What It's Like to Choreograph a Dance-Only Episode on HBO

August 31, 2017

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.