Point Park grad makes Oscar dance again

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Rob Ashford has worked with some of the biggest names in show biz, but even he gets starstruck.

The 86th Academy Awards ceremony Sunday won't just be about sitting back and watching the results of his third gig as Oscar's choreographer -- he won an Emmy for a routine he created for Hugh Jackman and Beyonce in 2009.

There are a couple of hands he'd like to shake that night, said Mr. Ashford, a Point Park University graduate (class of '83) and a Tony Award winner among his eight nominations.

"I have such respect for what these actors and singers do, and I'll tell you who I'm the most excited to meet over the course of the events. One I'm looking forward to seeing again and saying congratulations to, and that's ['Her' director] Spike Jonze. I think he's just brilliant. The other is [director] Steve McQueen. '12 Years a Slave' is a brilliant piece of theater; I loved it and I was very moved by it. So I'm a true fan, and I really hope to meet him -- I'll probably throw myself at him during the introductions."

There's not much Mr. Ashford can say about the details of the night. As a director-choreographer, he has worked with production designer Derek McLane and with the producers of the telecast, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, on Broadway shows where he has created dance moves for a previously nondancing actor, among them Daniel Radcliffe ("How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"). Working with the Meron-Zadan team, Mr. Ashford recently helped Carrie Underwood make her musical theater debut as star of NBC's "The Sound of Music Live!"

This year's Oscars host is comedian Ellen DeGeneres, and anyone who watches her daytime talk show knows she likes to move and groove with her audience -- but will we see her dance Sunday night?

"In the past, I certainly enjoyed unleashing the hidden dancer in folks. [Host] Seth MacFarlane last year, he was like, 'I can't dance, I can't dance.' And I was like, 'Yes you can, yes you can.' But we all know Ellen dances, so we don't need to unleash the hidden dancer in her."

Mr. Ashford was speaking from sun-soaked Los Angeles, where he was helping to prep the show at the Dolby Theatre and almost giddy to be out of the polar vortex of Chicago, where earlier this month he made his debut as an opera director for Lyric Opera in a universally acclaimed production of "The Barber of Seville," starring Nathan Gunn. When the Oscars are done, his next gig is a new production of "Carmen" for Houston Grand Opera.

He also has been associate director of London's Old Vic since 2012 after serving in the same capacity for Donmar Warehouse, where he directed Jude Law in the Olivier Award-winning "Anna Christie" and Rachel Weisz in "A Streetcar Named Desire," among other big-name productions.

Mention Donmar, and it brings to mind Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor and his fandom for "12 Years of Slave" is sparked anew. "Chiwetel I know from London, of course, because he performed at the Donmar ... and I'm a [Michael] Fassbender fan since he was on the scene. I also think Sarah Paulson was amazing in it and is right up there with any of the nominated ladies."

That particular title would be tricky business for a dance number, and with nine nominated films, does the choreographer have something in mind that incorporates all of the nominees? Any tidbits about Idina Menzel singing the immensely popular "Let It Go" from "Frozen"? About what Bette Midler will be doing?

Other than saying what a thrill it is to have the Divine Miss M onboard, no dice.

"We are sworn to secrecy on any of the details, we sign things, possessions are held. ... No, I'm kidding. But I can't divulge anything other than it's going to be a great show. Just the musical performances alone being so dynamic because of the songs that are nominated -- the cover of The New York Times [Arts section recently] was all about that, and that's true, they are."

He will admit only to having a hand in how each of the nominated songs is presented.

The toughest part of putting on the show may just be getting it all in before the clock strikes 11:30 p.m.

"Just as you would imagine, we start big, and then we pull back," he explained. "We shave things off there and minutes off there, and it all adds up. We brainstorm and wrack our brains to find ways of saving time and still letting every moment be to its fullest. Unlike the Tonys, where they give out half the awards during commercial breaks, the Academy does every award for the night onscreen."

He will eagerly talk about bringing "Macbeth" to the Park Avenue Armory, where Sir Kenneth Branagh will make his New York stage debut in June. "I can't wait for New York to see Ken," said Mr. Ashford, who co-directed the original bravura production for the Manchester (England) International Festival. With Mr. Branagh in the title role and Alex Kingston as his Lady, the Daily Telegraph called it "a triumph ... which will go down as one of the Scottish Play's great revivals."

Mr. Ashford, so happy to be in L.A. for the weather and the task at hand, splits his time mostly between London and New York and also has a getaway in Morocco, a place to calm down from the frantic pace of his busy career.

With such a full schedule, he said he is "long overdue" for a trip to Pittsburgh and was sad to have missed the December send-off for retiring Point Park University professor Nicolas Petrov.

"He was such a big influence on me at the beginning, and not just in the teaching of the dance, but in believing that anything is possible. He had that creativity, the feeling like he had no real boundaries," Mr. Ashford said. "That was my first taste of the big 'What if?' I learned so much there, it really launched me."

Sunday night, it's Rob Ashford's turn to set the stars in motion.

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