Photo credit: FX.
Choreographer Andy Blakenbuehler is having a big year. While Broadway and Hamilton fans are very familiar with his name, his latest projects are going to take him to another level — FX's limited series, Fosse/Verdon, and the feature film adaptation of Cats.
Blakenbuehler choreographed the first three episodes of Fosse/Verdon before jumping aboard Cats to take over for Wayne McGregor, who had schedule conflicts at The Royal Ballet. Susan Misner then took over the helm for the final five episodes of Fosse/Verdon.
Blakenbuehler spoke with Dance Network recently about his work on Fosse/Verdon and how his working relationship with Gwen Verdon during his time with the Broadway show, Fosse, helped shape him as a choreographer.
"I actually became pretty friendly with Gwen and she took me under her wing. I met her my very first day on the project [Fosse] when it was just a workshop idea," he reminisced. "Once I was in the show, she said very flattering things about me regarding my ability to dance like Fosse and having a good take on the work."
That moment in time would also set the stage for his future career as a choreographer. Verdon's guidance in learning Fosse's technique influenced the way Blakenbuehler tells stories.
Photo credit: Melissa Hamburg.
"I do think that working on the show was a college course for me. Even though my vocabulary is different, I'm a little bit more like Fosse than I am like a [Jerome] Robbins in terms of my interest in creating pictures that are very graphic," Blakenbuehler shared. "It taught me that we could tell adult stories, mature stories, and often dysfunctional stories, through dancing."
What made the Fosse/Verdon project even more special to Blakenbuehler was the fact that the Hamilton creative team was back together. Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of the executive producers, Thomas Kail directed the pilot episode and an additional episode and Blakenbuehler handled the first three episodes of choreography. He's really proud of how the team honored the Fosse legacy with two iconic numbers.
"I have to give huge accolades to Tommy in directing it because he was able to make it as vibrant as a musical, even though it's not a musical, it's a drama," he explained. "In the first episode, the 'Mein Herr' and the 'Big Spender' sequences are really exciting because they feel visceral. They feel like that cutting-edge moment of an artist standing on the edge of the cliff and saying, 'This is going to be the moment where I'm going to jump off.' Those moments, the dancers and those two sequences were just unbelievable for me."
Personally, Blakenbuehler had to challenge himself as a choreographer in recreating an impactful moment that wasn't recorded. It needed the influence of Jack Cole movement, who inspired Fosse and Verdon's work, but it still needed his own personal touch to bring the three artists' visions together.
"In the script in Episode 3, there is a scene where Gwen as a teenager goes to see the Jack Cole Dancers perform. Basically, that changed her course and Bob Fosse's course, because they were both influenced by his work," he revealed. "There is no recording of that concert so I made that up from scratch. Jack was ahead of his time and knowing Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon choreography, I was able to create my own work, but be influenced by them. The dancers who did it felt that they were a part of something old and new at the same time. We had Ryan Steele, Ricky Ubeda and Reed Luplau in zoot suits — they are amazing dancers."
The team was also very careful about the work they were putting out there since there are legions of Broadway fans who are protective of Fosse and Verdon's legacy. It wasn't something Blakenbuehler took lightly.
"I feel the responsibility to take good care of the material. The other huge responsibility that we all felt was that we are not in his head, we are not in his heart and we didn't have firsthand knowledge of him. We wanted to represent his process really clearly because I think as artists, the process is very inspiring and to be able to share a process with the general public is important," he said. "The idea of what he was going through in his own personal life in this one moment that led to this choreography or this choice of a number — that sort of dissecting process was really inspiring to us."
Blakenbuehler was honored to have worked on Fosse/Verdon because it made him realize something special about Hamilton as well — work like this doesn't come around very often.
"The other thing that we learned in Hamilton is that we were really fortunate to work with some of the best material that's ever been created. So when you get a taste of working on material that is just superb quality, you recognize equally superb quality," Blakenbuehler shared. "When we jumped into things like 'Big Spender,' you realize what was built was so extraordinary. You can analyze the choices that these artists made decades ago. We replicated every light cue, camera angle and costume design that was used on that movie set. No matter what we did with it, we had already replicated something that was magical. Fosse created that."
Fosse/Verdon premieres Tuesday, April 9 on FX. The limited series will have an eight-episode run.
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