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HomeDanceAndy Blankenbuehler Opens Up About Solely Gold and the Highway Forward

Andy Blankenbuehler Opens Up About Solely Gold and the Highway Forward


It begins with {a magazine} {photograph} of a preposterous necklace, 5 strands of greater than 2,000 diamonds, one in all them the dimensions of a golf ball. Some dozen years after seeing it, Andy Blankenbuehler brings a long-cherished pet challenge, a shocking dance musical referred to as Solely Gold, to off-Broadway’s MCC Theater for a two-month run (ending November 27).

In between, the work has morphed from a short ballet to a two-act musical; its most important character has advanced from a maharajah juggling three wives to a king dealing with one; and its writer has progressed from Broadway newcomer with a choreography Tony for Within the Heights to celebrated grasp with two extra Tonys—Hamilton and Bandstand—and a number of different honors, together with a Dance Journal Award. Naturally, everybody concerned in Solely Gold assumes that MCC is the primary cease on the way in which to an excellent Broadway opening.

I assumed so too—I’ve been a Blankenbuehler fan from the evening I noticed the unique, unheralded, off-Broadway manufacturing of Within the Heights, with its Robbins-like movement of exuberant, completely built-in dance. That’s change into his signature, and with Solely Gold he’s upped his already professional sport,weaving dance into the very cloth of the story and letting motion illuminate not simply the feel of the scenes and the weather of the plot, but additionally the internal lives of the characters.

Reporting for Dance Journal has given me a privileged perch, from which I’ve watched Blankenbuehler push choreography additional and additional to the forefront of his musicals, following the trail laid by Jerome Robbins, Susan Stroman and Twyla Tharp. He informed me about Solely Gold 10 years in the past, in a rented dance studio on West forty third Road, the place he was working with a handful of dancers on choreography for Carry It On, the 2012 musical that was his first Broadway credit score as a director. He was brimming with pleasure about one other new piece: Paris within the ’20s! What may very well be extra vibrant? And did I do know the work of the splendidly offbeat British singer-songwriter Kate Nash?

He was an enormous fan, and she or he had agreed to let him use her quirky, rhythmic music for a present to be primarily based on an episode within the lifetime of Bhupinder Singh, Maharajah of Patiala, who set Nineteen Twenties Europe agog when he arrived from India with fabulous wealth, immense charisma, a number of wives and a trunkful of gems that he wished Cartier to mount. The ensuing necklace, with its over-the-top opulence, and the unhappy ending of its proprietor, who died at 46, had impressed Blankenbuehler to craft a narrative a few man who has all the pieces, however nothing that makes him glad.

This weekend, speaking by telephone from London, the place was he was on one in all his common working visits to Europe’s Hamiltons, he seemed again on the “tumultuous life” of Solely Gold and ahead to the place the subsequent iteration of this “labor of affection” may take him—as a result of carping critiques have turned its Broadway ambitions to mud.

“My mind has been upside-down these previous few weeks,” he admits. “In some methods the critiques stunned me, and in some methods they didn’t. I do know there are super moments within the present—moments that I’m terribly pleased with, that I don’t even understand how I made. On the similar time, I’m conscious how the viewers round me is reacting. So I knew earlier than the critiques got here out that there have been nonetheless plenty of issues that we needed to work on—I used to be sport for that.” What he wasn’t fairly prepared for was the general negativity: “Though plenty of them mentioned very nice issues, they nonetheless pointed up the issues greater than the professionals. So [pause]…that was just a bit laborious.”

Ryan Steele and Gaby Diaz in Solely Gold. Photograph by Daniel J. Vasquez, courtesy Matt Ross PR.

Little surprise, provided that Blankenbuehler is the musical’s conceiver, co-author (with Ted Malawer), director and choreographer. “Attempting to determine the way in which during which a narrative grasps an viewers is troublesome,” he says. “I’m actually good at it as a choreographer—I can say, ‘That is the quantity, and that is what the quantity’s gonna do; right here I am going.’ However once I’m a wider swath, a a lot wider image, then it’s a sophisticated factor. I assume that’s the difficulty you get into whenever you put on plenty of hats. I’m carrying plenty of hats now.”

It doesn’t assist that with seven productions of Hamilton to supervise, that present’s achievements are all the time in his face. “It’s so good, so well-built, that it simply messes you up—it’s actually laborious to determine what sort of work to do subsequent. Hamilton is so clear, so effectively made—that’s one of many issues that’s most intimidating. Effectivity is troublesome—saying large issues, however saying them effectively.”

If Solely Gold meanders a bit, it’s not the fault of the choreography. The one factor the reviewers, the audiences, and the remainder of us right here at Dance Journal agree about are the very good dances and the astounding dancing. Not stunning, given the leads: Tharp favourite Karine Plantadit, “So You Assume You Can Dance”sensation Gaby Diaz, West Facet Story veteran Ryan Steele, and frequent Blankenbuehler collaborator Ryan VanDenBoom. However every of the 14 ensemble members can also be a standout—which is saying quite a bit, given the caliber of the performers they’re supporting. Even Blankenbuehler can’t recover from them.

