Face to Face: Peter Darling

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.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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