Al Blackstone was sitting on his couch in Queens, New York, when he found out he'd been nominated for an Emmy. Hot, sweaty and exhausted from shooting the first ever dance video he's both choreographed and directed, he was telling his partner about his day when a barrage of texts came pouring in to congratulate him. "I knew nominations were being announced, but I was on such a high from this project that I wasn't thinking about it," Blackstone says. "I looked at my partner and said, 'I think I got the nomination!' "
The recognition is a cumulative nod for three of his numbers on Season 16 of "So You Think You Can Dance": "I'll Be Seeing You," "Mambo Italiano" and "The Girl From Ipanema." Ahead of the awards ceremony this Sunday, he spoke to Dance Magazine about the nominations, what he's been up to during lockdown and his plans for the immediate future.
How did it feel to have your work recognized in such a big way?
"I'm very humbled to be celebrated during such a difficult time. It's also bittersweet. 'SYTYCD' was canceled this season, and we don't yet know if it's coming back. I've been working on it for six or seven years and it's a true community. I was experiencing a grieving process about the show and this was an excuse to celebrate and revisit it."
When did you realize you’d created something extra-special here?
"In the studio—it's always in the studio. It's never about what I imagined in my head. It's about how the performer makes my work their own in rehearsal."
Walk us through your process of creating “I’ll Be Seeing You” on Anna Linstruth and Benjamin Castro.
"It's different from my energetic, fun numbers. I had a piece of music, and I wrote down my idea and story on a piece of paper. I was fortunate that Anna and Benji had this fragility, innocence and sweetness that they were willing to expose. Anna was dealing with a lot of insecurity, and she was willing to put all of that out there. We took a very special, intimate moment from our tiny rehearsal and put it onstage. I've made audiences scream and laugh before, but to have them become completely quiet during this piece is something I'm most proud of."
What have you been up to during the shutdown?
"I'm in an apartment in Queens with my partner—he works from home as a graphic designer and lettering artist. Thanks to him I've felt a real sense of stability. For the first time in our relationship I've been around all the time. I jumped right on the Zoom/IG Live wagon almost immediately. It was great at first, but I felt super-burned-out after a while. These have been some of the most difficult classes I've ever taught. What song do you teach to when everyone is going through something so difficult? Is it appropriate to be teaching at all? It was frustrating to feel like I couldn't be the same teacher online as I am in person. I'm still learning and improving at it."
How do you feel about virtual teaching now?
"I believe in it. If you had asked me before the pandemic, I would have had a smart answer about why I thought online teaching wasn't a viable option. It's the same thing with concept videos. In these circumstances, I'm realizing their value. Now my aunt in Phoenix, Arizona, can see my work alongside New Yorkers. Or people who can't afford to take class can join in on my free Monday warm-up. When all this is over, whatever BDC and Steps decide to do with virtual classes, I will support."
Do you plan to create more virtual content?
"I've always felt passionately about making things for live audiences—it's so satisfying to bring people together. Comments and likes online are not the same as hearing people talk before a performance, or going for a beer afterward. But if this is the way I can create and work with artists safely right now, I will keep making videos."
Any final words of wisdom?
"Dance is a gift. I will keep doing whatever I can to share it as much as I can. If I have a purpose in life, it's that. Dance isn't going anywhere. It was with us in the beginning, and it will be with us in the end."