When director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler signed on to turn the movie Bring It On into a big, splashy musical-theater event,
now premiering at the Ahmanson Theatre, he knew he was in for an education but didn't realize just how massive the world of competitive cheerleading was. "My agenda becomes learning how to speak in that language," says Blankenbuehler, who also learned about hip-hop to choreograph the Broadway smash In the Heights. "Research is exciting but also debilitating. ... It takes so much time."
Blankenbuehler visited national competitions run by the powerful Universal Cheerleaders Association, spent countless hours on YouTube and examined top college programs such as the University of Kentucky and Hawaii Pacific University. "I sort of went to Cheerleading 101 to learn the different voices and vocabulary that squads have," he says.
His research also brought him a dozen top cheerleaders to perform in the show. "We took their skill set and put it into our show like a specialty act," he explains. "The leads had to learn a lot about cheerleading, too, but for the most part we let cheerleaders do what they do and let the ensemble do what they do."
Though Blankenbuehler didn't learn enough to coach competitive cheerleading, he learned enough to put stunts together -- referred to in the industry as "building pyramids." For instance, he says, "They do this amazing stunt called a 'Rewind,' where the guy is standing right behind the girl and he flips her over his head, she does several turns, then lands on his outstretched hand."
The girl lands in a perfect Cupid or an Awesome, before she Reloads into another stunt into an Arabesque or a Liberty or maybe even a Scorpion. You'll have to see the show to understand.
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Blankenbuehler's studies also taught him it would be unwise to put 100 percent authentic cheerleading stunts on the musical-theater stage. "We have to do the show eight times a week, so we have to do it safely," he says. "What we wanted to go for was visual effect. So I didn't need to do a difficulty of 99 when I could get something that looks breathtaking with a difficulty of 70. It's all consistency and landing. Sometimes cheerleaders fall -- we can't. This was about making sure the moments hit all the time."
Plus, the choreographer wanted to make sure his pyramid was not all flash and gymnastics but part of an integrated story. "It is done with cutting energy, total fun and comedy, but it is not a cartoon in the least," he says. "People are hugely surprised when they see it's a real show, not a bubble-gum event -- a real show about real emotions."
Bring it On: The Musical is at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Dec. 10. (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org
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