Before working on the upcoming film The Adjustment Bureau, Emily Blunt didn’t know a plié from a port de bras. She had taken a single lesson when she was 4, but quit in a bratty fit because her feet hurt. So to play the lead dancer with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet who falls for Matt Damon, she had a lot of catching up to do. Originally the director, George Nolfi, wanted a professional dancer for the part—or at least an actress who could dance. At the time Blunt was neither. And she had no idea what she was in for.
The Adjustment Bureau, which opens nationwide next spring, is a science-fiction thriller with ultra-hip dance sequences. Cedar Lake’s involvement in the film began when Nolfi decided he needed an “outside of the box” group, says artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer. In 2006, on the recommendation of a friend, Nolfi saw the company perform Pouffer’s installation piece, Glassy Essence. It was just the company he was looking for.
Since its founding in 2003 by Nancy Laurie, a Wal-Mart heir, Cedar Lake (one of our 2008 “25 to Watch”) has become known for its highly technical dancers and for commissioning and staging works by progressive international choreographers, such as Angelin Preljocaj, Crystal Pite, and Ohad Naharin.
Pouffer built the film’s dance sequences around movement from Glassy Essence. “Nolfi wanted something athletic and challenging but with edginess,” says Pouffer. “For Glassy Essence the audience stood in the middle of the room, wandering around. It was a 360 degrees performance.” Translate that to the big screen and the audience feels that many things are happening at once.
Blunt came aboard after convincing Nolfi and Pouffer that she could play a dancer. “It’s a complex love story and George realized he probably needed an actress,” says Blunt. “I thought an actor could learn to dance. I underestimated how much work it actually was. People have a cavalier attitude towards what really goes into it.”
Though she skipped the student phase, Blunt’s had a life-long love for dance—from the audience. “I was always fascinated watching people dance,” she says. “I find it a very emotional thing to witness.” When we interviewed her last April, she’d just seen a flamenco performance by “powerhouse women” in Madrid and she confessed that she is “kind of obsessed about Dancing with the Stars.”
Blunt herself dances with quiet confidence and whole body awareness. If she’s moving quickly, there’s a deliberate but soft interplay between what she’s physically doing and what she seems to be feeling. It’s that relationship which some dancers work years to attain.
So how did Pouffer take an absolute novice and create a body capable of real movement quality? It was a process that wasn’t without a little bit of Hollywood magic.
“I put her in boot camp,” says Pouffer. For the month before shooting began, Blunt spent 90 minutes each morning working with a Tracy Anderson Method personal trainer (the method Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow tout). Afterwards she’d spend an additional two hours in the Cedar Lake studio with Pouffer. During production she’d hit the gym as well as work with Pouffer every minute she could between scenes.
“My body changed dramatically,” she says. “I got muscle-ly—especially in my upper body and back. I was shooting a running scene with Matt Damon and they did the shot from behind. He saw my back and was like, ‘Jesus! It looks like you’ve got snakes underneath there!’ I even changed the way I ate during the filming. As soon as we finished shooting the film I wanted a burger!”
Getting in shape was easier than getting over her anxiety. “I turned up on the first day in black tights and a leotard,” says Blunt. “They were all in sweatpants and baggy T-shirts, looking so cool. These guys are the rebels of ballet. Once I’d figured the wardrobe out, that was a start. That was something I could control.”
Sessions with Pouffer weren’t typical ballet classes but they began at the barre with half an hour of stretching and ports de bras. Pouffer tailored their work to Blunt’s needs. “I wanted to see what would look good on her body,” he says. “When she came to me she was so worried. But I was surprised because she would do amazing things not knowing that a lot of people can’t do them. Then she’d get stuck on simple things because of her preconceived ideas about dancing and dancers.”
Pouffer sidetracked Blunt’s nerves by exhausting her. “I made her tired,” he says. “We did a lot of exercise those first few days. And she started sweating and sweating. I wasn’t asking her to prove something to me. I was asking her to move with me. By putting the music loud, making her feel safe, having no mirrors, it became just about us. She was getting into it little by little even though it was hard for her body. She was very dedicated. She had a lot of pains and aches.”
As Blunt grew more confident she came to depend on Pouffer. “He wanted it to become like second nature,” says Blunt. “With acting there’s room for interpretation. But with dance I didn’t know what I was talking about. I had to allow myself to be led by Swan and give myself over to that.”
Doubt still crept in. “I knew Cedar Lake didn’t want me to misrepresent their company,” says Blunt. “I wanted to do them justice. I’d think ‘I can’t do that.’ And Swan would say, ‘You must try again! You have to keep trying.’ There were times when I’d feel foolish by the time I’d manage to do the move. But he’d say, ‘You see? I believe in you, Emily. I believe in you! I wouldn’t push you if I didn’t.’ It was the first time I’ve had to do something so alien, day in and day out, against my instincts.”
Blunt learned three pieces for the film: a solo, a duet, and a group number. “The solo has a driving momentum to it,” says Blunt. “It’s an exciting moment in the film, but it was exhausting. After I finished, I’d just hit the deck.” The duet was Blunt’s first experience dancing with a partner—Cedar Lake’s powerful Jason Kittelberger. “It’s slower, very romantic,” Blunt says.
Pouffer encouraged Blunt to bond with his dancers. “I wanted her to see how they behaved when rehearsing for six hours a day,” he says. “I’d leave her alone just to talk with them.”
When asked who was more self-critical, dancers or actors, Blunt answered, “Dancers, maybe, because they need to have precision. You know when a foot’s wrong or an arm looks weird. The clarity at which they witness themselves is tough at times. And they spend every hour of the day in front of a mirror. I don’t know if I would want to do that.”
Whenever Blunt began to get caught up with how she looked, Pouffer stepped in. “Swan would say, ‘Stop trying to make it pretty. Just mean something,’ ” recalls Blunt. “That’s what’s beautiful about this choreography. There’s a rawness to it. You can’t help but respond to it, even if you don’t quite know why. Maybe you don’t have to know why.”
Blunt also admires the dancers’ tenacity. “Jason never limits himself,” she says. “He pushes and pushes for more. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Another dancer Blunt bonded with is Acacia Schachte. This is where the Hollywood magic comes in. “Acacia doubled me for some of the jumps,” says Blunt. “One day Acacia told me that the reason she loves this movement is because everything you go through in life can come out in the dance. I loved that. I can see that it’s an outlet for her and that’s why her movement is so riveting.”
Now Cedar Lake’s dancers are Blunt’s life-long friends. “I can’t help but feel connected to them,” she says. “Acacia says that dancers are weirdos. So are actors! We’re all weirdos for doing this. But they’re very much a unit and are generally very happy. I’d feel safe taking a class with them because they know I’m doing the best I can. I had a family there.”
Khara Hanlon is associate editor of Dance Magazine.
Pictured: Matthew Rich, Emily Blunt, Nickemil Concepcion, and Acacia Schachte. Photo by Matthew Karas.