Dancers & Companies

Andy Blankenbuehler Brings His Choreographic Talents to Bandstand

Photo by Rachel Papo

It doesn't look like your great-grandfather's jitterbug. Yes, the year is 1945, and yes, the setting is a jazz club. But these swing dancers are in the new musical Bandstand, directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. The number, "Nobody," is a paean to determination—"You know who tells me, 'Stop'? Nobody."

The choreography begins as metaphor and then becomes literal as the band members, revved up by the song, perform it for the dancers at the club. It's complicated and entirely fresh, avoiding familiar jitterbug tropes without ever abandoning the period feel.

Little wonder: Blankenbuehler, whose first director/choreographer outing was Bring It On: The Musical, says his influences included Judy Garland's "Get Happy" and Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal." ("I'm imitating Michael Jackson imitating Fred Astaire.")

Photo by Rachel Papo


And when a painstaking perfectionist digresses, there's always a reason. "The music is pushing from the late '40s into the '50s," he explains, "so choreographically I've done the same thing."

Because Blankenbuehler has worked with these dancers before, some when the musical opened in 2015 at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, they understand his shorthand.

Urging them to be more "hieroglyphic," or asking for "African knees," he stops to adjust not only big stuff—the angle of a pelvis or the hike of a shoulder—but tiny details, like the tilt of a chin. And flying chairs, clothes, mike stands and musical instruments are being choreographed along with bodies. (No need to mention Blankenbuehler's trademark hats.)

Photo by Rachel Papo

Those instruments are key—Bandstand centers on Donny (Corey Cott), a musician who returns from the fighting in Europe and starts a dance band with other war-damaged veterans and the widow (Laura Osnes) of one who never came back. The cast acts, sings and dances, of course, but those playing musicians are musicians.

There's an orchestra in the pit, but when Donny and his band perform the songs, by the authors Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor, they're not just pretending.

"It is like no other show this season," Blankenbuehler says. "It's easy to dig into the characters and the subject matter and the fact that the musicians are playing live onstage. All that stuff makes the piece really individual."

Blankenbuehler's involvement began in 1976, well before his choreography Tonys for In the Heights and Hamilton. He was in first grade and met David Kreppel, Bandstand's vocal arranger. They played soccer, had sleepovers and shared a love of musical theater.

Photo by Rachel Papo

As high school juniors, they attended a theater camp at the University of Cincinnati, where they met Oberacker. "I was in touch with them for, like, 20 years," Blankenbuehler says, "but we never worked together." Then they called to say they'd just finished a draft of a show that really needed a director/choreographer. "They knew I had a passion for swing material that I hadn't really gotten to tap into," he says.

The show was developed through readings, a Lincoln Center workshop, then Paper Mill—in three and a half years, relatively fast. And only now, Blankenbuehler says, is he getting "Nobody" where he wants it. "I spent a lot of calories on work that went by the wayside," he says. "And that can be a tiring process. But that's how you find a show."

When a second-act love song for Osnes was troubling him, he couldn't figure out why. "So I staged it fully and turned it into a little bit of a dream ballet." It was "a beautiful dance" that never felt right, he notes, until he moved the song into Act I and cut the dance.

"I want the material to move so much I often have to go through the exercise of choreographing it to understand it," he says. He illustrates the point by recounting how he arrived at a three-count transition in Hamilton: He choreographed a 45-second version that helped him "realize what was and what was not important."

Photo by Rachel Papo

He sometimes feels he's wasting hours of his life, he admits, "but I actually like asking myself hard questions in the dance studio."

His original version of "Nobody" also set off his alarms, and the current one includes "lots of improvements," he says. "When a moment doesn't truly come from character, it's inherently false. I know that I'm just making a showbiz moment. And I don't want to just make a showbiz moment...I want it to come from the story."

The Bandstand story is not just about veterans haunted by what they've experienced in war, he says. "Our show is about how people turn to their art both to pay the rent and to treat their souls."

Photo by Rachel Papo

His own soul is doing well, thank you very much. "It feels like a good time for me," he says. "I just turned 47, and I still feel great and I'm dancing hard. But it feels I can now really think about the depth of my work."

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"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

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She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

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Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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