Meet The Movement Coach Who Helped Rami Malek Transform Into Freddie Mercury
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
What Exactly Is a Movement Director?
Although the profession seems to be more common in the UK than in the US, movement direction is the oversight of the "physical life" of productions, says Bennett.
"It can expand from things like actual choreography and scene changes and character work—if someone's playing something far away from them like a pregnant or disabled character—to working with the actors on character choices and identity tricks," she says. Bennett has worked as a movement director on everything from productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company to plays on the West End to TV shows like "The Crown."
How Movement Direction Differs from Choreography
Working with actors rather than dancers, a movement director's primary goal is to enable performers to do what's asked of them, rather than just setting movement phrases.
"You're creating a dialogue between the actor and their character, so it's a lot of research about the world in which the story is told," says Bennett. That includes everything from the temperature of the place to the rhythm of life there to what it's like to walk on that landscape. "You have to be able to offer information to the actors so that their imagination goes wild."
The Biggest Challenge on Bohemian Rhapsody
Bennett was brought on to coach Malek just after he was offered the part of Freddie Mercury. "I had to find out ways to make this impossible task possible for an actor with very limited experience in movement," she says. "Everyone says Freddie Mercury was the world's greatest performer—that can ruin an actor's imagination. Because how can you actualize that? That's not a very helpful thought."
To make it happen, Bennett set to work investigating why Mercury moved the way he did so that Malek's movement could be spontaneous, not choreographed. She found out biographical details: Mercury had been a boxer growing up, he was an excellent long distance runner and enjoyed playing golf. "I could work with Rami to get him to run for a long time, get him to box, get himself limber and agile and able to change direction very quickly like a boxer does," she says. "That way he could use his body as if he'd lived in Freddie's body for 30 to 40 years."
The film covers a span of 16 years, so Bennett and Malek also had to investigate how Mercury's movements changed over time. "Freddie's discovery of being a gay man means his relationship to people changed," explains Bennett. "You look at him in the '70s and his movements are quite flaunted and pose-y, then you look at him in 1985 where he's really grounded into the floor, and very, very athletic."
What It Was Like Re-creating that Iconic Live Aid Concert
The film ends with Queen's 21-minute set at Live Aid in 1985, which might be one of the most famous rock performances of all time. The producers wanted to create an exact replica, a task that Bennett says was "mental."
That's because she had to identify and articulate to Malek every time Mercury turned his head, stepped over the microphone, clapped his hands, made eye contact with a band member, wiped his forehead—none of it on particular counts of the music. And none of it could look choreographed, because it wasn't.
"Rami says he watched the concert video 1,000 times. I guarantee I beat him on that one," says Bennett, laughing.
She studied the footage to find reasons why Mercury would make certain movements when he did so that Malek could make it look natural. "And then some things have absolutely no reason whatsoever and that's really difficult—he's stepping over the microphone lead, turning around and unwrapping the microphone lead without touching it with his hands. It's mad!"
Bennett jokes that she and Malek now know every second so well that they can bring the whole set out as a party trick for the rest of their lives. (We want to be at their Christmas party!)
Bennett's Advice for Other Dancers Interested in Movement Coaching
Having grown up training in dance, Bennett recommends that dancers interested in this line of work start by simply being inquisitive about their own physical process. "There are other ways of looking at the things you know as a dancer," she says. "There's a role to look after people's bodies, and it takes someone who knows how to talk about movement. Just because you're not a dancing dancer doesn't mean you don't have something to give."
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Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.