A conversation with Matilda’s choreographer

Peter Darling doesn’t consider himself a whiz when it comes to working with children. “I suppose I just think of them as very small adults,” he says candidly. But the British choreographer is clearly doing something right. He took home the 2009 Tony Award for his work in the kid-centered musical Billy Elliot (nine years after he choreographed the Oscar-nominated film), as well as the 2012 Olivier Award for best theater choreography in the original West End production of Matilda The Musical.

This month, Darling brings Roald Dahl’s classic tale to life on Broadway, opening with a new children’s cast at the Shubert Theatre. Directed by Matthew Warchus, the story follows hyperintelligent Matilda, whose newly discovered special powers help her navigate a world full of terrifyingly nasty adults. Dance Teacher spoke to Darling about his choreographic process and tactics for getting the most out of young performers.

Dance Teacher: Were you familiar with Dahl’s work before you were asked to choreograph Matilda?

Peter Darling: I’ve always loved Roald Dahl, and I think it’s [Dahl’s work] very me in terms of how it’s abrasive, but also funny. And it’s about something real. There aren’t saccharine elements to it; it’s not pretend. Although his work—like James and the Giant Peach or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—often deals with heightened situations, the underlying themes are real.

DT: How did you go from book to dance? Where did your process begin?

PD: I looked at a lot of the images by Quentin Blake, who does Dahl’s illustrations. There’s sort of a spiky, stretched-out quality to all of the drawings. I also spent about a week at a primary school, trying to find a common denominator in all of the children. For me, it was their fidgeting. They never stop moving. Even in their attempt to be still, there’s always a scratch or a shift. That’s where the kids’ movement was derived.

DT: In rehearsals, do any of the more precocious kids ever make choreography suggestions?

PD: Not often. Because I’m interested in children doing quite complicated work, I don’t start with them as the models. But they are able to replicate the work in an extraordinary way.

Royal Shakespeare Company’s "Matilda The Musical" in London, 2012Instead, I’m much more inclined to develop material with adults. I work with tasks. For instance, I might ask two people to fight. And then I’ll break their fight down into a series of moves, take the bits I like and put those together or reverse roles. I take a realistic situation and abstract it. I very rarely say, “OK, let’s all do a great rond de jambe.”

DT: You’ve said that after auditioning thousands of children, you know very quickly who you want to cast. What do you look for?

PD: The ability to attack movement, and the ability to express themselves through movement. I want to see that their movement isn’t divorced from their brains.

When you’re teaching dance, give a narrative. It will help them understand why they’re doing whatever they’re doing. In life, we don’t move without motivation. So in a musical, why would anyone move without a reason or intention? My job is to see how they respond when I give them an intention.

DT: Any advice for curbing habits of overacting or mugging?

PD: I’ll often say, “I don’t believe you; I need to believe you.” It’s amazing when you call children on it. They know when they’re being fake. It’s about getting them to really apply the intention, as opposed to doing what they think is required. Children haven’t yet learned how to be duplicative. So you can strip it away fairly quickly, much more than you can with an adult. DT

Performance photo by Manuel Harlan, both courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown, INC.

Dance Teacher Tips
From The Rock School 2019 Showcase. Photo by Catherine Park, courtesy of The Rock School

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix, has been called the Queen of Fundraising by colleagues. A studio owner and high school dance coach with over four decades of experience, Clough is known for her smart and successful fundraising ideas.

Now, Just For Kix has created a new online tool to help everyone tackle their fundraising goals, whether you're raising money for uniforms, extra classes, or to cover the cost of travel for your dance team's next convention.

Clough shared a few of her best fundraising tips, including everything you need to know about the new tool:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Kyle Froman

Darla Hoover was at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's studios running a rehearsal in 2014 with director Marcia Dale Weary. Hoover had just returned the day before from staging a ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. Jet-lagged, she mixed up her words when giving a correction.

Weary took Hoover's hand and gently said, "Honey, you work too hard."