“Once you make a present,” he says, “you deliberately attempt to get all totally different ability units. Inside an ensemble of, say, 5 males, one might be a really skilled companion, one does extraordinary issues on the ground, one is eccentric and goofy—they do various things. So the blocking of the present is admittedly laborious. Determining who goes the place, it’s ‘I’ve to get him stage proper, as a result of he sings this excessive word after which he has to do that carry.’ It’s plenty of work to get the fitting individuals into the fitting place. However with this present, I didn’t have to fret, as a result of they may all do all the pieces. Once I realized that one evening, once I was blocking for the subsequent day, I used to be like, ‘Oh, my god!’ Speak about a present! To have a gaggle of dancers who actually can do something!”

Karine Plantadit, Terrence Mann and Gaby Diaz in Solely Gold. Photograph by Daniel J. Vasquez, courtesy Matt Ross PR.

So, in fact, he’s given them wondrous issues to do. And that goes again to his earliest days on Broadway, dancing within the refrain. He cherished it, he says, however he longed to be the one factor you’ll be able to’t be in a Broadway ensemble: a person. So he made positive that in Solely Gold, every of the dancers will get a chance to “step ahead” as a selected human being. “However even when these dancers are in a gaggle,” he says, “they’re so particular person.”

They play Parisians on the street when King Belenus (the majestic Terrence Mann) and his entourage arrive from their legendary homeland, after which change into servants and jewelers and partygoers because the King, his lonely queen (Plantadit, riveting) and their headstrong daughter (Diaz, dazzling) contend over whom she’s going to marry; the household turns into enmeshed with a proficient watchmaker (VanDenBoom) and his piano-teacher spouse (Hannah Cruz), who’re struggling to appreciate their thwarted inventive ambitions. Nash herself, because the Narrator, declares the night’s theme on the outset: “listening to your coronary heart.” However making musicals additionally means listening to your head.

Blankenbuehler’s preliminary pitch to Nash was a romantic “mini-film” with swirling plenty of dancers devolving into {couples} doing flirty, French-flavored choreography to her songs. When she gave Blankenbuehler the okay, he started the tinkering that may fill his downtime for the subsequent decade.

“For, like, 10 years, it was actually only a remedy challenge,” he says—“me exercising my impulses. As a result of whenever you’re making a brand new present, you’re problem-solving. You’re not usually utilizing the impulses that you simply dream about utilizing your complete life. All these years you’re studying this superb faucet rhythm over there, you might have this superb hip-hop class over right here—issues that create fires in you, that give us all this juice. However we’re hardly in a position to make use of these issues once we’re working.”

Morgan Marcell, Thayne Jasperson, Ryan Steele, Voltaire Wade-Greene, Jennifer Florentino, Reed Luplau and Haley Fish in Solely Gold. Photograph by Daniel J. Vasquez, courtesy Matt Ross PR.

His reply was educating. “I used to be utilizing my courses at Broadway Dance Heart, every 45-second mixture, as alternatives to experiment, actual alternatives to say, ‘Hey, if I may do a loopy speakeasy, what wouldn’t it appear to be?’ After which my writing initiatives grew to become the subsequent step—me writing down the balletic concepts that I had in my head. So I began engaged on this concept.” Then a job would come up and he’d let it go, and sort out it once more within the downtime after a present opened. “I’d educate a few the Solely Gold dances in a category, and spend nights engaged on the script. It was a solution to recharge my batteries, and that occurred a number of instances over.”

By 2013, it was prepared for a lab, which he used to determine if he was making a ballet or a musical, and found that the music wanted to be extra particular if it was to go ahead as a musical. “After which the piece went away,” he says, “due to Hamilton, Cats, all the pieces.” It stayed gone till 2018, when he did a four-week workshop of it that by no means bought previous the primary act. However in a tantalizing displaying, that first act had beautiful, impassioned dancing from Sean Martin Hingston because the Maharajah and Alessandra Ferri as his past love, now the senior spouse in a family that included Georgina Pazcoguin and Justice Moore because the youthful wives. “Once more, I continued to study it in numerous methods,” Blankenbuehler says, “and I used to be really planning to remain centered on it.” However the Cats film and the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, “and it actually misplaced momentum,” he says.

In any case, he’d determined that the Maharajah and his wives had been a distraction. “The story that I wished to inform really had nothing to do with polygamy,” he says. “It was about an individual who merely had adopted all the pieces society and tradition had informed him would make him content material and highly effective—that that’s what he wanted to shoot for. And he stopped listening to what would make himself glad.” So the Maharajah gave solution to King Belenus, Queen Roksana, Princess Tooba and the Parisians who change their lives.

