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.

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Quinn Wharton, courtesy of Forance

While Teddy Forance admits that performing with commercial artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna, and in front of 30,000 people, is exhilarating, he is personally drawn to more abstract music when he choreographs. It's a preference that sometimes confounds his contemporaries. "Some of my friends will ask, 'How do you choreograph to music that sounds like silverware fighting?'" he says. "I just tell them one sound at a time," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dance Teacher Web
Courtesy Dance Teacher Web

Dance students aren't the only ones who get to spend their summers learning new skills and refining their dance practice. Studio owners and administrators can also use the summer months to scope out new curriculum ideas, learn the latest business strategies and even earn a certification or two.

At Dance Teacher Web's Conference and Expo, attendees will spend July 29–August 1 in Las Vegas, Nevada learning everything from new teaching methods to studio management software. And as if the dance and business seminars weren't enough, participants can also choose from three certifications to earn during the conference to help expand their expertise, generate new revenue and set their studios apart:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Julianna D. Photography, courtesy of Abreu

Although Rudy Abreu is currently JLo's backup dancer and an award-winning choreographer—his piece "Pray" tied for second runner-up at the 2018 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and a variation of the piece made it to the finals on NBC's "World of Dance"—he still finds time to teach. Especially about how he hears music.

Keep reading... Show less
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Our dancers' parents want to observe class, but students won't focus if I let them in the room. I've tried having them observe the last 10 minutes of class, but even that can be disruptive and bring the dancers' progress to a halt. Do you have any advice on how to handle this?

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

James Payne, director of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet, starts class each day by asking students how they feel. "If they're collectively hurting, and I know that the day before they were working hard on something new, I might lessen the intensity of the class," he says. "I won't slow it down, though. Sometimes it's better to move through the aches and get to the other side."

A productive class depends, in part, on how well it is paced. If you move too slow, you risk losing students' interest and creating unwanted heaviness. Move too fast and dancers might not fully benefit from combinations or get sufficiently warm, increasing their risk of injury. But even these guidelines may differ depending on the students' age and level. Good pacing is a delicate balance that can facilitate mental and physical growth, but it requires good planning, close observation and the ability to adapt mid-class.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Running your own studio often comes with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. After all, you're the one who teaches class, creates choreography, collects tuition, plans a recital, calls parents, answers e-mails, orders costumes—plus a host of other tasks, some of which you probably don't even think about. But what if you had someone to help you, someone who could take certain routine or clerical tasks off your hands, freeing you up to focus on what you love?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Derek and Julianne Hough via @juleshough on Instagram

Here at Dance Teacher, we LOVE a talented dance family. Something about parents and siblings passing their passion for dance down to those who come after them just warms our hearts.

While there are many sets of talented siblings across all genres of dance, ballroom seems to be particularly booming with them.

Don't believe us? Check out these four sets of ballrooms siblings we can't take our eyes off of. Their parents have raised them right!

This is far from a comprehensive list, so feel free to share your favorite sets of dance siblings over in our comments!

Keep reading... Show less
Courtesy of Roxey Ballet

This weekend, Roxey Ballet presented a sensory-friendly production of Cinderella at the Kendell Main Stage Theater in Ewing, New Jersey, with sound adjustments, a relaxed house environment and volunteers present to assist audience members with special needs. The production came on the heels of three educational residencies held at New Jersey–based elementary schools in honor of Autism Awareness Month in April.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Shared via Dance Teacher Network Facebook

I'm a part of a popular group on Facebook called Dance Teacher Network which consists of dance teachers across the country discussing and sharing information on all things dance. Yesterday morning, I spotted a photo shared in the group of four smiling young boys in a dance studio. And I couldn't help but smile to myself and think, "Wow, I never had that...that's pretty damn amazing."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Marr

When Erica Marr discovered ballroom dancing in her late teens, she instantly fell in love with the Latin beats and strong drum lines that challenged her musicality. After shifting her focus away from contemporary and jazz, she began studying with elite ballroom coaches in New York City and quickly earned a World Championship title in her division.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox