directed Hamilton, had me do a lot of the staging and I came in at the beginning of that process. I got to interpret the ideas physically. Other directors may think the dance just develops separately from the development of the scene. I think it’s important that the story and the dance go together, that’s why I’m directing more now. This way, you almost don’t notice the baton being passed off, and the dance and song get bigger and more heightened in a more organic way.

S: I grew up in a family where technique was valued and artistry came second, and I danced in the reverse order of what they valued.

A: And that caused you to make choices, I’m sure. I was never a really technician, I wasn’t a big jumper or turner, but I loved detail. Detail was where I wanted to be. In a way, it’s more Fosse than Jerome Robbins’, which is interesting to me since he’s my biggest influence.

S: Your choreography tells stories without words. In my line of work, I work with student who are nonverbal or communicate through other means than their voice, and your work is another example of that. What is the most intimate way you’ve found to communicate using movement?

A: There’s a moment in Bandstand where the men are pushing the piano onstage, and the use of the bullet in Hamilton, or the slow motion in 96,000 in In The Heights. The dancing in “Nobody” or “Yorktown” from Hamilton are fun and I’m proud of the artistry and dance vocabulary in there, but these moments are the more special moments to me. They’re ideas that are really moving and reach people. It’s rare when you can make that connection. Anyone can do steps, and make it look fun, but that’s not true for emotion. Those smaller moments are the ones I’ll always remember.

S: What do you do when the steps don’t come as easily as you’d like?

A: They often don’t come easily. There are a lot of choreographers who can make things up in the room, but I have to really chisel them out and work through them ahead of time. I will record myself in my studio and have 80 different ideas for one scene and end up narrowing that down. If the moment is dramaturgically sound, I can come up with four to six ideas for that scene. If not, it’s a lot more challenging to stage that moment. There are times where I’ll use one version in pre-production, even previews, but I will work on a version of my choreography until I’m told to stop. My dancers know that I’m a perfectionist, and I will work up until I’m satisfied with it, which may be the eleventh hour. I have to keep working through the same counts until it works.

S: I think that’s something dancers have built into them—perfectionism. I think we all experience it.

A: Yeah, I think we all are perfectionists. Dancers are used to being told their dancing is wrong. We’re all waiting to be told we’re somehow doing it wrong. We really focus on the negative and it’s always a part of our life. We have a hard time thinking we’re good enough. Why do you think dancers roll up one pant leg when they’re dancing, have you ever thought about that?

S: I did it to show off my stronger side and hide what wasn’t working on my left leg. Is there a different reason?

A: Or they have to actively break the picture so that they can’t be criticized. Something about us presumes we’re going to get it wrong. There’s a battle for us to always get it right and be perfect and cover up what doesn’t work.

S: Most recently, you’ve made your directing debut with Bandstand, which you also choreographed. Are those two jobs different from each other?

A: They’re pretty inseparable now. It’s always story. Everything I have to say, I can put in a song. The story never ends with either. You just have to figure out where the tension of one moment can build to the resolution of the next. As director, I set myself up as a choreographer. My choreography can only be good if I’ve directed the scene well. If the scene isn’t pulling its weight, then the choreography can’t either. I also like being involved from the very beginning, and sometimes choreographers come in last, and you may not feel as valuable. When you start with the show, you can see the organic nature of the transitions between all of the moving pieces.

S: You took on the powerful theme of mental illness with Bandstand, and it was so moving. I saw myself and my students in the showcase of mental illness.

A: Thank you for saying that. I didn’t want to do a story about veterans suffering from PTSD. To me, a lot of people struggle with huge hurdles in their life that scar them. For me, that needed to be synonymous to how people get through life now. I found the storyline of the characters being World War II veterans secondary, and it was more of a lense to see how the characters functioned in this story. I’m passionate about WWII issues and that era, but it means a lot that you say it resonates with you and your students. Often when you do a period piece like Bandstand, people believe you can’t tell a contemporary story. People suffered through some of the same exact things in the forties that are happening now. It can feel like another world in a period musical.

S: This one didn’t. I saw a good portion of my caseload in Jimmy. The pent-up anxiety and his mannerisms really struck me. Unfortunately, a lot of my students are dealing with anxiety on a different scale and for different reasons, but I watched that character and knew who he was and why he was acting the way he was acting.

A: That was a difficult character arch to find. All of the characters had really interesting behaviors. Wayne exhibited some OCD behavior my son shows from time to time. The idea of drilling yourself into a hole to try to escape and you don’t even know you’re doing it—that’s familiar to me.  Exploring these behaviors through balletic moments was so interesting to me. None of these things existed in the script.

S: Honestly, it really added a depth to the show that would not have otherwise been there.

A: And we were extremely proud of it as a cast. It’s hard to do that in any musical, but even more so in a period musical where people have certain expectations about what they think they’re going to see. The cast knew they were telling really important stories, and that made such a difference in the show. And the musical was nothing like this out of town. The show at Paper Mill Playhouse was a lot lighter, but by the time we got to Broadway, we simplified everything and made it about the details, and that’s the show that you and other audiences saw.

 S: How do you choreograph in those spaces, and how do you leave it to work on the more upbeat numbers, or go home at the end of the day?

A: You know, I’m not an unhappy person. I’m pretty happy, but I’m serious. I’m an idealist.  I feel things very deeply, and I’m interested in the realness of thing. I’m not attracted to huge disfunction. I like happy ideal situations. But I’ve learned that there’s a tension that has to exist in order to fully appreciate the idealistic situations. I don’t want to do pieces of art that are fluffy and fun. I want to do the ratcheting tension that lead you to realize that you have something wonderful. I’ve learned as a choreographer that what I’m good at is the tension before the release, which leads back to my dance vocabulary. I don’t do big dream ballets well, I do stress really well. It’s something I understand and something I can physicalize in really interesting ways. For me now, it’s all a decision about how honest the movement can be in a situation

S: Your shows have had a lot of choreography that must really wear on the performer eight shows a week. How do you choreograph sustainably?

A: I take pride in that, but Hamilton is really hard and there’s not breath in that movement. It’s hard for the body to sustain that choreography. Since I spent so much time as a dancer, I feel like I can read if it works for the cast. It has to feel organic and like the character would do what they’re doing. If it feels natural, it’s usually sustainable. If dancers are thrilled by it, they’ll want the challenge. If it’s a chore in rehearsal, it’ll be a chore for the run of the show. I like to keep track of balance, to make sure the choreography is evenly distributed on the dancer’s body.

S: How did you do that with Bring It On, because dance and cheerleading are very different worlds.

A: Bring It On is a very complicated math equation. Everyone in that show was utilizing skills they already had. No one went up in the air that hadn’t been doing it for years. Cheerleaders weren’t being asked to do choreography that wasn’t innate to them. I wasn’t teaching new skills. What I did was rotate people onstage so when vocabulary changed, you weren’t aware that people were moving forward to highlight their own skills. That show took a huge physical toll on everyone and we were really aware of everyone’s health during that show. We had huge health and safety standards for that show.

S: Are your kids into the arts?

A: Yeah. My daughter is a beautiful dancer and my son is getting into theatre and he’s around my work all the time.

S: Dance nerd that I am, I saw your choreography for So You Think You Can Dance with Thayne Jasperson. What was that like, especially now that he’s in Hamilton?

A: I love Thayne. He has so much passion. I wanted to do So You Think You Can Dance, and I got to know him very briefly then. He did pre-production with me for Bring It On. Thayne is so courageous in his movement and feels things so deeply. I love that about a person—they have so much to offer that you can sculpt them into a smaller, more controlled place. And over the last ten years, our journeys have intersected, and we’ve both grown and I love the interconnected ness of it all.

S: Every week I challenge my students to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?

A: A.BlankI didn’t go outside my box as much as I ‘d like to as a kid. I think they need to put themselves out there physically and not care who’s watching, and to do it with other people. Those types of challenges deal with reacting to other people and insecurities, and it helps them to become unafraid of being silly and foolish regardless of the situation.
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This conversation is one of my favorites to date. I can’t thank Andy enough for this conversation and what I’ve taken away from it. Everything he said about how he understands and executes dance really resonated with me. I’m really looking forward to how my students take on his challenge. I don’t know what Andy Blankenbeuhler’s next project is, but I am sure to be one of the first with a ticket to witness another feat in directing and choreography.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

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