How 'Dirty Dancing' Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler Tackled an Iconic Dance Movie
Updated: Apr 23, 2020
Andy Blankenbuehler has been hitting the boards on Broadway since 1992 when he made his debut in the revival of Guys and Dolls. As a performer, he graced the stage in shows like Fosse, Saturday Night Fever and Man of La Mancha.
In 2006, he choreographed his first Broadway show, The Apple Tree, and he hasn’t looked back. If you’ve seen In The Heights or Hamilton, you know his Tony Award-winning work.
His Broadway work is currently represented in three shows: Hamilton, Cats and Bandstand, which he directed and choreographed. Blankenbuehler’s latest choreographic challenge will be seen on ABC this week with their adaptation of Dirty Dancing starring Abigail Breslin and Colt Prattes.
Dance Dish: You’ve done this before with Cats and Annie on Broadway, how do you take on an iconic piece like Dirty Dancing with fresh eyes?
Andy Blankenbuehler: It’s tough, but one thing I go back to is that Cats and Dirty Dancing happened for me when I was 16, 17 years old. I was so impressionable as a young man and as a dancer. Those are two of the most prominent things that drove me into the career that I have.
I have humongous respect for both of those properties. In terms of Dirty Dancing, it’s a case of ‘don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.’ How do you go into a piece with the iconic portrayal of Patrick Swayze and those dancers were so good? The team asked really good questions like ‘How can you go deeper?’
Some of the answers we came up with are let’s explore more musical styles of the period, let’s explore race issues and let’s take those characters we all know now and let’s look at them from the side and expose some different complications about them.
The original was so good that it’s a good jumping-off point for us. It’s also a reminder that we didn’t want to get too far away from the original because we wanted to bring a romantic look back at something we all cherished so much.
DD: Were you involved in the casting process to get Colt Prattes on board?
Andy: He’s a great choice and it worked out for so many reasons. I first met Colt when he was a teenager and I met him in the audition process of Broadway shows. He was on my radar.
When he came to audition for us in LA, I immediately began fighting for him because I knew his integrity and I knew how hard he was going to work. I knew he was a fabulous dancer and he can be a leading actor and a leader of the company. It’s an amazing thing.
He stepped up and helped Abby and Nicole [Scherzinger] in so many ways and made our jobs that much easier. We are very lucky to have met him.
DD: What was the rehearsal process like for Dirty Dancing?
Andy: We didn’t quite have a three-month process like La La Land or Beauty and the Beast. One good thing about this, like Beauty and the Beast, you are already walking into a project having an idea of what it is.
We were able to prepare without having to prep extra material. When you are doing a brand-new project, you often prep things that get cut. With this, we were able to dive into a property that we all knew so well.
I had meetings with the producers, the music team and director Wayne Blair. Then I worked on my own in New York with a small group of dancers. We only worked with the cast in New York for about a week and a half before we went to North Carolina.
We continued to work in North Carolina while they were shooting principal acting scenes, we would go to a dance studio in North Carolina and continue to craft routines and film them two or three weeks later.
I ended up working with Abby, Colt and Nicole for about a month, but the ensemble we only had a week. I had a relationship with most of the dancers, so they knew my ideas and the way I liked to work. They were fabulous on the spot.
DD: Nicole Scherzinger’s role as Penny felt expanded over the original Dirty Dancing. What did she bring to the table for the TV movie?
Andy: She brought a great sense of economic and ethnic tension to the piece that I think is great. It’s great to see that the partner is also as important as the lead.
You remember Fred Astaire, but you forget that Ginger Rogers had to do everything backward. There are so many great dynamics to the dance partner. It’s a really honest character, so it’s great to see the role expanded.
She’s a strange concoction of talent in that she does everything really, really well. She can sing her head off. She explodes with talent and it’s really exciting to be around.
DD: What moment in Dirty Dancing are you most proud of?
Andy: The thing I am most proud of is the thing that affected me most as a teenager. When Johnny and Penny walk into that bunkhouse scene with all of the people around, all I knew was that I wanted to have that in my life.
