I recently saw Al Blackstone’s choreography at the “Emerging Choreographers’ Showcase ” produced by the talent agency McDonald/ Selznick Associates (MSA) in NYC. The agency presented four of their choreographers to show their work to an invited audience of producers, industry professionals, and guests. Most of the dancers used in the presentation were also members of the agency, yet still had to audition for each prospective choreographer.
In an age where choreographers have to preface their piece “by telling us the story ” Albert’s piece, “Me Before We Met,” was truly creative and inventive and needed no introduction. His selection of music, use of props, sense of humor, and his theatricality spoke for itself. He also enlisted some top-notch young dancers (with winning performances by David and Jacob Guzman of “Newsies” fame) to enthusiastically perform his signature style.
I remember Al as a young boy from New Jersey who used to tag along to dance conventions with his parents, Richard and Denise Blackstone. They still run the Denise Daniele Dance Studio now in it’s 42nd year of operation. Things have certainly come full circle, as Al is now a popular teacher and choreographer in his own right.
I spoke with Al after observing one of his popular classes at Steps on Broadway.
Congratulations on your terrific presentation at the showcase. How did the idea for your number come about?
Thank you, Bob. I actually had the idea in the back of my mind for a while now. I’ve known the twins (The Guzman brothers) since they were young teens, and thought it would be a fun idea to play with the two of them in two different times in their lives. They both inspired the piece and the rest of it expanded based on the additional dancers that auditioned for me. I already knew most of the dancers who auditioned but I also took a chance on some new talent as well. I tend to work with dancers who are pleasant and great to be around, and have a positive energy.
Well that clearly came across from the stage. They performed your work with so much conviction and joy!
I realized during the process of creating this piece, that how well the cast gets along and how they communicate with one another as people is very important to me.
Let’s take it back a bit to your beginnings. What was it like being a young boy growing up in your parents dance studio?
I started dancing in diapers, and I literally danced in diapers with my Dad the first time I was on a stage. The song was “ Rubber Duckie” and I made a cameo during the number. There was never a time I wasn’t on stage after that.
The best thing was being able to be surrounded by all the amazing teachers my parents would bring to the studio to do master classes. We live in New Jersey, so teachers like Charles Kelley, Frank Hatchett, and Germaine Salsberg were regular guest teachers and I was really inspired by them. My mom and dad were really clued into the fact that there was a world of dance outside of dance studio life. They worked really hard to make sure my sister and I knew that and would always take us to Ballet and Modern dance concerts as well as Broadway shows.
What did you do after you finished High School?
I went to NYU for one semester to major in dance, and then took a leave of absence to tour with Tremaine Dance Conventions. I was their dancer of the year so I toured with them every weekend as an assistant for five months. I eventually moved to Los Angeles when I was 18 as I’d never been there and wanted to know what the dance scene was like. My parents were incredibly supportive at the time and I lived there for two years.
Is there anyone in dance who truly inspired you?
When I moved back to New York I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Then I took a class from Andy Blankenbeuhler and it completely changed my life. I took his class religiously for years, and I still to this day consider him my greatest teacher, aside from my Mom of course. Matthew Bourne also inspired me after seeing his production of the all male version of Swan Lake. I fell in love with his storytelling through movement, and most of what I’ve done with my work has stemmed from seeing that show.
Any favorite performing moments?
I played the part of the Carnival Boy in “Carousel” for choreographer Josh Bergasse (TV’s Smash, Broadway’s On The Town) at Barrington Stage in Massachusetts. It was my favorite film growing up, and I loved watching Jacques d’Amboise dance that part, so that was a true highlight for me. I also had the opportunity to be the dance captain on the show. Another highlight was performing in the National tour and Broadway company of “Wicked.”
It was great to watch your class, as your material is so fun and refreshing! I also loved your choice of music and how you incorporated it throughout the class.
