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Kathryn Burns won an Emmy this year for her work choreographing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s a hell of job. With multiple musical numbers per episode, Burns has been tasked with coming up with dances involving martial arts, tap sequences, and, coming soon, ballet. She talked to The A.V. Club about how her comedy training helps her seamlessly integrate the funny with footwork.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with the show?
Kathryn Burns: I started studying at Upright Citizens Brigade here in L.A. right when they opened. There’s a musical comedy group that kind of finds each other—like minds gravitate. I started this company called Quick & Funny Musicals, and Rachel Bloom was part of our company for a year and a half or two. We also did shows together with this really great comedy trio called The Apple Sisters. I was choreographing anything UCB-comedy related, and Rachel had written a musical and I choreographed a stage reading of that, I had choreographed a YouTube video for her and was in it.
AVC: Which of her YouTube videos did you choreograph?
KB: If this doesn’t explain what I was getting into with Rachel Bloom: It’s called “Die When I’m Young” and I danced with an aborted fetus—that was a puppet. The Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pilot happened and Marc Webb directed and Michael Rooney choreographed. I was one of the hundred pretzel dancers. That was at Showtime and when it went to CW, they went in a different direction. They ended up hiring the DP from Key & Peele, who I had worked with on every musical episode of Key & Peele. He ended up talking about me a lot in his interviews because it was a lot about musicals, and later he was like, “Expect to get a phone call slash you’re welcome.”
AVC: So you choreographed musical numbers on Key & Peele?
KB: In some of them Keegan would just freestyle but, I did like seven or eight sketches for them.
I got to go into a proper interview with Sarah Caplan, Aline, and Rachel, and as I was talking it was really funny because Rachel was like, “Oh I didn’t know you did that. I didn’t know you studied that.” So it was nice for her to learn about my credits or my resumé. I worked in post-production for years and I thought I wanted to be an editor, but was still dancing. I was just so excited and thankful to get the job. It’s been awesome, needless to say.
AVC: Are you involved with every musical number or do they call you in when there’s something that needs to be very intensely choreographed?
KB: I’m there for all of it pretty much. I’m a proper department head. I’m at all the production meetings. We have a separate meeting called the “dance concept meeting.” Even if there’s not dancing, we still talk about it and I’m still in on the conversation. The only time I really steer away is if it’s supposed to be acting. For example, there was a scene with an actor running and he had to stop and say a line. I was able to help him with his cue lyrically of when to start singing again. So even if there’s not movement or choreography, I can still help watch for the sake of the nonverbal communication. I’ll always have a lyric sheet on me. Because we move so fast and the lyrics are so chewy, so to speak, I can help with cues and lyrics. I do much more than just eight-counts.
AVC: What was the approach to the new opening credits from your perspective?
KB: Well, they wanted it to be like a classic showgirl kind of Busby Berkeley-ish moment. That’s my favorite genre. As a dancer myself, I mostly did Producers and Spamalot—very showgirl, cutesy movement with classic lines. Figuring out how all those hearts play together to form his face and when she would explode out of it. There are 10 dancers and it was tricky because I wanted them to all be showgirls, like a proper 5’10”, which you don’t really get to see on TV very much. But they couldn’t be that much taller than Rachel because she’s 5’5”. Because all those lines have to be so specific, I ended up casting girls from 5’5” to 5’8”. It looks really simple but to get 10 girls’ faces in a frame… It was just real tricky to make everyone fit in and look good. The very first shot, fun fact, is Ruby Keeler’s granddaughter.
AVC: That’s amazing.
KB: Yeah, so she’s the second girl behind Rachel, and she is actually a member of The Apple Sisters. Rachel and I have been in her shows for years. So it was really fun to have her there. But because she’s just a little bit taller, she had to hide herself behind Rachel perfectly so that she didn’t give away that there was a line of 10 girls right behind her. I would literally have to say, “Left shoulder down, back, to the right, head in, neck back, turn—Hold it, okay hold.” It was so much fun. I have a little cameo in the tag, which is super meta. I play the dancer that asks if it’s for TV or film. She says, “Oh it doesn’t exist, it’s all in my head.” I’m like, “What do you mean this is your head?” And then I explode. That’s a fun little Easter egg.
