in Heights, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood in New York City. He says the arts officeJenny Gilbert explains how he created the explosive dance scenes in the film and why he thinks the musical is experiencing a major resurgence.
CHRISTOPHER SCOTT I discovered this film through commercial choreography and more specifically street dance. I started out as a tap dancer, then I turned to break, pop and krumping and learned to speak the language. I especially wanted to present the street as an art form because I think a lot of people see it as just a bunch of stuff – you know, all that head-spinning stuff and so on. But the street has a rich foundation that holds the same way as the ballet. How do you show this to people? Well, let’s put one ballerina out of four B-boys and visually connect the dots for people. It has always been my style.
JENNY GILBERT And that’s just because this story is about the mixture of people and cultures in a very specific place – Washington Heights, New York. How did you decide which dance traditions to include?
Being able to hear much of Lin-Manuel’s music in advance allowed me to identify the many styles of dance she could address. Lots of Latin styles, originating from Cuba and the Dominican Republic, as well as street styles. As I’m listening, I’m thinking of details, like – this is when we have to introduce the flexors.
It’s a style from Brooklyn, New York, quite a rich style that comes from [Caribbean] he is. I’ve never seen flex in a musical before, and this is the musical it was meant to be in.
So did Lin-Manuel Miranda write new music for the film, adding to what was in the 2010 stage version?
He did. There are a lot of new things. And because we had to lose a few songs here and there even during filming, we found that we suddenly need new pieces of music to radically change things. And we’d think, oh my gosh, how long is that gonna take? It will hold us back. But the next day, we would have this new number. And that would be so inspiring, and make so much sense. Lin-Manuel is quick, and it’s crazy to see. I felt lucky to have a front row seat for this man’s genius.
Considering how many plates he’s been spinning, in movies and on Broadway, he can’t have waited for the muse to strike.
Right. And you know he was in a Broadway show too [Freestyle Love Supreme, later also a film] it’s free-style rap, so he was making up a new show every night. Dude, his muscle is strong in this department. This show was born during the rehearsal breaks for In the heights.
My own education began with learning not to use the term salsa
When you took over the choreography for the film, how precise was your mission? Were you free to decide how each dance sequence would unfold?
It was a huge collaboration with director Jon Chu. We’ve been working together for 10 years, so we already had a system for setting up a project together, a shortcut. The same goes with Alice Brooks, the director of photography. I know I can reach out to her in the middle of the choreography and ask her: does this work for the camera? And she’ll say, ‘maybe, but what if we do this…?’ Everyone was free to contribute to this film. There was no ego. Everything sank.
With Jon [Chu, the film’s director], our process begins by sitting in a room to listen to the songs. We wander a ton of ideas, he writes them down on a whiteboard, then we circle our favorites. Some of them just go to the bank, to be withdrawn at any time. So when, after the final cut, does anyone ask who’s the idea? We just don’t know.
You said that you are not a purist, you are very happy to mix genres and styles. What kind of research did you do to find these styles?
When it comes to street styles, this is my home territory. The foreign language was the Latin styles, and I knew it was important that they were delivered in an authentic way. Once a style is commercialized, that’s a problem for the people who experience that culture. They feel offended, disenfranchised, and things get lost in the translation. Like on set when someone says you want us to bring the breakdancers? I mean, you mean the thugs, or the B-boys and the B-girls? I was determined that the Latin dance in this film did not suffer from such generalization.
My own education began with learning not to use the term salsa. It’s mambo, not salsa. Once the music hit the market and they christened the music salsa, the dancing sort of trained with it. But it’s actually mambo. So I’m glad this movie can help educate people a bit.
So I did some research, but I also brought in Eddie Torres Jr. as an associate choreographer – he’s a master of Latin styles. When you watch him dance, phew! He’s the one who kicks off the nightclub scene by shouting “Fiesta! In the heights! ‘ He brought all the authenticity of the Latin dance that is in this film. I remember that when he first met, to get the job, he spent all his time breaking down the history of the different Latin dances, how the rhythms appeared via the slave trade, the slaves being allowed to play rhythms in drums on Sunday. He wanted me to understand where the music is coming from. And you can’t make a movie like this until you do.
Residents were hanging out by their windows and watching from their fire escape stairs
So can you walk now? Can you do any of these dances?
Yes I can, I have been in training, and the experience has changed me. When you study a dance like Cuban rumba, after spending your entire life thinking that rumba belongs to the ballroom, you find it is totally different. You have to be quick to spot him in the film. But it is there.
We talked about this film about diversity, the particular melting pot of a New York neighborhood. But it seems to me that the movie is also strong on other kinds of diversity – youth and age, fat and skinny. There are some pretty bulky dancers swaying in some of these scenes. Did you have to bring in hobbyists to get this range of shapes and ages?
Every dancer you see in the film is professional. The hardest part was finding the older Latino and Latina dancers, as the agencies just don’t have 60 on their books. We had to find them through personal contact, so my # 1 job was scouting. It was important that these neighborhood dance scenes look like real people in a real community. Because of course we were filming real streets in Washington Heights. Residents were hanging out by their windows or watching from their fire escapes. They were really with us, and it was special.
By using a public space, you had to shoot these scenes quickly.
It was crazy. “Carnival” [the big street rave, pictured above, at the climax of the film] was shot in one day. It’s a seven-minute dance number that should have been impossible back then. Before this movie, I was passionate about keeping dance performances crisp and clean, but I learned that sometimes you just have to let it go. The character Isnavi says that “your dreams are not always a sparkling diamond, sometimes they are rough” – and it is true. Some of the dances in “Carnival” look pretty raw, and I’m proud of it. Each dancer did it in their own way, each had their own story, and that’s great.
West Side Story brings the musical to another speed, and it’s about to move to the next level
But there are also surges of incredible dance virtuosity in the film. Like the stage at the lido [pictured top]. Who would have thought that B-boying could work at the bottom of a swimming pool?
Well, you find the best dancers, put them together and see what happens. It’s so much more creative than having everything planned in advance and telling people what to do. So we put these B-boys in the pool, and they just started competing with each other and doing these amazing underwater things. I wish we could have included more.
Of course, this pool scene immediately evokes Busby Berkeley. Did you consciously refer to other old musical films?
West Side Story is a huge influence for me. It was the musical that made me dance. So even in the opening and closing numbers of In the heights, which looks like nothing in West Side Story, the spirit of Jerome Robbins’ choreography is there in the sense of movement organized as a cinematographic experience. West Side Story brings the musical film to another speed.
With the release of In the heights, with Annette at the opening of the Cannes Film Festival, and with a remake of West Side Story on the cards, do you think we’re on the cusp of a major musical resurgence?
Well, yes, absolutely. With everything that happened in the world last year, it feels like it’s about time. I think it’s going to be an exciting year for screen dancing. For years, music videos have used the power of dance to make us feel something specific. And the lockdown reminded us of how great the right dance made for the stage can be in front of the camera. Between them, they paved the way for the dance musical to take it to the next level.