Hoover, and the students, had a good laugh.

"Are you kidding me?" Hoover replied. "You're the one who made this monster. There is no off switch!"

Weary founded CPYB in 1955, and it quickly became an internationally known school that has produced countless principal dancers. Famous for her high standards and tough work ethic, Weary instilled those qualities in Hoover, who served as associate artistic director at CPYB under Weary, as artistic director at Ballet Academy East's pre-professional division in New York City and as a répétiteur for the Balanchine Trust.

Hoover took over as artistic director at CPYB in the spring this year after Weary died suddenly, and while she's committed to continuing Weary's legacy, students have begun to see some of Hoover's vision as well.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by NYCDA
Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Jessica Kubat (center) with her studio staff. Photo by Vincent Alongi, courtesy of Kubat

Jessica Kubat's path to becoming a studio owner wasn't typical or glamorous or the product of a family business, handed down. When she opened MJ's House of Dance in Lindenhurst, New York, this past summer, she had just turned 40, was a mom of three, and had worked at two different studios long-term. Over the last two and a half years, she'd painstakingly saved up $25,000 and had gone to the Small Business Development Center at a local college on Long Island for help creating her business plan. Her area was moderately saturated with studios, so she spent considerable time planning what would set her school apart—live musical accompaniment, for one—and hired a marketing director nine months before the business even opened. It was a methodical, careful approach—Kubat calls it "the old-fashioned way"—to opening a studio, and it's paid off: She started summer classes with 75 students and is well on her way to reaching her first-year enrollment goal of 250 dancers. "When I turned 40, I decided that it was time to do something bigger," says Kubat. "I always wanted to own a studio—it was just never financially available to me."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
From left: Daniel Novikov, Alla Novikova and Mishella Vishnevskiy at Blackpool 2018. Photo by NYC Digital Media, courtesy of Alla Novikova

Alla Novikova began her dance training at a ballroom studio called Edelweiss in Saratov, Russia, when she was 9 years old. She was immediately recognized for her natural talent and work ethic, placing third at the Russian Open just three months after beginning ballroom lessons. The lessons she learned at Edelweiss shaped her career and provided the foundation she needed to open her own ballroom studio: Work hard to prove that you're good enough to be here, and give honor to the experiences that brought you to where you are today.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Professions across the globe hold yearly conferences, and the dance industry is certainly no exception. Annual conferences exist for dance teachers, dance medicine professionals, dance educators and more. Taking the time out to attend them can be well worth your while for a number of different reasons. Let's take a closer look at four of them.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Father-daughter dance. Photo by Lisa Lee, courtesy of Dance Academy USA

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: How do you approach gender when teaching in 2019? When I was training, male dancers were encouraged to make their movement masculine, while female dancers were encouraged to keep their movement feminine. Today, gender has become much more fluid, and the line between masculine and feminine performance has blurred. How does that impact the way we should be teaching?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo courtesy of Z Artists Group

New York City–based pre-professional training troupe Z Artists Group, along with dancers from eight professional companies in the city, are joining together to combat gun violence with, "DANCERS DEMAND ACTION," a performance aligning art with activism at The Joyce Theater, this Monday, November 11, at 7:30 pm.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Infinite Flow

Last week, 2019 DT Awardee Marisa Hamamoto and her partner Piotr Iwanicki brought their boundary-breaking work to the "Good Morning America" stage in a segment highlighting her inclusive dance company Infinite Flow.

Infinite Flow is a Los Angeles–based wheelchair ballroom dance company (the first of its kind in the U.S.) that incorporates an equal number of disabled and nondisabled dancers, as well as a range of styles like hip hop, contemporary and other partner dances.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending

Since she was hired in 2006 to create a dance program at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, Jenefer Davies has operated as, essentially, a one-woman show. She's the only full-time faculty member (with regular adjunct support). Over the last 13 years, she has created a thriving program along with a performance company—at a school with fewer than 2,500 students—by drawing on her admittedly rare strength: aerial dance.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox