(a conversation to music)
by Tom George Hammond
In this feature, we invite creatives to speak about an album of their choosing – it can be recent work, a new discovery, or a long-standing favourite – and see where the conversation takes us.
Polly Bennett is a movement director, choreographer and practitioner. We spoke about learning to move like Freddie Mercury, the evolution of Elvis Presley, and the joys of watching Simon Russell Beale dance the twist. Her album of choice was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
What made you chose the album?
It’s undoubtedly my most listened to album. It’s the album that always calms me down but also dances me out of bed. And I guess their story and their individual stories is part of my story of being interested in why people move the way that they do. I remember seeing Stevie Nicks on television when I was very small, and thinking; “what the hell is that? How is she doing that?” For me, a little girl who spent pretty much every day at a dance class spinning around, here was a grown-up spinning around too, and I could see myself in her performance. I bought a record player in my late teens, and bought Rumours as an LP, and suddenly found myself listening to it all the way through and listening to the story of it and the turmoil of it over and over. I watched the documentary about the making of Rumours, and then became obsessed about these five people who had these interlacing relationships, and troubles, and marriages, and divorces, and hatred and spats. That all fed into their work and how they presented themselves. They didn’t let their feelings derail their music, rather they embraced it to enrich it.
As someone who has anatomized the way that musicians and icons have physically come to be, what do you think of the association between great art and emotional difficulty?
I think reflection leads to great art. There have been days where I have been incredibly sad about something, and I have been so good at my job. I don’t think that’s an accident. There are times where a greater sense of self helps you to override your pain. There have also been times where I’ve been very happy and also been brilliant at my job. When making a creative thing, I often think that you first meet yourself, and then you meet the story of what you’re making. You find yourself in that story. There have been plays I’ve worked on which I feel like I don’t have an affiliation with, and then you read them with the lens of your own life, and suddenly it means something. For Rumours, they were meeting themselves, reflecting, and then sharing themselves with us. The reason things survive, and this has survived, is when they’ve been built with experience and made with love. With Rumours, their relationships didn’t necessarily survive, but musically they had a lot of respect for each other. If you have respect for your collaborators and fellow artists, something amazing will always happen.
Do you often have to deal with actors or performers who consider themselves ‘not physical’?
We are all physical – we’re animals at the end of the day. Yet what I find, when I’m training or coaching anybody, part of what I’m doing is moving aside the self-doubt and the self-consciousness that has stopped people from acknowledging that. When someone says; “I’m not a mover”, what are they actually doing there? They’re using language which prevents themselves from committing to opportunities. What I’ve noticed, in my development as a practitioner, if you can collaborate with people that have a different focus to you, then you will be a stronger artist.
So do you quite regularly come across actors who will say “I’m not a mover”?
Yes, but I also meet a lot of people who are like that. If you enter a room and know that someone in there will ‘move you’, it can feel quite vulnerable and people will put their defences up. But I will guarantee that by the end of the session, people will say; “I’ve never felt like that before”, or “I’ve never thought about that before”. It’s reminding people that their body isn’t just something that carries their head from place to place. We carry a lot of stories, and tensions, and thoughts, and ideas, and our histories in our bodies.
On “stories” in movement, I was thinking of Bohemian Rhapsody, and the story of how Freddie Mercury walks. Was your role on that film to help construct that story?
The role was like being a physical investigator – almost like doing a dissertation on a specialist subject. I had to find out as much as is true about Freddie’s physical existence; find out where he lived, what he ate, what he wore to school– all the things that would distinguish his physical makeup from my physical makeup. It was about trying to extract those facts, and then see if I could find corresponding signals of them in the existing footage of Freddie. Then I would make up stories of Freddie’s movement for Rami that would fire up his synapses as an actor – with the aim of getting Freddie’s movement under the skin, right in the core of the character, rather than existing as something just pasted on top.
It’s very difficult to inhabit a character that vividly at any point in time, but the fact that the film covers such a large span of his life, and you see his evolution and the little nuances and changes building up to Live Aid –
Which must have been impossible to choreograph, because that sequence at Live Aid was done with such accuracy.