AVC: Will they approach you even before they’ve written the song and say, “Hey, we’re writing something along these lines?”
KB: The writers are really awesome, and then Rachel, Jack [Dolgen], and Adam [Schlesinger], the songwriters, dive into the story and make the song happen. Typically because there’s a whole writers’ room situation and the song comes first and the style of the song comes first, I’m not really a part of that conversation just because Aline is more heading that. Sometimes it will just be the script and it’ll say “boy band dance” and there’s not even a song yet. I’ll have a sense of what genre, maybe. Rachel is the one that spearheads the vision of the music videos. She’s super-helpful. We can bounce ideas off of her about direction and how far to take something. She’s always open to jokes and pitches. Sometimes I’ll sit with the director and the storyboard artist and go beat by beat per the script. Honestly, it’s a budget challenge, especially with the music videos because we shoot them in such a fast time. I kind of let that ship go the way it’s supposed to before I jump on. Everything is related to a cost, so Rachel constantly has to achieve her vision but through a productive manner that we can afford.
AVC: There’s a line in the song “Love Kernels” in which Rebecca [Bloom] sings that you’ve used up the production budget on the video. Is that realistic?
KB: Yes. We kept shooting that. We were in this desert. Then I cast the four girls—I’ll do a lot of casting too. That was actual real popcorn. It wasn’t CGI. It was kind of awesome to watch—it was four giant vats of vacuumed popcorn falling from the ceiling. It was really rad. Then all the costumes that were handmade. Nothing is rented.
AVC: What was your role on “Love Kernels?” It’s movement-based, but you don’t think of it as a typical dance number.
KB: The script says she’s writhing on the desert floor. They wanted it specifically to be when the sunset was happening. They were trying to get this one silhouette shot. They wanted her arms to be away from her face so you could see her mouth move, but in the flow if it, it’s kind of hard to remember. I ran off-frame to give her some movement and the visual of where her arms should go. She kind of mirrored me. It’s trying to find the pretty, and then also letting the weird happen. Rachel loves the weird. At some point it’s supposed to look ugly and awkward but that’s more indicative of life, you know?
AVC: You’re working in so many different styles. Just looking at the numbers that you won the Emmy for: “A Boy Band Made Up Of Four Joshes,” “I’m So Good At Yoga,” “Settle For Me.” Do you ever have to give yourself a crash course on anything? Or do you have all this to begin with?
KB: It’s kind of a combination. Once I know the genre, I’ll give myself a tutorial. Thank God for YouTube, you know? Then I really marinate and really study the script and the song, and let that tell me what part of that genre we’re trying to embody. My assistant for the three Emmy numbers is really versatile with a bunch of different styles. We can play together. We kind of find when it’s gross that means it’s right. I often have to think about the limitations I have because sometimes I only have one eight-count to showcase choreography. TV moves so fast.
AVC: How do you look to find the humor in the choreography?
KB: Well for me, luckily I studied comedy. I think it’s rare for a lot of choreographers. There’s an innate feeling of when something’s right or funny, and it’s hard to try and describe. For example in the ‘90s boy band [number]: I thought, well, the funny thing about that, if it’s Josh [Vincent Rodriguez III] playing all four of them, is you have the stereotypes of different boy band [members] and they move differently. You have the young one who is excited and bobbles his head and might be closeted. Then you have the bad boy one who moves with his crotch. He’s a little tougher. You have this heartthrob, Justin Timberlake one. Everything he does, the girls go crazy. He’s got more of a sexy vibe. Then you have the b-boy one, who is kind of off. They always do those goofy breakdancing moves. So finding the nuances with that. I cast four dancers to basically be body doubles for Josh. It’s hard once you learn choreography to change it subtly. So [Vincent] would stand behind each guy when he had to jump from character to character to watch them once. Then the other dancer would go away. They’re were [supposed to be] psychiatrists. I’m blanking on the lyric but it was talking about suicide, so I did a body roll and then a noose thing. It was a way to make it look like it’s a dance move if you didn’t really know what the lyric was. That was an example of a joke with movement. It feels right, but I’m also tying in something funny to help pop the lyrics.
