In His Groove
Andy Blankenbuehler’s Broadway moves
Photographed by Matthew Karas.
Andy Blankenbuehler should be flying high, like the fearless cheerleaders he brought to Broadway this summer in the boisterous musical Bring It On. With a choreography Tony already on his shelf, a second musical opening next month, and a slew of high-profile projects on the drawing board, he is where he wanted to be when he first arrived on Broadway as a replacement dancer in the 1992 production of Guys and Dolls.
But Andy Blankenbuehler isn’t a high flyer. He’s a worrier. So weeks before the start of rehearsals, he’s meticulously refashioning Bring It On, which he originally directed and choreographed for a road tour. He’s fretting that with all the sit-down responsibilities of directing, he’s not getting his own daily dose of dancing. He’s mulling over the numbers in his second show of the season, the revival of Annie, and getting to know its director, James Lapine, the multiple Tony winner who has long been on Blankenbuehler’s wish list of potential bosses. He’s anxious about all the hours spent away from his wife and their two young children. And, at 42, he’s brooding about how much time he has left for all the shows he still wants to make dance.
“Musicals are not easy,” he says after finishing up a choreographic work session in the Times Square studio he’s been renting for years. “They are big investments of time, of energy, of my heart. It sounds like it’s about mortality when I say I don’t have that many shows left. But it’s not that. It’s like, how many shows can you point your finger at and say, ‘Bob Fosse created that’? He did a lot of musicals, but the ones he crafted? It’s not that many—Sweet Charity, the Cabaret film.”
Blankenbuehler wants to craft. He is proud of the Tony-nominated work he did on 9 to 5 (DM, April 2009), he says. But he knew it wouldn’t win the award: “Dance wasn’t integral to the story. I need to work on projects where dance can be important…because I love to dance. I love to do dancing. And every year the dancing gets harder.”
It may feel hard, but he makes it look easy as he demonstrates what he wants from the five dancers who are helping him work out some kinks in Bring It On. Digging into the floor, twisting his shoulder, cocking his head, pumping a fist, he is all coiled energy and sharp line. There are no blurred edges. Rachel Bress, a frequent assistant who first encountered him when she took a theater class he was teaching, says, “He’s just an amazing dancer. People love watching him.”
He’s been at it a long time. He started in Cincinnati at 3, following his older sisters to dance class. His mathematical bent, he says, made him a good tapper, but in general, he was no prodigy. “I didn’t really enjoy it. I was the only boy all the time, and I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t talk about it at school. But I did it. I never dropped out.” After a while, he realized that dance was “an avenue I could really be good at.” So he started taking it more seriously. A few high-school musicals later, he says, “I was absolutely hooked. Like crazy hooked.”
He enrolled in the well-regarded dance program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, but was too impatient to stick it out. He left after a year and was dancing professionally at 18. “I was like, ‘Now, now, now’!” he says. “What I regret about leaving school is not college. It’s training. I stopped training too soon. My technique never became what it could have been. I shirked the lyric side of my training. If somebody said to me, ‘I want you to choreograph this beautiful love duet,’ I’d have a really hard time.”
Blankenbuehler seems to have a healthy appreciation for what he’s accomplished and for what he’s still capable of achieving. But he is also clearly tormented by self-doubt. Walking into a rehearsal room as a neophyte director was terrifying, he admits. “The voice on my shoulder is always saying, ‘Everybody’s going to find you untalented.’ ” It makes it “brutally difficult” to establish new relationships: “When I’m around people who don’t know me so well, I feel like a kid afraid to walk into class—like a transfer student,” he says. And while he’s reluctant, after just one directing job, to give up choreographing for other directors, he wonders how much longer he can deal with the angst he feels every time he has to try to fulfill someone else’s vision for a number and then wait for a verdict on his work.