When we dove into the bunkhouse scene, filming in the middle of the night and smoky inside, it was such a memorable moment for me. I knew we were doing good work, but I was so proud of the journey I was on from a teenager in Cincinnati to be in the middle of this remake.
Artistically, I love this scene because it’s not a presentation. It’s about people who feel music deeply and it comes out through dance. It’s because they are reaching into themselves to access deep emotions.
DD: What were the challenges for you in shooting a TV movie versus creating for the stage?
Andy: In the theatre with the staging, the director and the choreographer choose where the audience is going to look. All of my choreography tells the audience what to see and where to look. The camera does the same thing, but what’s easy and what’s hard is the controlling of one focus that has to go into the camera lens. The camera has to see it.
It was a learning experience. I had to learn to go through different people. The DP (director of photography) and the director have to know exactly what my idea is. It was a brand new conversation for me.
In the theatre, I have to be quick on my feet, but I do a lot of preparation in advance. In film, a lot of things happen in the moment. You can prep things, but a light hits something a certain way or an actor does something… you just have to roll with it.
That sense of being quick on my feet was different, but I enjoyed it. You can prep, but it might go a totally different way on the day.
DD: Are you feeling the effects of La La Land’s success on the East Coast? We are certainly seeing an explosion of dance here in Los Angeles.
Andy: I feel like there are a thousand stories to be told and our tools to tell those stories seem to be expanding. A lot of that is because there is accessibility to things that formerly weren’t accessible.
For example, a teenage boy who wants to dance can now turn on So You Think You Can Dance and they know what the quickstep is, they know what the tango is, they know what krumping is and they know what ballet is. Young people can now tell stories with so many languages.
When I came up as a dancer, I had very little access to that. I think that’s helping us. There’s even more technical dance on the airwaves than ever before. With Misty [Copeland] becoming a superstar, it’s like [Mikhail] Baryshnikov from the ‘70s and ‘80s all over again. It’s crazy.
DD: What is the one thing you would love to tell up-and-coming dancers?
Andy: Technique is really important. Without it, it’s like drawing with a pencil without a sharp edge. You need technique to tell stories. But the bottom line is, I only want to tell stories about real people with real emotion. That’s what is difficult; you have to be in touch with yourself emotionally.
Every show that I work — Hamilton, Bandstand — those are real people going through very heightened emotional circumstances, but you have to be a real person. I need to look in your eyes and feel a real connection. That sense of connection takes maturity, takes life experience, it takes a lot of courage and then it takes a lot of acting, dance and vocal technique to translate that to the audience.
I have no interest in working with people who look like robots. I am the first person to change staging or change expectations to work around somebody’s weaknesses if they are bringing me something strong emotionally.
DD: Why do choreographers make such good directors?
Andy: I’m a literal storyteller, so I am all about character and story. So a lot of choreographers who work like me are already directorially minded because their highest priority is the story and character. I am always self-editing.
In the younger part of my career, I need the director to edit me so I could keep my story on track. Now I put the story first, so I think my work choreographs itself. I know I’ll choreograph something and I want it to be backlit in silhouette. So I’ve already made a creative design that directs itself. When you think in a detailed way like that, it makes sense that they can transition into directing easily.
While that sounds all fine and dandy, there’s so much heavy lifting, so many people you have to manage and so many languages you have to speak as a director. You have to learn how to do that — talk to the lighting designer, actress, or advertising agency. Remember most choreographers communicate through their physicality.
DD: What’s next on your career bucket list?
Andy: I haven’t been interested in any entertainment that doesn’t have dance in it. I don’t want to work on projects where dance doesn’t play prominently. I am slowing down a little because I realize the more I work, the more my work has to be multi-layered and complicated. To do all of those layers justice, it takes a lot of time.
After Bandstand, I am taking some time off. I am allowing myself to do what I’ve always wanted to do which was to create a story and hand it off to a writer and then direct and choreograph. I have three projects that I am working on and I hope to take them to the finish line.
Cats and Dirty Dancing came to me as a total surprise, so I’ve put my projects on the back burner. Who would ever turn that down?
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