It was extraordinary, because no one had outright said to me, “that’s what we’re aiming for” – it just gradually happened through these very light administrative conversations! So gradually through belief in us as a team and the way the plan for the filming of the scene was coming together, it dawned on me that that is what the producers were after. Now in my mind it could never be that Rami and I just sat together watching the Live Aid footage over and over again and trying to replicate it: that’s risky because simply copying would look set and learned, kind of like when you can tell when a child has traced a picture rather than drawn it. So I watched Live Aid first and foremost to find signature rhythms and help build a vocabulary of movement had to train Rami up to make the movement appear habitual.We had an amazing three or four weeks, when Rami was still doing Mr. Robot in New York, and I flew over to work with him in any hour when he wasn’t on set. After this preliminary work suddenly I was able to start giving him passages of movement that he could just do. And for someone who wouldn’t have professed himself to be a ‘mover’, the boy was suddenly full on picking up full phrases of Freddie Mercury. So what you see on screen was the result of a lot of foundation work, and before we knew it, he could do the whole thing. That’s kudos to his brain, and also to the work and effort that was put in those early stages. And looking back, it taught me a process; I’m not going to focus on the big picture, the final stage, it’s about the little things. Does that make sense?
Working on helping an actor transform into Elvis Presley at the moment, God’s honest truth, there have been times where I’ve thought; “this is impossible.” Elvis has a whole other movement language and equally the actor has a huge challenge to pull off. Then, actually, having had a conversation with Rami a couple of weeks ago, we were laughing about all the mad exercises I made him do and he said “just remember the little things.” That was very helpful to have him remind me, having been through it all, to focus on all the things that make up a person not the shiny end product. That can be overwhelming.
If I can ask about Elvis, are you doing a similar thing of trying to recapture his physicality?
Yes I am. It’s exactly the same really; here’s an actor, turn him into Elvis Presley.
And how does one do that?
Study, watch, read, imagine. Study, watch, read, imagine. Elvis for me has been more challenging, because he’s further away from me. I didn’t really grow up watching him and whilst I admire him, I’ve not really engaged with his story before. I’ve had to really train myself, at the Polly Bennett University, to sit down with him and really give him time and space to become a real person in my mind. And it’s a similar thing, with Austin – who’s playing Elvis – of getting in a room and building up a vocabulary of material. And of course, with Elvis, because he’s so recognisable – there are contests around the world for Elvis lookalikes, it’s extraordinary how many people project his legacy through movement, it can be intimidating. So I must focus in on the smaller pieces of the jigsaw; why does he move the way he does? Where did he grow up? What music did he listen to? When was he around Beale Street? He was fundamentally a white boy growing up in a black neighbourhood, and that was the dichotomy of his life. It’s a painstaking but beautiful process. We were actually about to start shooting, then all this happened.
It’s such a strange time to be talking about film, or any projects in that world, so we probably can’t talk about No Time to Die in any great detail-
I guess, because it hasn’t come out. But the thing about Bond was Rami recognised he could use physical work in another sphere, and sort of in reverse, because it was a question of what story do we want this person’s body to tell, and doing it with the same actor was very exciting.
There’s been some speculation that this current crisis might be an existential threat to cinema, as an industry or as an activity – and I hope that’s wrong, of course – but I was just wondering what your opinion was on that?
I was thinking the other day, with everything being cancelled in film, theatre, and television, that on the other side of this there will be an absolute renaissance. After this, I think people will want to go the cinema – we might have to sit in weird configurations – but people are going to want to go and share space with each other and be transported. People want to be entertained and will always want to be entertained. One of the joys of my career is that I also work in theatre. And theatre has survived centuries so I am hopeful film and television will too.
One of my favourite moments in theatre recently was the dance sequence in The Lehman Trilogy–
Mainly because it was Simon Russell Beale doing the twist, wasn’t it? That was such a fun thing to do; working with Sam Mendes, who is a film director working on a play – he’s not one without the other, but he directed it like a film, and it was an inspiring thing to witness.
There was something quite cinematic about The Lehman Trilogy, just in the scale of it, and the spectacle of it. You also worked on Pomona, and there’s a sense in Alistair McDowall’s writing of bringing elements of classic, old Hollywood cinema into a theatrical space.
Pomona was one of the first things I did. I got recommended to do the job through some friends that I knew from the National Youth Theatre, who had met the director, Ned Bennett, at drama school. It was in the early days when we all didn’t really know what our jobs were. Meeting Ned was a very key point in my career. Ali McDowall’s writing is so inventive and dystopian, and it was hard, because the scenes are mixed up and out of chronology. The rehearsal room was such a hub, and we still laugh about all the weird things we tried to do, because the play was such a gauntlet. It had no answer to it. You had to keep inventing, and to dream up lots of things, to give the actors enough structure to work with. It was a very formative experience, in that sense, because at no point could I decide; “this is the choreography or movement”. It had to be a responsive, moving, changing beast, which has laid the foundations of me being on a filmset, where things change every minute. All of my work in film has been fostered by my training in theatre.
