Al Blackstone made his Broadway debut as an ensemblist in the long-running smash hit Wicked, but now flaunts his swankified moves as a choreographer on Fox’s reality dance competition So You Think You Can Dance.
SYTYCD first showcased choreography from Broadway talent with Spencer Liff and featured work by Sonya Tayeh and Mia Michaels before they lent their art to the theatre with works like Moulin Rouge! and Finding Neverland, respectively.
But Blackstone, now Emmy-nominated for his choregraphy for “L-O-V-E” (The Pizza Dance) and “The Man That Got Away,” has been a staple of the musical theatre community. He’s created work for Broadway Bares, the opening numbers for BCEFA’s Easter Bonnet (2013/14) and Gypsy of the Year (2015/16), as well as musicals like Pippin at Music Theater Wichita, Newsies at the Maltz Jupiter Theater (Carbonell Award), American Dance Spectacular! (Northeast Tour) and the world premiere Off-Broadway musical The View Upstairs.
He directed and choreographed his own full-length piece Freddie Falls In Love for New York City’s SIgnature Theatre in 2016, and continues to teach at Broadway Dance Center and STEPS on Broadway. Recipient of the 2011 Capezio A.C.E. Award for Choreographic Excellence, Blackstone brings his passion and training in theatrical storytelling to light of the SYTYCD screen. Here, he talks about his work, his influences, and his predestine fate to become a dancer.
How did you first get your start in dance? Were you always a child who liked to move?
My parents owned and operated a dance studio out of our home on the Jersey Shore, so I literally grew up in a dance studio. As a child I was never an outdoor kid. I preferred to go into the studio and make up dances. I had a bike, but instead of riding it in the neighborhood I choreographed a dance solo using it as a prop. So yeah, I’d say I always liked to move!
Your mother was a dance teacher. How does her approach to the art inform your dance and choreography today?
My mother and father and sister all taught me. I think I learned different things from all of them. My sister taught me what it means to really work hard. My father taught me how to use humor to be a good teacher. And my mother taught me how to love dance day in and day out. Her pure enthusiasm was infectious and I like to think that I continue that sense of joy both in my choreography and my teaching.
There are all these pre-conceived notions about dance and different styles. What is a misconception or pre-conceived notion you try to crack in your classes at BDC and through your choreography on SYTYCD?
It’s easy for dancers in New York to fall into a trap of thinking that theatre dance is one thing and that they need to be that one thing. I try to keep my students guessing as far as what style we will do from week to week. What’s thrilling about theatre right now is that it can draw from any style that helps tell the story. Ideally, being in an ensemble is not about looking exactly like the person next to you; it’s about being human and expressing something clearly.
When it comes to SYTYCD, you’re asked to choreograph in a style but you get to choose the music and the story. Do you find yourself attracted to a specific kind of narrative that pops up in your work over and over again?
I’m interested in dances that are about how people feel about one another, whether it’s a meet-cute like in the “Pizza Dance” [above] or a story of loss like in the “Man That Got Away,” [below] or a teacher-student relationship like in “Mr. Bojangles.” For me, once I know the relationship of the couple I can starting building the piece and the individuals I’m working with help me define the quirks and specifics about what makes these characters tick.
I spoke to Jon Rua for a piece and we got into a conversation about hip-hop and how most people don’t recognize its legitimacy as a dance style with a true foundational technique. Why do you think hip-hop is thought of this way? How have you worked to legitimize hip-hop and help the public understand the form?
The public needs to continually be educated by pioneers in the field like Jon Rua. The interest is there and I think that, in time, and with great leadership, the public will catch on to the fact that generalizing any style is dangerous. Dance is continually evolving and we need to make sure that we respect its rich and rapid history.
How does your work in hip-hop and theatre interact/influence each other?
Living in L.A. for two years and being immersed in the commercial dance scene there completely changed how I view dynamics, musicality, and sensuality in choreography. It also helped me understand the importance of individuality and boldness in a performer. People there were unapologetically unique and aggressive and I learned a lot from being around that kind of energy.
“Bojangles” is a great example of blending movement to tell a theatrical story. Tell me about choreographing this number.
This was inspired by a great teacher of mine that had recently passed away named Doug Caldwell so I came into it with a very personal emotional connection. It was a dream to work with dancers JT Church and Robert Roldan, who already had such a beautiful teacher-student relationship, and we built the piece around their chemistry and connection. It never felt like they were acting and if any moment felt false my job was to edit it. I needed to make steps that felt like a natural expression of emotion rather than worry about impressing the audience. It can be scary because I inevitably ask myself, “Is it enough?” But, ultimately, I think it’s why people can connect to the story; because the dancers are being themselves.
Who are the collaborators who’ve taught you the most? What specific lessons from them do you carry with you?
Working with Sonya Tayeh as her associate on shows like The Wild Party, Kung Fu, and The Last Goodbye was a masterclass in how to be true to yourself while making a musical. She is brave and creative and totally authentic in everything that she does. I can’t get through a rehearsal without thinking of something that she said or the way that she would’ve handled a situation. I am so grateful for the time that we spent together and she continues to be a great hero and friend.
Of all of the different types of projects you do (individual numbers for TV, full musicals regionally, teaching classes), what feels most fulfilling to you at this moment?
There’s nothing more fulfilling for me than to make something that people can connect to. Whether that be in a dance class or on a stage or on television, that’s where it’s at for me. Personal expression through music and dance is my way of life and however I can continue to bring people together with those tools is what I want to be doing. It’s most fulfilling when it feels like the people around me connect to the material as much as I do, and then the joy is in sharing that connection and turning it into something clear and beautiful.