On the other hand, Blankenbuehler repeatedly points out how dependent he is on the dancers, his assistants, and his directors. “I feel like I’m really, really still learning,” he says. The hip-hop and salsa moves that colored his Tony-winning choreography for In the Heights, for example, evolved from working with dancers immersed in those genres, like Rickey Tripp, Luis Salgado, and others he will happily list. Before beginning Bring It On, he went to Memphis to study cheerleading technique. Notes Bress, “A lot of people like to be the smartest person in the room and think that they know it all. But Andy always says he wants to use people who are smarter than he is, because how else is he going to learn?”
Some of this humility is undoubtedly behind his famously painstaking process. Some choreographers, Bress notes, will devise a sequence and move right on to the next. “Andy,” she says, “will not sleep until he thinks that step is as good as he can make it.” Long before he sets foot in the rehearsal room, he will have absorbed the music by dancing to it on his own; he will have absorbed the relevant styles while working with a variety of dancers in the studio. “For a three-and-a-half-minute number,” Blankenbuehler says, “I’ll end up with an hour-and-a half of choreography on video.” Then he studies and edits and refines it. Ten counts of dance might yield only a single syncopation, or a hand position. “I go over the terrain over and over and over,” he says. And he’s the first to admit that, for him and other people, “It is exhausting.”
In the Heights, one of the most popular shows on Broadway in years, combined Latin dance and hip-hop. Photo Joan Marcus
Even his language reflects his ability—perhaps his need—to endlessly reassess. Comparing choreography to painting in oil, he says, “The paint doesn’t dry quickly. So after I paint the flower, I can go back and work that petal, work that petal, work that petal.” He invokes art frequently, but not necessarily to reference a style. Mostly he points to images of steady toil: Michelangelo laboring for five years over a block of marble; Van Gogh drawing the same tree 100 times before fixing it on canvas.
The fictional Jackson High School cheer crew—oops, cheer squad—competing with Truman cheer squad, in
Bring It On. Photo: Joan Marcus, Courtesy Bring It On
It took Blankenbuehler nine months to choreograph In the Heights. He spent three years on Bring It On. “Andy takes research and organization to the 500th percent,” says Bress. “Then he takes creativity to the 500th percent. That’s why his choreography is authentic and real, but you feel like you’ve never seen it before.” She says he can “Blankenbuehlerize” even a simple balancé. “He will add his own style to it, whether an arm or an upper body move or an emotion or an intention, and make the step look nothing like a balancé anymore.”
For all his skill with steps, Blankenbuehler’s favorite moment in In the Heights isn’t a step at all. The boy, he says, “is losing the girl. Couples walk on. One person goes into slow motion and the other person goes away from him. Then everybody just walks away.” Those “stunning” eight counts, he says, enhance the show’s emotional impact. “Everybody in the audience knows what it’s like to love and to lose love. You have to give them something they know and say it to them in a way that resonates deeply. It’s not about the rond de jambe. It’s not about the back flip. I want to make up dance steps, but at the same time I know they’re only important if they’re saying something that’s very, very true.”
This idea permeates his teaching as well. When he was in Fosse, still in his 20s and working only his third Broadway show, he started his own class at Broadway Dance Center. “I had the little room, not the big room,” he says. “I had to work my way up.” He did, with classes that emphasized story and character and period.
He already knew he wanted to choreograph eventually, and he turned the class into his workshop. “I unapologetically said, ‘I want to make myself a better choreographer on you.’ ” These days Blankenbuehler is too busy to teach regularly. But he still does occasional master classes and conventions with New York City Dance Alliance, the Dance Teacher Summit, and Bress’ Stage Door Connections. “I love talking about my process,” he explains, “because it makes people better dancers. I won’t make them technically better dancers, but I will teach them a lot about listening and hearing and thinking and analyzing.”
It’s also what makes the kind of dance shows he wants to do. He remembers telling dancers in his early classes, “Let’s dance the Broadway we want to have. Even if I can’t make it happen right now, let’s all aspire to something together.” So, as an occasional teacher, and as a choreographer at the top of his game, he’s still repainting and repainting that same petal. Except that these days he’s Blankenbuehlerizing Broadway.
Photo: Matthew Karas
Sylviane Gold writes Dance Magazine’s “On Broadway” column.