[This piece first ran in the Los Angeles Times.]
At the pre-show warm-up for “Bring It On: The Musical,” performers in their 20s are stretching and assuming yoga postures, others are jumping rope or jogging softly in place. It’s what you might expect from any cast of a musical. Then suddenly, downstage right, there’s a complicated, unfamiliar moving shape that turns out to be a man flat on his back, doing fast, full push-ups into the air with a tiny young woman standing straight on his hands.
A similar surprising amalgam of styles is being seen by audiences at the Ahmanson Theatre. “Bring It On” (through Dec. 10) opens on a familiar Broadway note, with the lead character, Campbell (Taylor Louderman), standing center stage, launching into a heartfelt song that quickly swells into a powerful choral number. Yet somewhere around the second or third verse, Campbell suddenly doubles in height and power as she’s boosted aloft, still singing full-voice, while a display of pyrotechnical cheerleading shoots around her.
This, after all, is a show about competitive cheerleading, so the stunts and stakes are high for a musical that’s kicking off a national tour with hopes of winding up on Broadway. Carrying along the feisty tone of the 2000 film starring Kirsten Dunst, the musical’s new story moves between two realms: a white-bread suburban high school cheer squad and a scrappy, urban dance crew. Professional singers and dancers handle the lead roles, while a crew of 12 championship-level cheerleaders traverse both worlds, changing costumes to handle the most dazzling stunts at each school.
During the rigorous casting process, director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler saw more than 4,000 people, seeking unconventional triple threats — singer-dancer-gymnasts — for a streamlined troupe that would have to sing, dance and build human towers. The challenge for performers with cheerleading experiences was not only their singing roles but also the need to bring life and texture to their movements as they transitioned from NBA courts and football fields to bright, shrunken theater stages.
“In cheering, everything is very rigid and sharp,” says David Ranck, a former cheerleader for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and instructor for the Universal Cheerleaders Assn. “Clean lines. That’s it. Being in this show has changed everything about how I perform.”
Before each performance is a crucial technical rehearsal, a.k.a. the stunt call. On this day, Louderman’s ankle is taped from an earlier injury, but she’s prepared to rise again. Dance/stunt captain Rod Harrelson stands with his arms folded and calls out: “Stick to your timing and blocking — that’s all I’m going to say.” Only in this rehearsal setting is it possible to see the hives of activity required to build pyramids and launch girls overhead. During the show, this ground-level activity is smartly masked by downstage dancing and cheering.
Harrelson asks the troupe to run through the most complex acts of flying spins and balances that occur over the course of the show’s five long cheer numbers. Many are original stunts that Blankenbuehler created with the help of cheer consultant Jessica Colombo.
Body slams happen
Rehearsal goes cleanly, until Ranck missteps and takes the brunt of a flier’s falling body on his chest, not his arms. Because it’s a rehearsal, he winces visibly. Later, backstage over a pizza lunch with half a dozen cast members, Ranck says that this kind of body slam happens regularly and that it is “no big deal.”
More crucial for him was “learning to keep up with these dancers,” he says, gesturing to a group that includes performers such as Adrienne Warren, who toured with “Dreamgirls,” and Neil Haskell, a former “So You Think You Can Dance” contestant.
Courtney Corbeille, one of the daring “flier” cheerleaders who spin and fall from the highest heights, was a cheerleader for the University of Oklahoma and a member of the Spirit of Texas cheer squad. Of “Bring It On,” she describes a need for heightened awareness and adaptability when performing so much cheering in one evening, compared with a contest in which she might have to perform just one routine.
Ensemble member Bettis Richardson calls it “a kind of telepathy,” and the whole group agrees. Corbeille speaks of a recent performance when she was at the top of a three-person-high tower, ready to embark on a 360-degree spin from the top, but her foot felt shaky.
“Some way, somehow, the three of us communicated without even talking,” she says. “So the boy below and the girl on top of him and me — none of us spun. This was all within four counts. It was literally an out-of-body experience. I don’t know how, but I just did a straight cradle off of it, ’cause that was a safe thing to do.”
Blankenbuehler, speaking by phone, explains his directorial decision to include cheerleading’s most demanding technique: “We didn’t have to throw the girl up in the air.” But “when I watched high school and college nationals, and saw guys flip girls in the air and catch them with one hand, my jaw was on the floor. I wanted to go straight at the competitive cheerleading.”
Early in the process, Blankenbuehler teamed with Varsity, the organization that oversees the Universal Cheerleaders Assn., which practices the most rigorous, frill-free, gymnastic form of the collegiate competitive sport. As a partner in “Bring It On,” Varsity supplies uniforms and helped Blankenbuehler devise a mat that would provide extra spring for the tumblers without creating a double-bounce for the dancers.
Yet despite what he calls the “ammunition” of these extraordinary moves, Blankenbuehler says he has a “problem with the symmetry-built momentum” of cheer.” His solution? A concentrated effort to use asymmetric lines and irregular traffic patterns. And he seasoned many moves with hip-hop flavors such as Tutting, the sharp box-building hand gestures modeled after Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In the end, he says, the intense, dangerous physicality of the competitive form helps convey his conception of the larger teenage story. “When young people are so courageous, not just with their bodies but when their whole life is just lunging forward for them, there’s this life-or-death sensation. And that’s how I feel about my craft. And that’s what this show is about.”
What about the performers? Would they have preferred a simpler cheerleading technique, similar to those in the 2000 film? Something like the kind of hair-tossing, booty-shaking formations and canons of the Laker Girls or the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders?
“They’re not cheerleaders; they’re dancers!” says Corbeille. “I can say that because I’m from Dallas!”
The room laughs, but Corbeille is eager to explain the difference. “One’s more of a crowd-leading,” she says, “one’s more of a crowd-pleasing.”
“And if you know anything about Andy, you know he doesn’t do anything the easy way,” says Ariana DeBose, another former “So You Think You Can Dance” contestant who plays one of the dance crew members. Even in the straight dance sections, “he wants you to go around your elbow to get to your thumb,” she says. “Just because it’s awesome.”