Right now, things are just a little too pretty for Andy Blankenbuehler.
It’s a Friday afternoon in November, and Tulsa Ballet dancers are working through a passage from the first ballet created by Blankenbuehler, the Tony Award-winning choreographer of “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” which will have its world premiere as part of the company’s “Signature Series” performance in May.
Blankenbuehler watches as the various couples come together and move apart, are lifted up and spun around, strike poses that obviously are designed to be filled with meaning.
At one point, Blankenbuehler stops the action and tries to get across the feeling he wants dancers to create with this particular dance.
“Come on, guys,” he said. “You’re not in some high-class place. This is a dive. You’re four drinks into the night, and you’ve taken your shoes off.”
The dancers laugh at the image, but as they set about working through the combinations of steps and movements again, the look is decidedly less polished, the interactions carrying an air of desperation.
“One thing about working dancers such as these,” Blankenbuehler said later, during a break in rehearsals, “is that they are used to creating these beautiful images on stage. But for the piece I’m doing, they’re creating pictures that are a little too pretty. So I’m trying to dirty things up a bit, and in the end, I think we’ll end up with a better piece of choreography.”
Blankenbuehler’s as-yet-untitled piece will be part of a program that showcases the intersection between the worlds of ballet and Broadway.
“I wanted to build an evening around ballet choreographers who also were successful in musical theater, such as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins,” said Tulsa Ballet Artistic Director Marcello Angelini. “I also wanted to introduce someone who was very successful on Broadway who would be trying his hand at working in ballet for the first time.
“I love, love, love Broadway shows,” Angelini said. “I think of them as the latest step in the evolution of Italian opera — a form of performing art that mixes music, lyrics and dance to bypass the brain and hit you right in the guts. The other thing I admire of Broadway is the amount of energy every performer pours in each show. I wanted to see what happens if you mix the technique and purity of shapes of classical ballet dancers with the energy, attack, passion and movement value of Broadway dancers.”
It’s been long enough of a time that Angelini can’t quite remember how he first was made aware of Blankenbuehler.
“It took me a few months to get in touch with him,” he said. “We started talking, and he was excited to try his hand choreographing a ballet. And then, just when we were about to sign contracts, he was offered, in his own words ‘a gig I have to take.’ ”
That gig was the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” which earned Blankenbuehler his second Tony Award, as well as a Kennedy Center Honor.
“In his last email to me before he started working on ‘Hamilton,’ Andy said he would have to take a rain check on working with us,” Angelini said. “Well, I made sure to call that rain check in.”
For Blankenbuehler, the chance to work with a ballet company such as Tulsa Ballet is “a privilege. These are some amazingly talented dancers and being around them gives me the inspiration to tell stories in different ways.”
The ballet Blankenbuehler is creating is set during World War II and focuses on the crew members of a submarine.
“The last show I worked on (“Bandstand”) was also set during World War II, and in doing the research, I was so inspired by the men and women of that time,” he said. “They were all so young, and yet they gave up their youth for something larger than themselves.”
In Blankenbuehler’s ballet, the place he earlier described as “a dive” is a kind of idealized social club, which the submarine crew imagines as a way to escape for a few moments the claustrophobic terror of their present situation.
Creating a ballet is a much different process than working in musical theater, Blankenbuehler said.
“For one thing,” he said, smiling, “I don’t have the luxury of words. Or elaborate scenery, costumes, a plot. Usually, I would work with the composer and the lyricist to create dances that would fit a fairly well-established vision. Here, you’re pretty much starting from nothing.
“Fortunately, the dancers here are so versatile,” he said. “Their range of skills is huge. Anything I can throw at them, they can do.”
Blankenbuehler spent a week in Tulsa in early November getting the basics of the piece set on the company. He will return in January to put the finishing touches on the piece.
“I like having the opportunity to walk away from a piece for a while,” he said. “It gives you a new perspective on it and maybe helps you bring something new back.”
The reason for Blankenbuehler’s brief stay is another one of those “gigs” he just had to take: choreographing the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats.”
The cast includes Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Idris Elba, James Corden and Jennifer Hudson.
One of the challenges, Blankenbuehler said, was finding a way to remain true to the spirit of Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, “which is pretty much a part of the show’s DNA,” while finding ways to incorporate his own style into the show.
“The story is going to be set in 1930s London, so I want to keep the feel of the period, yet still have choreography with a contemporary edge to it,” he said.
“For me, it’s all about telling the story in the best way I can.”