What It's Like to Choreograph a Dance-Only Episode on HBO
Ever wondered what happens in those seedy chain motels attached to airports? In the new HBO anthology series Room 104 Room 104 , created by Mark and Jay Duplass, it's everything from the funny and eccentric to the creepy and absurd.
With no connecting story for its characters, each episode takes place in one motel room. Episode 6 titled "Voyeurs" which airs tonight depicts a housekeeper reconnecting with her younger self in a dialogue-free episode of solely dance.
Dendrie Taylor as Housekeeper and Sarah Hay as Girl, PC: Jordin Althaus/HBO
We caught up with Dayna Hanson, who wrote, directed and choreographed the episode, to get the inside scoop.
How did you get involved with Room 104?
In May 2016 I was invited by executive producer Xan Aranda to imagine a dance-driven episode. I pitched several concepts, each taking a different approach to the integration of dance in a story-based television episode, and they liked "Voyeurs."
What attracted you to this project?
It's not every day that you get to conceptualize something that has never been seen on TV before. The challenges of writing a linear story that uses dance as its expressive language were so appealing. Working with Sarah Hay and Dendrie Taylor was also hugely attractive—both are actors and human beings of terrific depth, talent and intelligence.
How much did you know about the other episodes before filming yours?
Not much! I had very little context other than the conceptual framework of the series. That mystery actually added to the excitement.
Sarah Hay as Girl, PC: Jordin Althaus/HBO
Did knowing this was for a TV series push your work in a different direction than if you had just been making this as a dance film?
Many of the short dance films I've directed in the past have taken a looser or more experimental approach to narrative—or they simply haven't been narrative. In this case, I knew that the script wouldn't have been greenlit if it didn't hold up narratively. During the writing process, there was great discussion about how important it was that this episode function as a story first, then as a dance. That wasn't imposed on me—I agreed. I wanted to create an experience in which the characters on the screen draw the viewer in, and we get wrapped up in them and in their story.
What was the most challenging part?
Time was limited: I had under 25 hours of rehearsal with my actors, total. That included around 10 hours on the stage, which was precious. We added a rehearsal in a motel down the street in Glendale, but even that was of limited value because the room layout and dimensions were different. The stage the only place where we had access to the actual props, beds, spacing and geometry of the room. Limited rehearsals meant that shooting required even more from Sarah and Dendrie, who delivered on a heroic level.
Dendrie Taylor and Sarah Hay with Dayna Hanson on set, PC: Jordin Althaus/HBO
Do you have any favorite moments in the episode?
There are a few moments when the characters connect in a way that really gets me. The currency of the story is visual, not text-based; in some ways it's comparable to silent film. But rather than using the histrionics of silent film we went for subtlety, specificity and authenticity in the actors' performances. I've always found emotional truth in physical detail—this was an amazing opportunity to mine that territory.
As well as being an extraordinary actor, Sarah Hay is an amazing dancer with a professional ballet career under her belt already (a second soloist with the Semperoper Ballet). She's also incredibly open, aesthetically and stylistically. Working with her was a dream, and the solo I set on her is one of my favorite moments of the episode.
What does it mean to you to help put dance on HBO?Such a thrill! We see dance in commercials, music videos, competition dance shows. Occasionally characters in a series will break into a dance moment, but that's a rare; even more rare is a dance-centered series like Flesh and Bone, in which Sarah starred. This is a little different, partly because Room 104 is a little different. The show itself, in taking a fresh look at the old anthology format, is rewriting the terms. This episode upends the show's terms by telling a story in another expressive language. I hope it serves to score one for Team Dance. It would be incredible if this episode could help open doors to new ways of imagining dance on television.
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."
More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?
New York Live Arts opens its 2017-18 season with A Love Supreme, a revised work by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and collaborator Salva Sanchis. Known as a choreographer of pure form, pattern and musicality, De Keersmaeker can bring a visceral power to the stage without the use of narrative. She has taken this 2005 work to John Coltrane's famous jazz score of the same title and recast it for four young men of her company Rosas, giving it an infusion of new energy.
Photo by Anne Van Aerschot
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.