Dance in Pop Culture

Roberto Campanella on Choreographing the Dream Dance Scene in "The Shape of Water" and Making Its Creature Move

Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

This season's Oscars front-runner isn't exactly the type of drama that usually makes it into the Best Picture category. Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water has plenty of drama, including Cold War intrigue, but it also has humor, a very human storyline that—thanks to one large amphibious creature—veers into fantasy and, yes, even dancing.

At a pivotal point in the movie, there's an unexpected, glamorous dream dance scene between Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the creature (Doug Jones). Elisa, who is mute and has a deep love for Hollywood's classic movie musicals, imagines that she can sing, and she is transported from her kitchen to a black-and-white movie set. There, she and her beloved creature share a romantic dance in the style of the films she adores. Keeping with the old-Hollywood homage, The Shape of Water also includes a short-but-sweet seated tap duet with Elisa and her best friend and next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins).

The man behind these moves is Roberto Campanella. A former National Ballet of Canada soloist and current artistic director of the contemporary ballet troupe ProArteDanza, he's no stranger to film sets. For the last 13 years, he's contributed movement coordination and choreography to a variety of projects, such as the Silent Hill horror movie franchise, Hallmark's A Nutcracker Christmas (with Sascha Radetsky) and del Toro's vampire show on FX, "The Strain." We spoke with Campanella about his latest collaboration.

Campanella has the unique experience of working in both the concert and commercial dance industries. Photo Courtesy Campanella.

How did you become choreographer for The Shape of Water?

I ended up being involved as a movement coordinator with "The Strain"—that's where I met Guillermo for the first time, five years ago. He called me and said, "Please read the script. I have this idea and see what you think about this." So I read it, and it was captivating. I thought, There is a woman dancing with a fish!

How would you describe the dream scene for those who haven't seen it?

It's a dream sequence in which the character's passion for dance, and specifically for the era, is intertwined with the love that she establishes with the creature. And the way I saw it, the ultimate romance that she would dream of with the creature is sharing a dance with him. The song is "You'll never know just how much I love you. You'll never know just how much I care." To me it was a combination and expression of the passion that she had for dance and the passion and love she had for the creature.

Campanella on set with Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, as the creature. Photos Courtesy Campanella.

Was it del Toro's idea for that scene to be a throwback to old Hollywood?

Yes. He knows what he wants, he knows what he doesn't want, which makes my life way easier. Most of the time, you're there to translate someone's vision, and with Guillermo it's easy. He wanted to maintain the Fred Astaire era with that kind of stylistic approach. He had some visual references, that he's like, You know? Something like this and something like that. He would get up and show me what he envisioned, even as far as the dancing was concerned. And, of course, with a great sense of humor from his point.

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Since you knew the creature would have a special suit, did that affect what you choreographed?

We had a chance to test the suit several times and to make adjustments according to it. So there were some restrictions, I remember, in terms of the arms. There were certain lifts that I had originally choreographed that I had to tweak and adjust. Other than that, it was never a big issue. In fact, I think we shot this in half a day. It might have been eight hours at the most.

Did you come with movement ideas beforehand?

I originally asked one of my dancers to get into the studio with me and create the duet. And from then on it was a back and forth between Guillermo and I, meaning, What do you think about this? Do you like this? I always start with a lot of material so that the directors can pick and choose. That's how the relationship was between Guillermo and I, whether it was for the dream scene or for the couch tap with Richard and Sally. He was always heavily involved.

What are some of the challenges—or perks—of choreographing for film that you don't get in a more traditional company studio setting?

First of all, you often create movement on actors. You learn how to speak their own language in terms of images. It's a different language than I would use with dancers.

Once you get on the set, you start breaking things down. So a dance like the one that we did—it was two and a half minutes or something like that—it was shot in eight hours. The great thing about TV and film is that you always have a chance to make it better on the spot. Whereas once my dancers get onstage, you just have to let go, and, obviously, it's up to them and it's hands off. In TV and film, it's constantly me in front of the monitor sitting next to the director.

And the other aspect is that you're translating someone else's vision and not just your own. You always have to make sure that what you do in terms of movement serves the camera, serves the theme, serves the action, serves where they're coming from and where they're going in the script. You really have to make sure that you've done your homework.

On the set of The Shape of Water. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

What does it feel like to be associated with a movie that has so much buzz?

The whole excitement, for me, started actually at the screening for the crew. I can't believe how gorgeous this movie was, not to mention the cast. Then they got a Golden Lion in Venice, and that was the beginning of me thinking, Oh, this movie is gonna have legs. And next thing you know, seven Golden Globes nominations. Guillermo got the Golden Globe as a director. And then the 13 nominations for the Oscars. It's way beyond expectations.

For the Oscars, I'll be watching TV with a big smile on my face that night.

Show Comments ()
Ian Douglas; courtesy Sarah Haarmann. Performing with Pam Tanowitz Dance at The Joyce Theater

Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.

Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Age: 27
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College

Keep reading... Show less
Reframing high-stakes auditions as learning opportunities can make you a better auditioner. Photo by Jim Lafferty.

In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.

Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
How do you warmup? Photo by Jim Lafferty

For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.

Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.

According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Screenshot via YouTube

It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.

We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:

Keep reading... Show less
This year, IABD launched a new ballet audition for men of color

Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.

The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Students participated in all aspects of Veränderung, from choreography to costumes. Photo by Uwe Stratmann, Courtesy Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
BalletMet in company class onstage before a show. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet

Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.

She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.

But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
PC Lydia Daniller, Courtesy Dorsey

I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?

The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.

Keep reading... Show less
via Facebook

The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.

Keep reading... Show less
Former NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins resigned in January in the midst of an investigation into allegations of harassment and abuse. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.

The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.

Keep reading... Show less


Viral Videos



Get Dance Magazine in your inbox