Broadway Dance Center has always been Al Blackstone’s home away from home. His teachers, mentors, and experience as a student helped shape him into the educator he is today. Since his first class in 2011 with just a few students, Al now packs the room no matter when he’s teaching. Beyond that, his courage to share his talent, vulnerability, charm, and lovable goofiness has created an undeniable ripple effect throughout the industry, challenging our preconceived notions about what ‘musical theater’ means, and how we can cultivate the energy of a dance class. Being a teacher or performer doesn’t mean masking who you are to portray someone or something else–quite the opposite, actually. It requires tapping even deeper into who you are in order to create a more meaningful connection with others, whether it’s your audience, dance partner, students, or fellow peers in class.
There’s a joyous, uninhibited ecstasy that emanates from Al’s choreography and seems to touch everyone who experiences it. If you’ve taken his class or seen his choreography for So You Think You Can Dance, BC Beat, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, or at regional theaters and dance conventions across the country, you probably know what we’re talking about. This summer Al is presenting Freddie Falls in Love at The Joyce Theater. A full-length dance narrative, Freddie debuted at Signature Theatre in 2016 to sold-out audiences and rave reviews. Three years later, Al is practicing what he preaches, diving even deeper into the show’s integrity and intention so that it might resonate with new magic.
But before we talk more about Freddie Falls in Love, it’s helpful to look at how Al came into his own–from competition kid to esteemed choreographer and one of the most beloved teachers at BDC. “My parents were–and still are–dance teachers in New Jersey,” Al explains. “My mom would come into the city every week to take Frank Hatchett’s class at Broadway Dance Center, and she started bringing me when I was just eight years old.” Frank Hatchett was the original master teacher. “He would sit and talk to his students after every class,” Al recalls. “I learned about show business, humility, what it means to be a professional, and how your integrity and energy matter most.” In class at BDC, Sheila Barker would lead Frank’s warmup. “Sheila’s such a source of wisdom and, I think, the best teacher in all of New York City.” In addition to Frank and Sheila’s jazz classes, Al would also take contemporary class with Jason Parsons and theater with Andy Blankenbuehler at Broadway Dance Center.
Putting these pieces together–Frank, Sheila, Jason, and Andy–you can see how Al found his voice: a strong technical jazz background, an emphasis on honesty and energy, a nod to contemporary aesthetics, and a focus on intentional, earnest direction. “I was also inspired by Matthew Bourne’s company,” Al explains. “There was depth but still humor.” Combining flawless technique with thoughtful storytelling was the equation that sparked a flame for Al. “I had always thought musical theater was just ‘ponies,’” Al says with a laugh. “When I realized it was such a crafted art with nuance and intention, I was hooked.”
Al’s initial classes at BDC swiftly rattled theater dance across the board. “When I started, I think I knew I was doing something kind of different. In my class, it’s not always what you’d consider ‘traditional musical theater.’ You could be ‘on line at Starbucks’ and still be performing. Dancers can be themselves–but be actors.” Al combines jazz technique, character development, and pedestrian sensibility. People responded not only to what Al had to say, but also how they, as dancers, could interpret his choreography.
As an ensemble performer in shows like Wicked, Al loved the space in between the big dance breaks. “I felt comfortable participating physically in a scene even if I wasn’t speaking. “I think that knowing how to be physical and clear is central to my work, and I try to impart that on my students.” There’s no more separation between the dance ensemble and acting ensemble on Broadway. You’ve got to be able to do it all…and do it all seamlessly. “From my own experience as a performer in an ensemble, I encourage dancers to be present, inventive and have a point of view.”
Dancers often speak of Al’s class as being a sort of “dance therapy.” The content is challenging, the environment is supportive, and students are inspired to take up space, be vulnerable, take risks, and be unapologetically themselves. We’ve seen this positive energy trickle into so many other classes. The old-school “tough love” mentality is shifting to one that empowers dancers in a new way. The classroom has now become an open, inclusive, inviting culture: a home. “It’s exciting to see many of my students and friends like Billy Griffin, Lizz Picini, Khori Petinaud, and Phil Colgan now teaching classes,” Al says with a smile. “I’m so proud to have been a small part of their journey. I think we all agree about what we want our classrooms to feel like. That’s a powerful thing to share.”
In today’s theater world, you can be dancing to everything from Cole Porter to Britney Spears–both in the studio and on the stage. Broadway has become a fusion of so many styles of dance, from street jazz and rhythm tap to contemporary and pointe. “The definition of a theater dance class has shifted from what it was just ten years ago,” notes Al. “But there’s always the emphasis on intention and emotion. Choreography is still specific and theatrical, but it’s become more of a philosophy than a ‘style.’ It’s focused on the human, the sense of self.” And to Al, that’s exciting. Suddenly, the sky’s the limit.
That philosophy of intention, integrity, and connection transfers from the classroom to the stage. Al’s first full-length dance show, Happy We’ll Be, premiered at Roseland Ballroom after he won the Capezio A.C.E. Award back in 2011. What exactly is a dance narrative? you might ask. Essentially, it’s choreography and music…no speaking or singing. To Al, it’s the ultimate theater experience–the most magical way to connect the art to the audience. “When I hear music, my natural response is to interpret whatever I’m feeling into movement,” he says. “Dance is a language that can transcend words, sound, or even cultural barriers. There’s so much power and possibility for human connection.”
Al’s second full-length narrative, Freddie Falls in Love, was presented at Signature Theatre in 2016. “My initial inspiration was Dan Kelly’s cover of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U.’ I came up with this image of a guy on his couch who can’t get up because he’s so heartbroken.” After the main character gets dumped, his friends try to help him cheer up and move on in a Pippin-esque journey to heal his heart and find himself again. It’s a story we can all relate to.
After the sold-out premiere, the programming director of The Joyce Theater reached out to Al about a possible future presentation. “The Joyce is a ‘presenter.’ This means they’re producing the show and are hands-off creatively,” explains Al. “In the past three years, I’ve primarily been working on musical theater projects where the choreography supports the storytelling, but is very rarely the priority. So there’s a lot of compromise in that process.” But this time, Al’s in creative control.
For audiences who saw the sold-out run of “Freddie” back at Signature, you should still grab your tickets for The Joyce. “First of all, I’m different. A lot happens in three years,” admits Al. “When I made the show, I was coming out of a really painful breakup. Today I’m in a happy relationship with my partner. Now, getting the opportunity to explore the show and the characters again, I feel like I have more wisdom and experience to bring to the table.” The show’s not vastly different, but it will be more intentional and thoughtfully crafted. “My goal is to be clearer and deeper,” says Al. “When I created the show, I made it around my friends who I cast–their personalities, strengths, and talents. Now, I can define the characters–who they are–and cast performers based off that.”
“All the things that made ‘Freddie’ charming and beautiful will still be there. But now I can go back and carve out these characters’ journeys in a more deliberate way.” It’ll be exciting, too, for familiar audiences (who already know the show’s ending) to notice clever moments and connections throughout the piece.
“As proud as I am of the show from 2016, it was a whirlwind–we never had everyone in the same room together for rehearsals until we had a performance! Being able to dive back in to this show three years later is truly a gift,” says Al.
For tickets to “Freddie Falls in Love,” visit www.joyce.org. To check out Al’s upcoming classes at BDC, visit www.broadwaydancenter.com/faculty/al-blackstone
Written by Mary Callahan