Photo by Rachel Papo

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."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021