Choreographer Mandy Moore: ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ is the ‘Pro Bowl of my career’

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By K.K. Ottesen

Special To The Washington Post

Mandy Moore, 45, is a choreographer, dancer, producer and instructor. She choreographed the 2016 film “La La Land” and has won an Emmy Award three times for her work on “Dancing With the Stars” (2017), “So You Think You Can Dance” (2018) and “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” (2020), which began its second season this month.

What do you think people tend to misunderstand about musicals and dance?

That it’s just a bunch of people dancing around, you know, kicking and turning: Oh, that looks like fun. That’s cute. And I think, “Oh my God! That took me, like, 30 hours just to make it easy on the eye.” So something that is perceived as simple has taken a lot of care in making it not awkward to look at (laughs). Or if it is awkward, I wanted it to be awkward. There is a storytelling element to choreography and dance that people tend to minimize.

How did you first get involved with dancing – what drew you to it?

As a young kid, on weekends we would watch the old MGM musicals my mom and dad would rent on VHS from Blockbuster. And I was just this, like, crazy kid dancing and singing to everything. So my mom put me into dance when I was 8 – which is actually kind of late, considering a lot of kids start now when they’re, like, 2. My first class was a ballet class. And I started taking tap, I think, the very next week because I was just obsessed.

Oh my God, I was like, “Mom, I need to be in every class.” I came from this really small town in Colorado with this fun studio that would offer all kinds of dance. So, I took breakdancing classes, I did belly dancing classes, clogging, I mean, you name it. From the moment I stepped into a dance studio, it felt like home for me.

L.A. is sort of this city of broken dreams for a lot of people. What was your start there like?

Oh, it’s so cliche. It’s so kind of ridiculous to talk about, but literally a month after I graduated from high school, my dad drove me out in my Jeep with two suitcases and 500 bucks, you know, 18 years old. I think back now, and I’m like, “No way would I have ever done that if I had known.”

I had heard about a program at Edge Performing Arts Center from my dance teacher. And so I went out to audition for that. That was my goal. And I kind of didn’t think past it, to be honest. And I didn’t make it. I didn’t get in the program.

It was, looking back, probably a defining moment in my life because I understood “no” very early (laughs). And I was like, “Well, I moved out here a week ago, and what am I going to do – go home?” Like, that’s not really the plan. And I just kind of put my head down and I worked. I got a job at the studio working behind the desk to help pay for my classes. And took every class I could possibly take.

That was a really good foundation for me because I met a lot of people, and I learned a lot in that year – not only about myself, but about dance and the industry. It wasn’t necessarily easy. I didn’t have the path that I thought I was going to have. But in hindsight, it was the path that I needed to have, for sure.

What did it feel like when you choreographed your first successful (routine)?

First of all, the process is terrifying. I mean, you think, “Oh, I got this.” And then you get in there and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know if I got this.” It was my third routine on (“So You Think You Can Dance”) – this number I did to “Sweet Dreams.” And that feeling, I remember watching it when we went live, and people freaking out after. I actually got an Emmy nomination from it. It was like an out-of-body experience, honestly, for it to all come together and for people to really respond to it. And then it was a very strange dichotomy, I guess, like: Well, that’s awesome, but next week I’m going to go back to teaching 4-year-olds how to tap dance.

But looking back, I’m also like, “Thank God,” because I was just ignorant. I was just doing what I felt was right because I loved it. And that’s a really big lesson as a creator because sometimes you can go in and out of: Well, I think this is right because I think this is what everybody wants (vs.) this is what’s right for me because I want to create. And obviously when you do it the most authentically, that’s when it turns out the best.

You’ve called choreographing the movie “La La Land” your Super Bowl. Is that still the case?

Yeah. And then I got (“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”) – holy smokes! I mean, I feel like on “Zoey’s” I’m really firing on all cylinders. I’m taking things that I’ve learned in “La La Land,” that I learned in “Silver Linings Playbook,” that I learned at “Dancing With the Stars,” learned at “So You Think You Can Dance,” and then crashing that all together with Austin (Winsberg) and his vision for the show. I get to create five to six musical numbers every episode. So maybe this is the Pro Bowl of my career, I don’t know! Or Super Bowl number two?

Mixing metaphors, what would then be your Everest?

To be involved in – create, choreograph, direct, produce, whatever – a film that uses dance as storytelling even in a deeper level than something like “La La Land” did. Susan Stroman did it a bit with “Contact.” But, like, what would that be in this day and age? Can you do a full-length film that has no words, it’s only told through dance? Could you do it? That would probably be my Everest.

What do you think dance expresses that other arts can’t?

I’m sure you’ve heard this quote before: If you can’t say it, you sing it, and if you can’t sing it, you dance it. I think that’s really true. Dance has the ability to give you a feeling that maybe you can’t express in words. It has a way of turning on deeper emotions in people.

Do you think that there’s an emotion that it expresses particularly well?

I definitely think dance expresses joy well. And happiness. Because I think dance is inherently – usually, not all the time – exuberant. Wow, we’re going to get deep. I think, in life as humans, we walk. We sit. We maybe run. We raise our arms in the air when we yawn, and dance is really just a magnification, a higher level of that. Because we don’t really dance around in life.

But our foundation of our general movement is dance: the weight change. I think everything is dance. So even someone sitting hunching their back to me is dance, right? And that, maybe is a feeling of sadness or you’re tired or you’re sinking, you know? I love how the simple shape of something can turn into a whole fantasy of movement.

You’ve worked with novices, professionals – do you think everybody has it in them to be a dancer?

This might be the Pollyanna part of me, but I do think everyone has dance in them. It may not be the dance that everybody thinks is dance. But I believe that if you can move your body through space, you are dancing. I think that people should learn how to express themselves through movement – however simple or complex it may be. It’s very rewarding to move your body through space and to feel something as you’re doing it.

Advice to live by?

Don’t be afraid to say yes (laughs.) Like: “Yeah, I can do it. Sure, let’s try.” And trust that you can. I think sometimes people say no ’cause they’re like, “Oh, I could never. …” Well, why not? Why can’t you? People do amazing things every day.

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