Meet the Man Behind Hugh Jackman's Moves in "The Greatest Showman"
A schoolgirl's ballet recital, prancing circus horses, a Fred-and-Ginger ballroom homage, an aerial duet, even sheets flapping on laundry lines—in the new movie musical The Greatest Showman, Ashley Wallen choreographs them all, in service to a big, fanciful story based on the ups and downs of legendary 19th-century impresario P.T. Barnum. With Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron and Zendaya starring and dancing, songs by the Oscar- and Tony-winning composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a huge ensemble that includes "18 amazing dancers," conjoined twins, a man with three legs, and Barnum's other assorted sideshow attractions, Wallen calls it "a dream come true."
Choreographer Ashley Wallen on set. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.
It took nearly eight years, beginning long before La La Land showed Hollywood that there was once again an audience for original film musicals, and well before anyone had heard of Pasek and Paul. Director Michael Gracey had never made a feature film, though he was well-known in commercial circles. Wallen had been a dancer in Moulin Rouge, but his stock in trade was also commercials, along with music videos and pop-star tours. It was in 2009 that Wallen, Gracey and Jackman first worked together, on a soft-drink commercial set in a Tokyo hotel. Jackman, dancing all the way, moves through the lobby, the kitchen, a shallow rooftop pool and then back to the lobby via an obstacle course of flapping sheets wielded by maids.
Elements of that tone, camerawork and choreography have echoes in The Greatest Showman, and Wallen, who's called Ash, acknowledges it. "The way we shoot those dance numbers is very much the same as what we do in commercials," he says. But he emphasizes the differences: "We've got a lot more story to tell in the film, and we've got longer to develop the characters and their journey with the dancers."
Barnum's journey, which took him from a hardscrabble Connecticut boyhood to great wealth and international fame, has inspired other films, as well as the 1980 Broadway musical Barnum. But Greatest Showman is less about the details of the promoter's biography—he died in 1891, at 80—than it is a celebration of his pluck and his hoopla-happy sensibility. Imbued with Jackman's innate charm, Barnum is a dreamer and a born entertainer, with an all-embracing view of humanity and a distinct flair for the eye-popping production number.
Despite the 19th-century trappings, the movie's songs and dances are unapologetically modern—"contemporary with a classic vibe to it," Wallen says. Most classic are its two lyrical duets, one on a New York tenement rooftop and the other airborne above an empty circus arena. In the first, Barnum and his wife, played by Michelle Williams, send the children off to bed and share a tender, soaring dance amid the clotheslines. In the second, Barnum's circus partner, Zac Efron, is entranced by one of the performers, a beautiful trapeze artist portrayed by Zendaya, and they end up in a dizzying aerial embrace. Throughout the movie, the camera flies and dances too, spiraling among the circus acts and the audience, hovering over the big ensembles and the intimate couples alike.
The overhead shot in the three-ring extravaganza that closes the movie, Wallen says, was "a nightmare" to shoot, "because everyone has to be so perfect, and in a perfect place. Perfect!" With floor measurements determining everyone's precise spot, as well as special accommodations for a Bearded Lady and her "massive, big dress," a Three-Legged Man lugging his extra equipment, and the Siamese Twins, two actors co-habiting a single costume, the retakes mounted up—"You see one person out, and your eye goes straight towards them," Wallen notes. "And we had confetti falling at the same time. We had so many elements to push through to get it right."
The Australian-born choreographer was awed by the work the film's stars put into getting their elements right. He says the grueling rehearsals with Williams left her sore, while Jackman's insistence on "going over and over and over" things left Wallen tired. Their duet on the roof, even after a luxurious eight weeks of rehearsal, was a difficult shoot, too. "There are big lifts, and Michelle's tall. It's beautiful, but it's actually quite athletic as well...and then we had to do the timing with the sheets," he says. The dancing sheets are among the film's many digitized effects—no animals were harmed, or even used, to film the CGI tigers and elephants. Wallen did help with the horses in the circus parade, though, and he laughs when he realizes, "I should add them to my resumé."