The 2 months Blankenbuehler spent mounting the revised piece for MCC had been the toughest of his profession, he says: “In some methods actually traumatic, in some methods actually thrilling.” He describes frantic, ridiculously lengthy days and nights and eventually quitting at 1:30 within the morning smiling fortunately. “I used to be so glad as a result of I used to be attending to do the gutsy work I all the time wished to do, but additionally I used to be telling a narrative about coronary heart. You recognize me—I’ve an actual life, my household, my spouse and my children, and I need to inform a narrative that retains going again to the center.”

After which the critics arrived. He says he’d stopped studying critiques 12 years in the past, however began once more after the glowing notices that greeted Hamilton. “That’s not good; that’s not good,” he maintains. “And this time round I made a decision to not learn the critiques.” However when everybody round him mentioned, “That you must learn the critiques,” he relented. Not surprisingly, he’s thought of them in the identical deep means he thinks about all the pieces referring to his work.

Karine Plantadit in Solely Gold. Photograph by Daniel J. Vasquez, courtesy Matt Ross PR.

“The problem,” he notes, “is there’s a number of various things to be reviewed. There may be emotional affect. There may be the concept of utilizing vocabulary in new methods. And the underside line is individuals have a tough time speaking about dance. So if I’m attempting to do one thing the place dance is integral to the storytelling, I’ve to know that most individuals who discuss it received’t have the ability to discuss it in a means that basically does it justice.” His means of coping with that’s easy: “You’ve bought to take the great with the dangerous.”

As well as, he says, “I’ve my very own criticism of the present, so I hold working. That’s what I do—I hold working till I can’t work anymore.” So even whereas in Europe for Hamilton, he’s already fascinated by “the highway map of the modifications” that can make Solely Gold profitable. “It’s not a lot ‘Let’s change this scene.’ It’s larger concepts about how the viewers ought to really feel as they progress into the story.” And he’s additionally fascinated by what a profitable Solely Gold would imply.

“There’s a line within the present about the way you outline success,” he says. “So within the final couple of weeks, I’m like, ‘Okay, Andy how do you outline success?’ You wrote a present that was produced, and folks mentioned, ‘These are among the finest dances I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And I additionally have a look at them with such satisfaction. That ought to all be success. Sadly, I’m additionally the maker of the present, so determining tips on how to outline success is a giant deal for me. For me, success isn’t: You run the present for 4 weeks and it goes into individuals’s hearts and minds and dies. It’s gone. That’s not success to me. Success to me is it retains going.”

To that finish, he thinks he wants to show the present right into a full-evening ballet. He can’t see it within the rep of any present firm with no whole revamp during which the Narrator sings all of the songs whereas everybody else dances, and that’s not the present he needs to do. Plus the dancers must study to bounce his snappy means, with Fosse accents and hip-hop beats—a giant ask for live performance dancers. So he’s hoping that in its subsequent, higher life, Solely Gold might be perfected with a pickup forged and carried out at venues like Sadler’s Wells, in the way in which that Matthew Bourne’s work circulates.

What received’t change is that mongrel mixture of music, dance and dialogue that characterizes even dance-driven musicals, although the critiques prompted some doubts. “I went by means of a number of weeks of actually asking myself questions, like ‘Do I must forsake this aim of experimenting with this fusion of dance and theater?’ I don’t like dance theater—I like when individuals speak,” he says. He’s come to the conclusion that the bottom line is utilizing music persistently, and establishing early, so audiences perceive, “that I’m not going to cease shifting, and I’m going to speak on the similar time.”

Jacob Guzman, Ahmad Simmons, Ryan VanDenBoom, Voltaire Wade-Greene, Hannah Cruz and Reed Luplau in Solely Gold. Photograph by Daniel J. Vasquez, courtesy Matt Ross PR.

By the identical token, he says he’s “actually open” within the coming years to working with present dance firms on new story ballets. He says he doesn’t have the vocabulary or the will to do plotless works. “I’ve to inform a narrative,” he says. “An concept that has a starting, a center and an finish.” And there are different limits. “The older I get now, I’ve to actually determine how a lot I’m prepared to not dance,” he says. “My concepts are solely getting larger. However my dancing’s not…I’m nonetheless dancing laborious, however 10 years from now I’m not gonna be dancing that onerous. So my concepts will nonetheless be detailed and particular, however my capacity to ascertain that choreography received’t be.”

I remind him of the numerous choreographers who’ve labored by means of their 60s and effectively into their 80s, however he’s not shopping for it. They had been doing “the very same stuff” they’d been doing for 40 years, he notes. “The problem is each present is totally different from the one I did earlier than. I’m doing swing dancing someday and cheerleading the subsequent.”

And Paris within the ’20s the subsequent. “Now,” he says, “my job is to be actually sincere with myself: Can I make Solely Gold actually a terrific present? I don’t need to make a very good present; I need to make a terrific present. However what’s so fascinating with a chunk like that is when one thing works very well, it’s a must to go into surgical procedure saying ‘Okay, how can I not contact that organ?’ ”

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