Monica Bill Barnes has made a name for herself by creating whimsical, heartfelt, humorous shows for her company. Recently, she took a step back from the director's chair to tackle a very different kind of project: choreographing Greta Gerwig's new Little Women, due for theatrical release December 25. Louisa May Alcott's beloved Reconstruction Era novel, telling the coming-of-age story of the four March sisters, is being brought to life by an all-star cast including Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet.
How did you become involved with this project?
Greta came to see the company maybe five years ago, and we kept in touch. I think that as a performer she's interested in the same things I am: using humility and revealing flaws as a way of having an audience empathize.
Do you have a personal connection to Little Women?
My mom read Little Women to me when I was probably 9 or 10. I figure it's one of the most beautiful stories about the different choices women have to make.
What role does dance play in the film?
Greta wanted the dancing to be a part of the storytelling, not just a beautiful backdrop. There's one duet with Jo and Laurie [played by Ronan and Chalamet] that happens outside when they're escaping a party. It has moments that reference the social dancing they would have known, but it's more just how they would have moved as people. It's a moment and relationship expressed through movement, which is what I'm really interested in.
How did you go about incorporating Reconstruction Era social dance?
I told Greta early on that if she was looking for someone to create period pieces, I wasn't that person. She said that everything in the film's aesthetic is going to indicate that it's 1880, but every feeling will be contemporary. It started with me and Flannery Gregg, my associate choreographer, in a studio playing all the parts. We'd learn the basics of a polka, and then we would build on those ideas.
Your choreography is very tied to music. How did that differ when working in film?
All of the dancing is set to music that I selected, and then in the editing process, the music is being composed. There's something called the "Grand March," in one of the party scenes, which I set to David Bowie. I really like the energy, and the way that the movement was contrasting the music; those things feel so central to the way I work. There's also this amazing German beer hall scene where you really do feel like you're in 1880, and then The Go-Go's come blasting in.
Monica Bill Barnes on the set of Little Women
Wilson Webb, Courtesy Sony Pictures
What was it like choreographing on Hollywood actors?
I'm always trying to understand how to infuse meaning into the movement, so to see the actors try to immediately integrate the characters' points of view was wonderful. Saoirse encountered everything with such clarity and intelligence. And that was true of Timothée and Emma Watson, too. I really admire the way they learned the material through their characters' personalities.
What do you think it will be like to see it in theaters?
I think it's going to be a magnificent movie, so at some point I'll forget that I've choreographed it, and just get wrapped up in the story. If I've done a good job, the larger world won't even see it as choreography; it'll all blend into the reality of these characters' lives.