Remember our song
Broadway phenom Andy Blankenbuehler choreographs a world premiere for Tulsa Ballet.
Andy Blankenbuehler lifts Maine Kawashima, demonstrating a moment for Daniel Van De Laar.
“It’s 1940, and you just took a boy home.”
In reality, it’s 2018, an early afternoon in a Tulsa Ballet studio. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler is probing for the meaning behind a moment of movement that’s not quite working.
“Who should make the move? Who has the power?” Blankenbuehler asks Daniel Van De Laar and Maine Kawashima, the Tulsa ballet dancers cast in this duet.
The dancers look at each other, unsure of the right answer. But Blankenbuehler doesn’t have the answer either — it’s something they’ll all have to figure out together, from the top, once more.
Everyone resets to the beginning of the phrase, does it again, shifting the emphasis, pausing a little longer on this moment or that. The second cast for the duet, Minori Sakita and Jonathan Ramirez, shadows the action.
For Blankenbuehler, creation is a conversation, one that takes place over hours and days in the studio with the dancers, and continues even after he has left. At that point, his assistant, Cindy Salgado, stays to continue working and polishing the piece while he jets off to his next commitment (in this instance, off to London to choreograph the upcoming film adaptation of the classic musical “Cats”). But the Tony award-winning choreographer, whose credits include “In The Heights,” “Bandstand” and a little show called “Hamilton,” has never choreographed for a ballet company before.
Marcello Angelini brims with pride that Broadway’s It-Boy is creating his first ballet commission for Tulsa Ballet. The idea began six years ago, as Angelini was considering the idea of getting a Broadway choreographer to set a piece on Tulsa Ballet’s dancers. “I so admire the energy, passion and total commitment to their performances of Broadway dancers and choreographers,” Angelini says, so he was intrigued by the possibility of bringing that unique energy to his ballet company.
He asked around, and got connected with Blankenbuehler. “He was already very busy, but he had the same curiosity about working with ballet dancers,” Angelini recalls. The pair was in talks for a year, but when Blankenbuehler was offered “a gig he couldn’t refuse,” he had to take a rain check.
The “gig” was choreographing “Hamilton.” The show launched itself into the cultural psyche, propelling Blankenbuehler from up-and-comer to industry leader.
“And then I cashed in my rain check,” Angelini says.
As a movement-maker, Blankenbuehler ascribes to the Bob Fosse school of thought. Fosse, the groundbreaking choreographer/director behind such musicals as “Chicago,” “Sweet Charity” and “Pippin,” often created his movement vocabularies from the parameters of his own physical limitations, not to mention the parameters of the singers, actors and staging on complex scenic designs. This affinity made Blankenbuehler the clear choice to choreograph FX’s series “Fosse/Verdon,” but perhaps a less obvious match for the hyper-technicality of a world-class ballet company. “I didn’t dance like this,” Blankenbuehler says, gesturing broadly to the empty studio, but referring to the razor-sharp technique of Tulsa Ballet’s dancers.
Creating and setting a work of dance that exists for its own purpose was a challenge for Blankenbuehler, too. As a choreographer for theater and television, he admits to being “addicted” to lyric and dialogue. “I need words,” he says. “So to do a piece where there’s nobody speaking is daunting to me.”
Still, once the timing was right, he didn’t take much convincing. And he knew just the idea he wanted to expand upon, into a piece that would become “Remember Our Song.”
The piece features seven male and six female dancers. The opening movement introduces the characters and their relationships before the seven men, World War II soldiers, ship off, leaving their loves behind.
Blankenbuehler has a penchant for this particular era of American history; in fact, he’s wearing his grandfather’s WWII dog tags.
Set to an original soundscape plus “The Call” by Regina Spektor and “Sing Sing Sing” by the Benny Goodman Orchestra, the piece is conceptually in keeping with Blankenbuehler’s continued fascination regarding depictions of metaphorical prisons on stage. “The piece is about in life how different things become a prison — like, whatever the parameters are that can limit you from the things that you really want,” he explains. The WWII submarine in which the soldier characters end up is the ultimate representation of that feeling.
So, how does a Broadway choreographer approach a piece of dance that has no text on which to base it?
He creates the text, of course. Though audiences will never hear lines or lyrics (aside from a small amount of voice-over dialogue), Blankenbuehler started the piece by writing it as a short story of sorts. He walked into the studio on day one with specific story beats, settings and interactions already down on paper. It’s a tried and true approach he utilizes in all his work.
It begins with an outline: “All those chapters I understand as mile markers,” Blankenbuehler says. Once those major moments were set, each section could be fleshed out on the page and then in the studio, an invisible script of sorts.
