Technique: Andy Blankenbuehler

How I teach musical theater dance

Andy Blankenbuehler and Rickey Tripp

"There aren’t any battements or a lot of pirouettes; there’s only one double turn in the entire show,” Andy Blankenbuehler says about the musical In the Heights. “And yet, the whole show dances.” He says his Tony Award–winning choreography is interpretive, built on real-life gestures and postures. He explores the “core of the moment” and stylizes natural movement to reflect a specific situation. “I don’t get invested in a dance if I don’t know what’s going on,” he says.

In musical theater, dance is used to advance the plot and heighten the emotion of a scene. But a compelling dancer of any genre applies the technique practiced in the studio and builds on it to convey a message to the audience. “A passé itself doesn’t have meaning,” Blankenbuehler says. “The steps we train in don’t say anything. However, it’s our training that helps make the unique pictures we create clear and understandable.”

To prepare for In the Heights, which explores life in NYC’s Washington Heights, Blankenbuehler studied with hip-hop choreographer Marty Kudelka. “I admired his storytelling that’s almost pantomime in his work,” he says. “That’s how I molded In the Heights. I transformed the gestures that I would naturally choreograph into hip-hop shapes.” When making 9 to 5 (a musical about disgruntled office workers) Blankenbuehler left the dance studio. “I went to Starbucks across the street and watched people push past each other on the sidewalk. Then I duplicated what I saw.”

In the classroom, Blankenbuehler stresses the importance of motivating students with imagery. But the hard part is making sure the music and steps are aligned with the offered image. “Students can’t act out what’s not in the movement,” he says. Even technical aspects should be a part of the story. For example, Blankenbuehler tells young students to sneak across the floor like they’re stealing diamonds. “I’ll tell them to point their toes and lengthen through their legs. They do it technically, but it’s because that’s how they imagine a cartoon jewelry thief would do it. Pretty soon, some kids start spinning stories for themselves—those are the students we’re going to watch,” he says.

Here, Blankenbuehler and dancer Rickey Tripp demonstrate gestures from the opening dance number of In the Heights and explain their meanings.

Andy’s explanation: This is a phrase used in the opening number of In the Heights, and it’s repeated in the finale. The meaning we strive to convey is that in life, we must work hard for our dreams and push forward with determination. And in the end, if we persevere, there is something waiting for us.

Throughout the phrase, remember the theme of “hard work.” Feel weight pushing you down into a low position, which is reinforced by a tucked pelvis. It’s like the whole world is pushing against you.

Reminder: In musical theater dance, we never act with our faces. All of the acting is in our bodies. Your face should exude the same energy your body gives off. So even if you change emotions, your facial expression doesn’t have to change, it just follows your body’s shift in energy.

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Originally from Cincinnati, OH, Andy Blankenbuehler attended Southern Methodist University before moving to New York City. On Broadway, he has performed in musicals including Fosse, Contact, Saturday Night Fever and Guys and Dolls. Blankenbuehler choreographed the Broadway revival of The Apple Tree and the original musicals 9 to 5 and In the Heights (the latter won him the 2008 Tony Award for best choreography). He is a contributing choreographer and judge on Fox’s television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” Currently, his work can be seen in the upcoming show Bring It On: The Musical. Blankenbuehler teaches for New York City Dance Alliance and leads master classes at Broadway Dance Center and the Dance Teacher Summit.

Rickey Tripp is an original ensemble dancer (and understudy for a leading role, Graffiti Pete) in the Broadway production of In the Heights.

 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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