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.

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