Meet the Hilarious Choreographer Behind "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"
Rebecca Bunch is taking a yoga class from her crush's flawless girlfriend, and things are going horribly wrong. The students and the instructor taunt her, launching into "I'm So Good at Yoga," a snarky song that mashes up moves from yoga and Bollywood. Though it sounds like a strange dream, it's just another hilarious scene choreographed by Kathryn Burns for the sitcom "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."
Each episode of the CW comedy plays out zany scenarios with two or more lavish musical numbers. Every song is a different genre, ranging from ballet to Broadway to hip hop, all with a comic flair. It's the perfect fit for Burns, who's become Hollywood's resident comedy dancemaker.
Growing up, the Texas native took a variety of studio classes before diving into musical theater. Then came her high school's drill team, her college's dance team and choreographing intricate skits for sorority events. After graduating with a communications degree (with a film emphasis) and theater minor, Burns moved to Los Angeles. "Choreographing for TV and film was my dream job, but I just didn't know how to make it happen," she says. "It's not a clear path."
While booking gigs as a commercial dancer, she started working in post-production. Editing footage familiarized her with camera angles and how certain movement read on screen. "That really helped me understand the camera in a way that most choreographers don't," she says. She added improv comedy to her arsenal, studying and performing at Upright Citizens Brigade.
Her first big credit was choreographing Freak Dance, a movie that grew out of a UCB musical she made with comedians like Amy Poehler and Matt Besser. The dance-flick spoof was "a crash course in choreographing," says Burns. "It was a crazy, super-low-budget movie that we shot in 13 days." From there, she began choreographing scenes for "Children's Hospital," "Key & Peele," Funny or Die and Netflix's prequel to Wet Hot American Summer. She even picked up a choreography credit for the Grammy-winning video for Pharrell Williams' "Happy."
But the gigs were sporadic. Five seasons of "Key & Peele" only amounted to about nine sketches, or 10 days of work. "You really have to say no to 'real' jobs so you can be available for these jobs when they come up," says Burns, admitting it was a struggle to stay afloat financially.
Things changed when her connections from "Key & Peele" and UCB asked her to choreograph a brand-new series, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." For the first time, she would be employed for every episode of a show. Now, she's done more than 60 numbers, three of which won her a 2016 Emmy for outstanding choreography.
Her dances are undoubtedly funny. In "Settle for Me," a ballroom/tap number, she nodded to the elegant carriage of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. "I thought it would be funny if when they sang the words 'sugar jugs,' Rebecca is doing running flaps," says Burns.
In "A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes," she turned to *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys as inspiration. When that song mentioned suicide, Burns coached the character Josh through body rolls with a hand motion around his neck, like a noose. "There are certain dance moves that are really dark, but if you put it with a funny lyric, it becomes comedic."
Burns admits that the industry has its challenges. If she thinks a scene needs 10 dancers, for example, she may be asked to do it with 8 or 6 to stay within budget. "It's half conversations and negotiations. There's a lot of business-type work that goes into it."
Though she's lucky that most of the cast of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" has previous dance experience, she also relishes working with actors who have two left feet. "Their movement quality is so much more authentic," she says. "And that's something I can't choreograph."
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Karen Azenberg, a past president of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, stumbled on something peculiar before the union's 2015 move to new offices: a 52-year-old sealed envelope with a handwritten note attached. It was from Agnes de Mille, the groundbreaking choreographer of Oklahoma! and Rodeo. De Mille, a founding member of SDC, had sealed the envelope with gold wax before mailing it to the union and asking, in a separate note, that it not be opened. The reason? "It is the outline for a play, and I have no means of copyrighting…The material is eminently stealable."