The Process of Authenticity, Andy Blankenbuehler
Interview with Tony Award winner, Andy Blankenbuehler, choreographer of In the Heights, the musical.
In The Heights features a good amount of street dancing; did you cast performers with non-traditional dance backgrounds?
Andy Blankenbuehler: Our dancers don’t have traditional dance backgrounds. We cast the show to be very much like a street show, so these dancers are very good at what they do – better than I am at what they do. They’re not traditional musical theater dancers- they’re really talented so they’ve done a bunch of Broadway shows, but this is more their forte. They specialize in different things, like Luis is a really great salsa dancer and is familiar with lots of different Latino styles, whereas there are other dancers in the show who are more specialized in hip hop. As a choreographer I try to pull their strengths out of them and really use their personality. The challenge for me when I started was I didn’t have a lot of experience choreographing hip-hop or salsa. I understood what needed to happen in terms of storytelling, and my vocabulary is diverse, but hip hop was sort of an extreme that I hadn’t choreographed in, so I had a lot of research and pre-production to do to figure out how to choreograph vocabulary that I wanted. The cast was great because I would do a step, and if the step wasn’t perfect, by the time they added their own things to it, it brought the show to life.
Can you tell us more about the importance of authenticity in a show like In The Heights?
We had to figure out what was authentic…and it’s a very deep question for the show. Part of the authenticity was making it look like real people in the city; people who have daily struggles, people who have to take the subway, people who are hot because it’s in the middle of a heat wave. Then there’s another kind of authenticity, which is that the show is very much about Latino heritage. [The creators] wanted attention paid to the specifics of their cultural dances, so that was another level. And then a third level of authenticity was that musically we live in a very contemporary world in the show, so authenticity for that meant that the dancing had to look like what the audience was hearing, because for the general audience who sees the show, they don’t know anything about hip hop. They’re more of a traditional audience, so if they could see what they’re hearing, it’ll make more sense to them.
What was the process like for you?
What I had to do was begin research. I watched MTV and VH1 constantly, and figured out which artists I liked and which grooves I liked; what styles of choreography I felt matched that world. As soon as I figured out the world I wanted them to live in, then I had to start experimenting. I’d analyze the syncopation of the movement and find how the syncopation could match our music. It was a really long process. With the Latino styles, we used Salsa dancing in the show in social dance settings, in a dance club- so those numbers weren’t so interpretative. I didn’t feel the need to learn Salsa dancing inside and out; I felt the need to understand it enough to shape it. With Luis as my associate on it, we were able to say ‘oh this is this kind of step’ and we’d find the step together. Then I crafted the number like a story ballet, so the audience followed the story line…it just happened to be dancing the whole time. But with the hip-hop and the more contemporary movement, it’s very interpretative. So with that movement I felt that I needed to be able to execute it on my own, so I went to L.A. and studied for a few weeks, and then I took classes in New York. I brought people in the studio with me, and they would coach me on learning stylistically how to approach the music, so that when I started choreographing, it met that world. It was a very long process. I worked for about six months before I really started the show, [then] it took us several months to choreograph.
The style of choreography is very contemporary, was it important for you to create something that was also timeless?
I think structurally, we created a musical that’s not so much timeless, but a very accessible forum. So if somebody is 65 years old and they’re Jewish and they usually see a show like Gypsy, they’ll go to our show and they’ll still be able to take in the show as if it were a normal Broadway musical. Structurally that was the first step in creating a show that would appeal to a lot of people but was also in a sense, timeless. I felt like the show needed to be really tight, the syncopation and movements very specific and chiseled. As the musical has a life, that timing will remain true to the music. If movement is big or flamboyant, it starts to become generic. The fact that our rhythms are very chiseled creates a structure in the show that makes the audience pay attention.
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