The cast and crew review footage with Wallen (center, in white). Courtesy 20th Century Fox.
His resumé is something of a three-ring circus already, featuring pop stars like Kylie Minogue and Mariah Carey, a 25,000-strong flash mob for Oprah, the West End and Broadway productions of Ghost the Musical, and dance-competition TV shows overseas. Now, with The Greatest Showman in theaters December 20, he's off to shoot some more music videos, and probably a lot more he doesn't know about yet. Barnum started out hyping a small person he named Tom Thumb and ended up marketing the concert singer Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale." So there's no predicting where Wallen's peripatetic talents will take him next—or if linens will be involved.
I don't understand why I've lost my motivation to dance at 20 years old. My parents have always encouraged me to have a life plan and ask continuously how my pre-professional training program is going. I feel crushed by their expectations. I'm actually relieved when I get injured and can't dance, even though I miss it.
—Confused, Nashville, TN
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With limited space for luggage on the tour bus, Justin Timberlake dancer Natalie Gilmore makes sure her beauty routine can pull double duty. "Most of the stuff I use day to day I also use onstage," she says, adding that the dancers do their own hair and makeup for every show. "They give us a lot of freedom to use what we want, and I really enjoy getting to play with new products and experiment with different looks." That same freedom she has with her look carries over into her performance. "There's a lot of freestyle in the show," Gilmore says. "We have certain places we need to be, but we're able to map out how we want things to flow—I have a lot of fun with it."
As a dancer going through a mental health challenge, loneliness can feel like your only companion. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Steven Loch has managed obsessive-compulsive disorder since middle school, and for nearly a decade felt too scared to speak up. "We feel like if we say something people will be horrified by some of the thoughts that we are having," he says.
But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the U.S. experiences a mental illness each year. Psychologists say that in competitive environments like the dance studio—where perfectionism can make you feel like you're never good enough, and an injury can suddenly strip you of your identity—this likelihood may increase.
Last summer I shared my own story of quitting dance due to untreated depression on the Dance Magazine website. It was met with an outpouring of support and camaraderie that I found both affirming and terrifying. A few weeks later, the magazine published an online survey to learn more about dancer attitudes around the need for mental health support. Readers submitted more than 1,000 comments, demonstrating that these struggles are very much a shared experience.
Considering the demands of a career in dance, it isn't surprising that many professionals find romance in the rehearsal studio. With taxing schedules, perfectionist tendencies and quirky habits, it can be challenging to find true love outside of the art form. We spoke with three non-dancer spouses to hear what it's like sharing their life with professionals from ballet to Broadway.
As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was "normal." My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.
Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti
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The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!
But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.
Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:
Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?
We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.
At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.
Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.
Usually, it takes new recruits a few seasons to make their mark at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But Taylor wasted no time in honing in on the talents of Alex Clayton. Only a few months after Clayton joined in June 2017, Taylor created an exciting solo for him in his new Concertiana, filled with explosive leaps and quick footwork. Clayton was also featured in new works by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. At 5' 6" he may be compact, but onstage he fills the space with a thrilling sense of attack.
Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.
In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.
Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.
A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.
People have a tendency to think of dance as purely physical and not intellectual. But when we separate movement from intellect, we limit what dance can do for the world.
It's not hard to see that dance is thought of as less than other so-called "intellectual pursuits." How many dancers have been told they should pursue something "more serious"? How many college dance departments don't receive funding on par with theater or music departments, much less science departments?
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.
Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.
In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.
Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.
Ryan Steele has a simple rule for demanding days on Broadway: "I listen to my body," he says. "I have whatever I'm craving: If I need more protein, I go straight for that. If I'm tired, I know I need carbs."
This wasn't always Steele's approach. Growing up, shuttling between the studio and school meant relying on McDonald's and Burger King.
For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.
In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.