So The Mono Box, on the subject of training, the idea behind that is to provide actors with a continuing space to train and learn?
Yeah. This started when me and my best mate Joan, who I met at the National Youth Theatre, came out of university a bit confused about what to do next. I had done History of Art at university and been working in a variety of jobs after that, but there was no full-time job there. All of the things that the world told you would happen after university weren’t quite happening. But I was also occasionally choreographing a dance for someone or delivering workshops for young people in prisons. I was doing little hodgepodge things of movement, and Joan was doing the same thing but with acting. And we just started writing to people and asking them to donate plays to us, largely because we couldn’t afford to buy them to read, and the people who came back were like Caryl Churchill and Olivia Colman – these big dogs who started sending us plays. And now we have a collection of over 4000 plays, and we have a studio space, and we run workshops and shared opportunities. Being an actor or being a director or anyone in the performing industries can be really difficult. And we’ve responded by providing a place where people can try something new, and also feed into the things that they’ve trained in already. We’ve got this idea that, if you do drama school, you win. But if you’re an actor, how do you hone your craft afterwards? How do you keep active when you’re not working? It’s something that started as a small idea, and has got bigger and bigger and bigger, and especially now there are a lot of people who rely on it, and the ideas of it, and the community of it.
Being at the entry level of the theatre world, on the one hand it’s very open; there are always opportunities and applications, but it’s also quite a lonely world to navigate, because there genuinely may not be a career to be found at all, you can’t just wait your turn for it to happen. It’s very nice that there are people, like yourself, who are carving out spaces for people to keep learning and meet other people.
I’ve said this before, but I wish I had something like The Mono Box when I was growing up. I wish there was somebody who had told me that my hobby could become my job. I wish I’d had that. I think Joan and I, and the team at The Mono Box, have become that for a lot of young people. A big part of what I’m trying to do is be a guide, and someone who can show that the work you do is possible, and varied, and that you can define it.
Was this your dream career, or is it something that you just enjoyed doing?
It completely makes sense as my career now, but even five or six years ago I would have said; “I don’t know what I’m doing”. It goes back to what I was saying about Freddie Mercury; everything that made him him, was everything that came before. I was a dancer, and I would choreograph things for school plays, or I would write something in the school playground and get people to perform it. And even doing History of Art at university, that is all about a painting’s composition, and the ways stories are told, and the ways bodies are held. I remember my parents saying; “what are you doing? Why are you doing this subject?” But I saw that there was something in it. I didn’t know what ‘it’ was. But there was. And it was at university where I started working with models in fashion shows, which basically turned me to working with models in television adverts. There was a Special K advert that I was working as a production assistant on – I went to work in TV after I graduated – and the model couldn’t walk in time to music. And everyone went batshit crazy because she kept falling into water – she was walking on a glass platform above a swimming pool, and she kept falling in. And of course, the reset of the world’s most beautiful woman, and her hair, was costing the production a lot of money. So I stepped out and said, “can I help?” And because they had nothing really to lose at that moment I ended up working with this girl for about twenty minutes, and I found out she liked horse riding, so we walked like a horse, and suddenly she could walk in time to music. And she was smoking, because she was on her wits end, and I told her to blow her cigarette out for 8 counts, and she could do it. It’s finding the way that people think about movement. And this was something I had always been doing – like pretending to be Stevie Nicks – just no one had been paying me for it. So now all of these little things make sense. I didn’t know this was a job, it didn’t seem like a tangible thing when I was starting out. And now it is. It makes sense.
Final question; should the Fleetwood Mac biopic come out, who would be your dream casting for Stevie Nicks?
Oh my God. Me, of course! I have spent most of my life trying to grow my hair and carry of having a fringe to be like Stevie Nicks. I think it’s imperative. I have watched her so much, that if they didn’t actually wanted to cast *an actor* I wouldn’t have to do much work to prepare myself! The way that woman moves and inhabits her music, I could just watch it for days, because she’s just so unabashed, there’s no doubt there. She’s like; “this is what I’ve made, this is what I am, these are the witchy things I like, this is the chiffon that I like, yes I’m wearing platform shoes and I’m going to spin my heart out.” There’s no gimmick there, she’s just herself, singing her amazing songs. I may be an awful actor but I’d give the movement a good bash!