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National Theatre Blog

Julie | Creating Movement with Ann Yee

 Julie at the National Theatre

Movement Director and Choreographer Ann Yee’s incredible array of work includes musicals, opera, new writing and more. Her work on plays has included Birdland at the Royal Court, Mr Burns at the Almeida, Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre/Chichester Festival Theatre and Julie, now playing at the NT. Here she tells us more about her role in bringing this new version of Julie to life. 

How would you describe the movement in Julie? Particularly in the party scenes.

The party scenes aim to feel feral, free and ecstatic. There are bodies and arms and legs flying everywhere, flinging energy into the space, into the light, into the projections. Random balloons are released and tables that are upright in one scene end up overturned in the next. There are people hanging off other people and still dancing. There is a privilege, an entitlement, to the partygoers that forsakes respect or awareness of environment and takes whatever it wants to pursue needs, appetite, enjoyment. They ride the pulsing rhythm of the music, which feels like a dark form of electricity with an incredible bass filtered through something that once might have been familiar, even popular. It’s all simultaneously recognisable and other. The dancers are extraordinary, and without their individual and specific interpretation of the material the back room would feel one dimensional. Carrie, Polly and I were all on the same page – that the back room had to be everything that Julie thought she wanted and everything that made her feel isolated and lonely at the same time.  

The movement between Julie, Jean and Kristina was more about intention and space, sexual permission and power, intimate permission and fear. They did intricate dances of nuance… In addition to many other things, Polly was exploring how grey the lines get between employer and employees in 2018, in comparison to the original version when the distinctions were much clearer.  Vanessa does a lot of staging on top of everything – climbing over the table, around glasses, over the benches and on the kitchen counters. All barefoot. She’s trying to find space, a place, anywhere to feel herself, but she never does. There is a great moment in the piece where she knocks a glass off the counter and it smashes all over the floor and you know she is going to step in it because she is trying to find something painful, something meaningful. Sometimes pain gives things meaning. Jean and Kristina both work in the kitchen but it’s not their home and you can tell by the way they negotiate it. And you can tell by the positioning Kristina takes when she addresses Julie and Jean at the end of the play that the space doesn’t belong to her.

What inspired the movement in Julie?

A number of things, and to be honest, it’s all chicken and egg. If you spoke to Carrie or Stu (our composer) or Chris Shutt (our sound designer) we would all ask the same thing – was the movement inspiring the music or was the music inspiring the movement? Then there’s the world – we needed to establish that for this production, we were in the city with the wealthy young privileged people. When we cast the dancers we knew that we had to believe in their wealth, their access to these crazy nights; the way they moved meant we had to believe they could lose themselves in it until 3, 4, 5am, or even all night. 

There were a lot of stories passed around the creative team and the dancers about what these parties felt like, wild stories from their own lives. We watched a few YouTube references from films that might inform the ideas of privilege and opulence, of wild abandon. Anything from a handheld phone video of a coked-up rave to the stylised aesthetic of the film The Great Beauty. We did research into the types of highs, lows, drugs... the repetitive gestures, or the pulsing, or the singular zone you could get into.

How do you work with the director Carrie Cracknell in the rehearsal room?

With Carrie, everything is collaborative, creative and respectful. She dives deep into the events and intentions in the script, the character history and development. There are immense amounts of improvisation, both for the staging of the scenes and the staging of the choreography. There are constant revelations about character and dramaturgy, which we couldn’t find without these explorations. She is tireless in trying to find the deepest and truest intentions. She leads with openness and kindness. She is absolutely in charge while being a servant to bringing out the best in her collaborators.

I think I am similar, and consider myself a servant to the piece, listening to it, trying to find the best way to bring it to the stage.  We hired artists, makers, actors, dancers and performers with rich and tangible inner lives. I believe that is what makes theatre compelling, and not just familiar. We listen to each other, and it’s my role to guide, to see the way forward, to offer those solutions and to pave the way for better ones. Carrie is adamant that the best idea wins. The humanity is present, full of energy, full of contribution, full of care and passion. However… the tricky thing in collaborative situations is that leaders still must lead. Their vision must be dependable and powerful, and their voice clear and when necessary, the punctuation on the idea. And that is the room we both strive to create. 

Is it a collaborative process between yourself and the actors in terms of devising the movement?

Yes, especially for something like this, where it needs to feel as if the movement is made up on the spot and that none of these characters at this party are professionally trained dancers. But it still requires the heightened choreographic element that makes it theatre, which enables the back room to set up and frame the urban atmosphere of the action in the kitchen. We managed to create three core phrases that felt true to party movement then used all types of choreographic tools - floor patterns, tempo, levels, relationship, repetition - to evolve the vocabulary of those three phrases as the night got drunker, druggier, more lost. This is an immensely talented group of people; for them, I created a warm up and exercises to unlock what was necessary for this piece, a way of listening and responding to each other in our exercises that gave us a safe platform to improvise on a choreographed structure of set events. So it’s set enough to light, to be consistent for staging, but not set enough to feel known. It wants to feel like constant discovery. 

We went through each person’s character, how they knew Julie, how they ended up at the party, what they wanted from each other and how interactions would change them… The improvisations that I spoke of earlier informed all the sections, and to be honest, there are really excellent sections of choreography that never made it to the stage. Sometimes to keep the narrative tension, one has to let those moments go… We had created a line dance, something that could be believably unison but strange, as if it was in Julie’s nightmare or her dream. You see a fraction of what we created. When we first shared it with the room, the room responded with pure joy. I think it will remain our little secret now… 

Julie is playing in the Lyttelton Theatre until Saturday 8 September 2018. Book a ticket here.

It will be broadcast live to a cinema near you with National Theatre Live on Thursday 6 September. Find your nearest cinema here.

Production photography by Richard Hubert Smith