Gabriela Dumitrescu holds a BA in dance from the London Contemporary Dance School in London After graduating from LCDS, Gabriela worked as a dancer, very soon beginning to choreograph her first pieces. She moved to Berlin and began working as assistant director for a number of theater and opera directors at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden and other prestigious theaters. In addition to other projects, she choreographed “Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald” at Stadttheater Basel for renowned director Fred Berndt. In 2005, Dumitrescu choreographed dance scenes for Gabriela Tscherniak’s independent feature BERLIN NIGHTS. Since 2007, she has owned and directed a dance school for children Die KinderTanzSchule. In addition, Gabriela is the proud mother of three children and co-author of a historical novel. She continues to study ballet with master teacher Jo Siska.
In 2010, Gabriela choreographed several dance scenes for ANONYMOUS, the latest feature by Roland Emmerich (INDEPENDENCE DAY, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW) which was filmed in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany. Longtime DFA member Tanja Meding met with Gabriela to talk about her experience working for a Hollywood director and her thoughts on staging dance for the screen.
Tanja Meding: How did you get involved with ANONYMOUS?
Gabriela Dumitrescu: In 2007, Christian Leonhard, artistic director of the Shakespeare Company Berlin (SCB), staged “Romeo & Juliet” and invited me to choreograph several scenes for the piece. SCB`s actors are incredibly versatile. They always work with live music and the entire cast sings and plays all sorts of instruments. The company is very curious and open to learning new skills. And so it was very rewarding for me to work with them and include dance and stylized movement in the piece.
In January 2010, I received a phone call from Christian. He told me about Roland Emmerich’s latest feature film production, ANONYMOUS, which was going to be filmed in Berlin with some of SCB’s actors to be cast in smaller roles for the film. He said he would like to recommend me, as the production was looking for a choreographer. I met and interviewed with co-producer Kirstin Winkler, as well as British theater director Tamara Harvey—who staged the different theater scenes in the film—and was offered the job.
TM: What was your assignment?
GD: I was asked to choreograph two scenes in the movie: a dance at the Court of Queen Elisabeth, and the dance scene in “Romeo and Juliet”. Because ANONYMOUS is a historical thriller about Shakespeare and the question of who really wrote all his famous works, the film contains many different scenes from his vast body of work. Theater director Tamara Harvey was hired to stage the theater scenes for the film, and she was my point person. We had discussed that the choreography had to be historically accurate.
TM: How did you go about researching and creating your material?
GD: During my studies at LCDS, I took a course in historical dances taught by Belinda Quirey, a world-renowned expert of historical dances. I have always been interest in historical dance, so my research for ANONYMOUS was extremely enjoyable. Plus, my studies with Belinda Quirey also helped me to know what to look for. I was able to find all the original manuscripts by Renaissance dance masters Arbeau, Negri and Caroso online. I seriously wonder how anyone did research with tight deadlines before we had the Internet!
Once I had decided on a number of possible dances, I contacted Claire Van Kampen, musical adviser for ANONYMOUS. Claire, Tamara and I decided on “Branle du chandelier”, a dance that, at the time, was something of a hit at Queen Elizabeth’s court. As its title suggests, the dancers hold candles or torches in their hands, passing them on to one another as the dance progresses. I really wanted to work with candles, but had to do without them, as they created a problem for the camera.
For the “Branle du chandelier”, dancing master Arbeau describes a way of holding and moving the arms that is very unique in Renaissance Dance and offers endless choreographic possibilities. To make sure I understood Arbeau’s description correctly, I contacted a number of academic institutes specialized in historical dance around the world.
Luckily, the music for the “Branle du chandelier” was also suitable for the dance scene in “Romei & Juliet”, which I based on an Italian Ballo—“Il Ballo del fiore”—originally choreographed by Renaissance dancing master Fabritio Caroso.
It was important to use the same music for both scenes, because the two scenes are connected with each other in the film: while watching the dance at a performance of “Romeo & Juliet”, the Earl of Oxford remembers a dance at court.
I believe that being historically accurate in dance is a matter of instinct. Although we have the original manuscripts, plus paintings from the time depicting scenes of certain dances, that is all we have. Because we were not around during that time and we don’t have any recordings, we can only guess and try to reconstruct. We know, for example, the steps for the “Ballo del fiore”, but we do not really know how they were executed. So, I took the source material and then made it come alive as required by the scene and my interpretation of it.
TM: How did you go about staging the piece? And how much did you rehearse with the dancers and actors?
GD: The dance at court was the first scene to be shot. After I chose the dance, I decided to keep the footwork as simple as possible, because the actors Joely Richardson (the young Queen) and Jamie Campbell-Bower (the young Oxford) had to act and speak a lot during the scene. And so I choreographed the steps on the text. Reading the scene over and over again, I estimated how many beats of music would go with the words and how many possible camera angles they might shoot. The different arm positions gave the actors a chance to get really close and to move away from each other, which was a great dramatic tool. My choreography also had to consider that the script called for dancers to change partners. To make the dance more interesting and to offer more possibilities for different camera angles, I created a rather sophisticated spatial sequence.
Having worked as assistant director as well as movement director in theater and opera came in really handy here. At first, Assistant Director Chris Doll told me that this scene would take up about one minute in the final film. But after we went through it, I was convinced that it would take at least two minutes, and it did.
