BWW Interview: Tony Winning Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler Talks ABC's DIRTY DANCING & Finding an Honest Connection to the Music

BWW Interview: Tony Winning Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler Talks ABC's DIRTY DANCING & Finding an Honest Connection to the Music
(ABC/Guy D'Alema)
Colt Prattes, Abigail Breslin

Award-winning dancer, choreographer, and director, Andy Blankenbuehler, has worked on some of the most groundbreaking musicals of all time, including HAMILTON and IN THE HEIGHTS, and has used movement to connect to the complex and beautiful truth of the human condition. His current project, choreographing the long-anticipated ABC revival of one of the most classic movies of all-time, Dirty Dancing, has allowed Blankenbuehler to keep flexing his artistic muscles, and enter into a world of increased depth and discovery with its cherished characters. Since the original first debuted, Blankenbuehler was moved by its powerful themes of strength, liberation, love, and allowing the art of dance to serve as a powerful voice.

BroadwayWorld spoke with Blankenbuehler about his experience with the 2017 revival, managing expectations, and how all of us can find the dancer within.

BWW Interview: Tony Winning Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler Talks ABC's DIRTY DANCING & Finding an Honest Connection to the Music
(ABC/Guy D'Alema)
J. Quinton Johnson, Colt Prattes

What has been the most exciting part of choreographing one of the most popular classics of all time?

For me, Dirty Dancing was huge, because I was a teenager starting to dance when it came out. It was instrumental to me to have a piece that was so inspiring and to have a role model in Patrick Swayze, and his character, Johnny. It really helped me as a young, male dancer to learn. It was a dream come true when the offer came to me to be involved with this project. It's also difficult because you want to balance expectations and really take care of the franchise, but it was so exciting from the very beginning to be asked to be a part of it!

Did you have a strategy/school of thought for entering into a project like this, where you know people will have high expectations?

I've done a lot of projects in my career that people have such an affinity towards. For example, working at Cats and projects like Bring It On: The Musical, there have always been high expectations. It's a difficult balance, but with Dirty Dancing we all felt that we didn't want to break the mold and we wanted to ask ourselves, "How can we dig deeper?" and "How can we investigate the characters in a slightly different way than the original film did?" We all have such a romantic love affair with the original film, and we wanted to revisit it and live in that same world. We wanted to make the scenery something that was familiar to us, but allow audiences to see it in a different way. Choreographically, it was difficult, because I love the original and I'll never forget what it felt like when Johnny and Penny walk into that funk house scene that first time and I was so excited to have that opportunity. My favorite moment in the film is when they come in and do "Do You Love Me" and "Love Man" -- it's such a paradise to be around and all of the dancers are amazing. Colt, Abby, and Nicole were so wonderful to work with.

The producers and the music team had such a great idea of incorporating some additional music and just by bringing some new music into the piece -- music that felt right - we were able to dive right in.

BWW Interview: Tony Winning Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler Talks ABC's DIRTY DANCING & Finding an Honest Connection to the Music
(ABC/Guy D'Alema)
Abigail Breslin, Colt Prattes

What does the art of dance represent for you, in terms self-expression and how do you feel that Dirty Dancing brings the themes of empowerment, love, and freedom to life?

I think that most people long to have a voice. For me, dance has given me the opportunity to articulate the things that I feel deeply about, when words cannot. Music and dance give us the opportunity to create a world that we believe exists, even if the "real world" doesn't give us the chance to do it. Personally, it allows me to live my life in the truest and most colorful way that I can.

Dirty Dancing is about several young people who believe in life and dancing gives them the opportunity to let that life come to be. It's frightening to put yourself out there - - in life, in love, on the dance floor -- but when you do it, you fly! That's what Baby does in the show - she reaches to a place where she can enter womanhood.

How does a project like this challenge you differently than preparing choreography for the stage?

It's still a pretty new process for me. It's about collaborating with your team and figuring out what story you want to tell. On stage, I orchestrate where I want the audience to look - I do the camera work by focusing the staging and focusing the lights. On camera, the camera does all that focusing for you - so you can choreographically be more specific, because you know exactly what you want to look at. The preparation is a little bit different of a process -- I'm used to the rehearsal process of a Broadway musical where you prep for months and then go into rehearsal with your cast and keep working on it. With a film, you prep for it, of course, but when you dive in, I feel like you have to be a little bit more nimble on your feet and roll with the punches a bit more and that's what makes film so exciting! You can keep molding to the very last minute, but as soon as it's locked, it's locked. Whereas, with live theater, the piece continues to evolve and that's very exciting as well!

BWW Interview: Tony Winning Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler Talks ABC's DIRTY DANCING & Finding an Honest Connection to the Music
(ABC/Eli Ade)
Abigail Breslin

Bandstand takes audiences back in time and celebrates swing dance. Do you personally have a favorite genre or style of dance?

I don't really have a favorite style. When I came up dancing, I was really passionate about a swing kind of feel - music in the '1940s and '1950s -- and now, as an adult, especially since I've been working in hip-hop more, the music of the '60's really resonates with me because it's a little darker - it's more exposing of the social unrest. I find it really interesting when dance and musical styles point out that the problems or yearnings of humanity and allow us to look into them. I know that I'm a very rhythmic person, more than a lyric person, so I like when music is funky and when it has a really interesting beat, even more so than soaring melodies.

Congratulations on the Tony nomination for Bandstand! What does this particular nomination mean to you?

I'm very proud choreographically of Bandstand, and I think it's moved in a cool way, because it looks like the '1940s, but it feels contemporary. What's interesting about Dirty Dancing is that it's the same. The '1960s feel is really contemporary right now. I'm also very proud of the direction of Bandstand. I really like when choreography and direction seem inseparable and think that's always an objective of mine - to make the dancing feel as organic as possible. That's what I felt as a teenager, when I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time, and Patrick Swayze came into the scene and did "Do you Love Me" -- everything about that physicality felt real and honest. It's an interesting lesson for a young person, when truth resonates for you and teaches you that the most important things in life have to be real.

BWW Interview: Tony Winning Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler Talks ABC's DIRTY DANCING & Finding an Honest Connection to the Music
ABC's 'Dirty Dancing' stars Bruce Greenwood as Dr. Jake Houseman and Debra Messing as Marjorie Houseman. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

A lot of people don't feel confident when it comes to dancing in public. Do you have any words of encouragement to let go on the dance floor?

It's so important to dance to the music that you like. If you can find a relationship to the music, all you have to do is trust the part of the music that makes you feel alive and just go with that. Think about what musical instruments speak to you, what kind of funky lyrics speak to you, and then be able to let go and trust it. The first element to trusting is to find a connection - if you don't have that, it's never going to be honest. First things first, is to find a connection to the music.

Dirty Dancing premieres on ABC this Wednesday, May 24th at 8/7c!

BWW Interview: Tony Winning Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler Talks ABC's DIRTY DANCING & Finding an Honest Connection to the Music
(ABC/Guy D'Alema)
Colt Prattes, Abigail Breslin

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