Unlike a Broadway production, though, “Remember Our Song” relies not on elaborate sets, but on the “architecture” of bodies in space to create a sense of changing scenery. And within that rigidity and structure, the careful notes and delineated story beats, Blankenbuehler leaves himself (and his dancers) the crucial space to play and experiment. “Just throw the paint against the wall and see what sticks.”
He describes himself as a method actor, alluding to the importance of inhabiting a particular physicality. “Business people don’t jump,” was one of the realizations he made while working on the choreography for the musical “9-to-5.” So, there’s very little jumping in that choreography. While working on the musical “Bandstand,” Blankenbuehler (a non-smoker) walked around with a cigarette in his hand for months, because even the smallest object can affect a person’s movement. And that’s why props and costumes are already part of the choreography for “Remember Our Song,” even so early in the process.
Though clearly out of their comfort zones, Van De Laar and Kawashima throw themselves into the process with earnestness. There’s a moment when, as Kawashima spins through the air, the levity of the moment captures her and a smile flickers across her concentrated face. She’s having fun.
“They’ve been really open to everything, which has been really great,” says Blankenbuehler of Tulsa Ballet’s dancers. “And they’re inspiring to me.”
Blankenbuehler’s not the only one coming away from the experience inspired. He might downplay his own technical abilities as a dancer, but the man is captivating to watch. “Light on his feet” is an understatement, and just as in his choreography, the magic is in the details, the specificity. “When he moves, everybody’s jaw drops, including mine,” Angelini says.
Blankenbuehler focuses his attention on a moment in rehearsal, gives a little direction, dances along. He’s not positive what he’s looking for, but he’ll know it when he sees it. They stop the phrase again to problem-solve. How do we get from this moment, into putting on the coat? What if the beer was in the other hand; is the transition easier, more fluid?
“What if you go, boom, boom, boom,” he demonstrates a tight, low turn, “and then you’re there?”
Problem solved, puzzle piece set. This isn’t how you imagine a Broadway choreographer, with the militant “5, 6, 7, 8” count in and the constant correction. But this a professional at the top of his career, so there’s definitely something to this gentler collaboration.
“This process has opened my eyes to view every piece I do differently,” Kawashima says.
Early hip-hop classes helped prepare Van De Laar for the choreographer’s process. “When I was younger I was a little stiff in my classical ballet, and my teacher recommended I take hip-hop classes to loosen up my movements,” Van De Laar says. “(Blankenbuehler) works with a lot of accents in the chest that remind me of popping and locking.”
“His choreographic process seems to resemble the formation of a massive puzzle,” says Kawashima, who was promoted to demi-soloist in 2018. “Going into the studio from day one, he knew each piece intimately, spending our time together determining where each and every one of them belonged.”
Van De Laar, who has been with Tulsa Ballet since 2015, says another challenge is taking that hip-hop sensibility and making it look like a 1940s dance hall. He must make a stylized choice to break good ballet habits in order to convey that during this particular piece of the ballet, it’s 2 a.m. at the bar, and everyone is looking for someone to bring home.
“Andy’s piece is unquestionably different stylistically from other creations I have done at Tulsa Ballet,” Kawashima says. That stylistic difference, though, makes “Remember Our Song” a fitting programmatic choice for the Signature Series, an annual Tulsa Ballet showcase of pieces by groundbreaking choreographers, in what is frequently a departure from more “traditional” ballet favorites.
Angelini describes Tulsa Ballet’s entire season as a full feast. You must have the classics in order to create a satisfying menu, so “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty” are the metaphorical meat and potatoes. “At the same time we want to create new works, because creating art is the embodiment of the vibrancy of a company,” Angelini says.
In that way, Signature Series serves as a sort of experimental course, which every year brings forth something deliciously different to the table. This year, it’s an unexpected but complex and tightly crafted confection, and Blankenbuehler’s choreography is the flambé — a contained spark that ignites the imagination and perfectly finishes a satisfying and varied season.
“To think that a three-time Tony Award Winner has created a piece on me still feels unreal,” Kawashima says. “I cannot wait to share his first-ever creation for a ballet company with everyone here in Tulsa.”
May 9-12 — Signature Series: “From Ballet to Broadway”
Classical ballet and Broadway dance fuse for a joyful evening of movement. On the program: “Fancy Free” by Jerome Robbins, “Who Cares?” by George Balanchine and “Remember Our Song” by Andy Blankenbuehler. Performances will be at the Lorton Performing Arts Center, 550 S. Gary Place. Visit tulsaballet.org for tickets and more information.