I’ve always daydreamed about being a deejay. Music is my hobby and I’m passionate about finding new music, new bands, and going to music festivals. I used to make “music mix” tapes and CDs for friends as Christmas gifts. I loved how I could transition one song into another and how the energy and sound could develop a flow that way. So when I started teaching in NYC I was really excited about creating my warm-up playlist. How the tone builds, shifts and changes is really important to me.
When did you seriously think about becoming a professional choreographer?
After making my Broadway debut in Wicked, I planned on performing for at least another five years before pursuing choreography more aggressively. But that’s when Gil Stroming and Mandy Moore suggested that I enter the Capezio Ace Awards, which is a part of the Dance Teacher Summit. They believed in me and were kind and supportive so I said “yes.” Well, I ended up winning, and the prize was $15,000 to produce a dance show in NYC. I remember thinking at the time; “I guess I’m a choreographer now.” It was a very vivid moment for me where I thought this is going to change everything. And it did. There was a part of me that worried that I would miss performing or it would be a struggle to balance the two, but from that moment on I knew that choreographing is what I should be doing.
What type of shows do you have an interest in choreographing?
I would love to develop new material. Choreographing a revival doesn’t interest me nearly as much as doing something that hasn’t been done already. I really like working with writers, collaborating on new projects and figuring out where dance fits into a story. Of course I still want to pursue musical theatre, though after this recent showcase I’m also interested in continuing to explore more narrative works. I’m even playing with the idea of doing another show next year.
I know that you’ve been working with choreographer Sonya Tayeh quite a bit. How did that come about?
Sonya was looking for a new assistant for a production of “The Last Goodbye” at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. She wanted someone who was experienced in theatre but was also well versed in contemporary dance. Various people had given her my name, including Gil and my agent at the time, Lucille DiCampli.
We met for coffee one day and after 30 minutes I was hired. We went to our first rehearsal with me only knowing her for an under an hour and it ended up being a great match. Just being in the room with Sonya during the creative process was an amazing experience. I also worked with her on “Kung Fu” at The Signature Theatre in NY, and we’re presently working on a musical called, “Head Over Heels,” which is based on the music of the all-female American rock band, The Go Go’s. I really feel so lucky that we found each other.
What’s next on your plate?
After we do Head over Heels, I’ll be working with Sonya on a production of “The Wild Party’ starring Sutton Foster. The show will be done in NYC as part of the Encore Series at City Center. I’m also developing a new musical for Holland America, with more details to come later. 🙂
Such a busy guy! Tell me something about Al Blackstone that not many people know about.
As a little boy I wanted to be a stand-up comedian when I grew up. My parents would bring their dancers to perform at senior centers, and I would warm-up the crowd by telling jokes.
Aha, so that’s where the sense of humor and playfulness in your work stems from!
I never thought about it, but maybe you’re right. Again, my parents were always super supportive and gave me many opportunities. I have the best parents in the world.
Thanks, Al – best of luck with all of your upcoming projects.
Thank you so much, Bob. I really appreciate you reaching out to me.
Al Blackstone is currently on faculty at Steps on Broadway and the Broadway Dance Center and tours internationally with JUMP Dance Convention. He was the recipient of the 2011 Capezio A.C.E. Award for Choreographic Excellence. Dance Magazine has called his work “sweet, silly, sly… infectious.” He directed and choreographed the dance narrative Happy We’ll Be at the legendary Roseland Ballroom. Al’s choreography has been featured in Broadway Bares, Easter Bonnet, and SYTYCD Season 8 (soloist Jess LeProtto). He choreographed Sweet Charity for the John W. Engeman Theatre. Al was the associate choreographer to Sonya Tayeh on The Last Goodbye (The Old Globe) and Kung Fu (Signature Theater Center).
About the Author
Bob Rizzo began The Dance Coach as a valuable resource for aspiring dancers, teachers and choreographers looking for professional feedback on technique, performance and choreography. And for those who aspire to a career in dance, The Dance Coach is a trusted advisor offering career coaching and advice based on more than 30 years of professional experience in the dance world! Read Bob’s bio here.