Andy Blankenbuehler Brings His Choreographic Talents to Bandstand
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."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"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.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
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."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
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."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.