AVC: What is it like working with the different cast members? Are there cast members that you love choreographing for in particular?
KB: They all come with ideas. I find the best actors have learned that they need to be invested in their own storyline and their own motivations and intentions. That parlays into dancing too. We did the “California Christmastime” song last season, and Pete Gardner, who plays Darryl, had never done choreography in his life. He was really nervous. But he earned himself the dance captain job because his energy throughout the whole thing was so amazing. In a joking manner, he’d always give pep talks. He’d be like, “This time guys, think about your feet.” Every single time it was a different anecdote. The way Pete moves is kind of my favorite; It’s more organic, and it’s so Pete. I love choreographing for him. He just makes me laugh every time he dances. But for the “California Christmastime” dance, I had videoed the moves really slowly. His wife was so sweet and literally broke it down into four-second cuts. She did separate videos of four seconds each so that he could find the four seconds over and over again until he’d got it. We’d already had rehearsal and stuff, but he spent the whole rest of the week really nailing it because he felt such pressure.
AVC: Does his role as dance captain still stand, or was that just for that number?
KB: He’s still dance captain. Sometimes he’ll come in even when he’s not associated with a number. I’ll introduce him as dance captain. I’ll say, “Dance captain, any notes?” And he’ll improvise something really funny.
AVC: What can we look forward to for the rest of the season?
KB: There’s a really fun Marilyn Monroe number that’s kind of epic and my favorite. Obviously every opening is going to be a little bit of dance, which makes me feel better when there’s not a bunch of dance in an episode. Then there’s another tap dance moment, and there’s a little ballet moment. Those are our three kind of ridiculously gross and amazing dance numbers coming up.
AVC: Do you have anyone that is a ballet dancer involved? How do you educate the cast members?
KB: They’re all really good at learning it. Part of my job is to take what they already naturally have and know and make it work within the choreography. But for the ballet number, it was weeks and weeks of conversations prior. And they gave themselves classes. I had given Rachel ballet classes during our break this year, actually.
AVC: What’s a specific example of employing a skill that one of the cast members has?
KB: Vinnie is a double black belt. [For “Josh’s Angry Dance,”] I also brought in Christopher Troy, who does stunts and parkour. He was able to help with more of the martial arts type stuff. I asked Vinnie, “Will you write down what you already have in your back pocket so I can incorporate that into the dance?” He also does nunchucks. He didn’t have a stunt-double. It’s obviously ’80s flash dance, so I was throwing in aerials and all this amazing shit he can do. He’s a walking special skill. On the day he was really tired, and I was like, “Well, dude. If you hadn’t told everybody that you can do this stuff…” That day was exhausting for him. He also breaks boards, but we didn’t have time to shoot it.
AVC: Is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend your favorite job so far?
KB: Yeah, it’s been awesome. I think I properly feel like a part of the crew and the family. On other jobs I come and go, so I’m not really a part of a lot of the conversations so I don’t feel like a proper crew member. For this, I definitely feel part of the family. But I feel very lucky. Key & Peele, Children’s Hospital: All those guys I got to visit year after year.
AVC: You did Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp?
KB: Yeah! I also had a little cameo in it.
AVC: Where’s your cameo?
KB: It’s in the audition montage. It was obviously like three seconds long, but I was this overly sexualized counselor auditioning.
AVC: You’re responsible for casting dancers as well?
KB: Choreographers typically cast their own dancers. You have to go through an approval process, and it has to be right for the show, but for me it’s much easier. That’s half the battle, finding the right people because I knew so many different styles and genres and we move so quickly, it has to be the right kind of dancer. There’s a really fun ‘80s moment coming up for Crazy Ex- with a solo dancer and I already had worked with her before and she’s so mad talented and I was like, “Do this and do this and do this and then this and and a down and an up.” She was like, “Got it.” Magic.
AVC: Have any of the Crazy Ex- cast members had trouble mastering something you put toward them?
KB: There was this high-five clap move. They weren’t supposed to look at each other and do it and because we were so tight on time, Aline was like, “If they don’t get this right the next time, you have to change it.” And I was like, “What, no,” because it was like my favorite moment and luckily, they nailed it on that one take.