Seen & Heard At the Dance Teacher Summit
Andy Blankenbuehler has devoted his whole career to musical theater dance. After performing on Broadway for nearly 15 years, he spent the past decade choreographing hit musicals. He won the Tony for Best Choreography for In the Heights (2008) and was nominated last year for Bring It On: The Musical. A faculty member with New York City Dance Alliance and the Dance Teacher Summit, Blankenbuehler shares his thoughts and advice on creating movement for the genre.
Dance Teacher: What’s the most important thing for teachers to consider when choreographing a musical theater routine?
Andy Blankenbuehler: In the convention world especially, it’s not always about making a plot happen, because you only have 2 1/2 minutes. But that’s still time to establish a character going through something.
Most people think it always has to be step-related, but first you need to figure out the character. Look at their situation, what’s going on for them. Think about how to make that person feel real. If you think of body language, a shy person moves a certain way and a confident person moves a certain way. Is your character strong in their point of view, so should they be standing in second position? Is your character whimsical because they just had their first kiss? In that case, something like a spin and a jump matches what the character feels. It’s about asking how those real emotions can be translated into movement.
DT: What’s the best way to help dancers embody their characters?
AB: When they are younger and less-experienced, you have to give them choreography that does a lot of the lifting itself. If I’m playing a bully-ish, insecure character, I’m standing with arms crossed and shoulders rolling forward. Right away that’s half the battle. If I have that bully-ish character doing fouetté turns, it doesn’t matter how good an actor they are: They’re not going to look like the character because that step hasn’t helped them find an identity.
Someone told me Jerome Robbins used to scream in his rehearsals to not act, just do the step, because if the choreography is descriptive, you’re already telling a story just by accomplishing that movement.
DT: How do you shake choreographer’s block?
AB: I had a very tough time starting the opening number of the musical 9 to 5. It was about the morning commute when everybody’s grumpy and no one wants to go to work. For six days I couldn’t even start the number. Finally I looked outside my window, I went for a coffee at Starbucks and I just started to watch how everyone would lean past each other to pass on the busy streets. I went back to my studio and kept looking out the window and just started imitating people’s body language as they were walking down the street. And those became the first steps of 9 to 5. It’s about pushing the reset button and trying to remind myself what the real situation is. —Andrea Marks
Photos from top: courtesy of Break the Floor Productions; courtesy of Andy Blankenbuehler