I had about five rehearsals with the German SCB actors, and then the other actors joined in. Unfortunately, Joely had only one single rehearsal to learn the dance! But she was a quick learner and was able to pick up her steps very easily. Jamie had more time to rehearse, so he was able to guide his Queen securely during the shoot.
For the “Romeo & Juliet” dance, things were a little more complicated. I had to work with a set design that made historically accurate renaissance dancing impossible. Five long cloth hangings on the narrow stage of the Globe Theater divided the space into many small sections.
I took Caroso’s “Ballo del fiore” as inspiration (“Romeo & Juliet” is set in Italy, that’s why I needed an Italian Ballo) and choreographed a real Italian Ballo for four couples in that space. The challenge was to make the dance work for the actual theater scene (“Romeo & Juliet”), but also for the film situation. Tamara staged Romeo falling in love with Juliet while the dance was going on. In an Italian Ballo there is a lot of jumping and hopping and then, in contrast, very sustained movement sequences. It was (and is) a real art to do this well, and “my” actors were doing extremely well!
TM: Did you work on the choreography with the camera in mind?
GD: My assistant filmed a few rehearsals. Those recordings were mainly for me to see what I still had to work on, either choreographically or with the dancers. Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to speak to anyone about the actual filming. So I had to rely completely on my experience and instincts.
TM: How was the actual shoot?
GD: The first time I met Roland was when we shot the court dance. We performed the dance for him a couple of times. He talked to his team about the framing, and after that, we started right away. He first filmed the group from above, which looked very beautiful on the screen. Then he moved on to work on the dialogues and details. All of that took up the entire day, but the atmosphere was highly concentrated, very calm, and completely professional. It was a pleasure to be part of it.
The day before shooting, Roland had decided that he needed two of his actors to join the dance. This meant I had to take out two of the SCB actors or add another couple, to keep the symmetry of the choreography. So Christian Leonhard, SCB’s artistic director and I jumped in. That was a lot of fun, and meant that I had the opportunity to dance to my own choreography!
When Roland filmed the entire group, I had to rely on my assistant to let me know about any corrections that might be needed. Later on, when Roland was working on the dialogues, I was able to concentrate on my job as choreographer, as well as to reassuring Joely, Jamie and the other actors or to give corrections here and there.
TM: Did you have a chance to review playback and adjust any moves/choreography for the next take?
GD: A lot of adjustments had to be made for the for the “Romeo & Juliet” scene. Not because I wanted to, but because Roland already had really amazing images in his mind for the scene. It would have been great if I had had a chance to talk to him about this scene beforehand. He wanted this scene to be very romantic and mysterious, slow and smooth. My choreography was almost the exact opposite; it was more like a “renaissance party”—very lively with lots of jumping and hopping. The German actors, who had taken great pains to learn these intricate steps, had to drop most of it and basically walk the whole choreography. In the end, though, it worked out just fine. I didn’t feel the need to change anything.
TM: You have staged a number of dances for opera and theater. How did this work for film differ from stage work?
GD: Choreographing for the screen requires a different approach from working for the stage. In film, you have two dimensions (unless it is a 3D-stereoscopic film); on stage you have three. In film, you can look at the choreography from every angle: from above, the sides, from the front; you can play with the focus, etc. And you can use all this to create a 3-D-effect. It is a bit like creating two pieces of choreography: one for the dancers and one for the camera and director.
On stage, you do not have that freedom. Or, to say it differently, you have to know exactly what you want to show; you have to be very precise and see it clearly in your mind. For the stage, you also have more rehearsal time because it has to be perfect for performance. When filming, because you have the opportunity for multiple takes, you can repeat and change as you’re working.
For SCB’s stage version of “Romeo & Juliet”, for example, I had time to get to know the actors beforehand and could then tailor the choreography to their needs and capabilities. With different actors, my choreography would have been different. Also, after I choreographed the dance scene, I was asked to work on several other scenes, and help the actors with use-of-space and the timing of their movement. That proved to be very helpful for the actors.
In ANONYMOUS, there was not a lot of time to get to know anyone except, of course, the SCB actors I had already worked with. So I had to rely on my experience of what I knew actors could easily do, dance-wise. Time is a real factor on a film shoot. There are so many variables that have to be right and on time, that the schedule becomes very important. That makes it less flexible, but also filled with adrenaline.
I like the highly concentrated atmosphere during the shoot and the freedom of creating a second “choreography” for the camera. I would love to do more of that. But I also love working for the stage, having all that time and developing things together with the dancers, actors, or singers. Ideally, I like to have all of them together on stage.
TM: What is next for you?
As always, I have a lot of plans and many things I would love to do. For example, I would love to direct a Rossini opera, preferably “La Cenerentola”. Rossini wrote real dance music, and whenever I see a Rossini opera I think: Where are the dancers? It seems so obvious to me that dance is a compulsory dramatic element for Rossini. I’d also love to work on “Così fan tutte”, and a few other operas.
Last year, I started working on a piece titled “A Mother’s Dance”, about mothers and their rhythms, and how rhythm is tied to ones feeling of identity. I want to work with dancers, actors, a percussionist, and an opera singer. I am currently looking to finance this piece.
I am currently choreographing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the SCB. Apart from that, I am busy with Buccarello, a company I founded which offers a luxury service that inspires sophisticated ladies to express their multi-faceted personalities by creating their own unique ways of walking.
ANONYMOUS will be released by Sony Entertainment October 28th.