It was Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland’s hit about the experiences of a Scottish regiment in the Iraq War, that brought Steven Hoggett’s brand of physical theatre to worldwide attention. Since then, the British movement director has found surprise success on Broadway, earning kudos for the startlingly original ways he’s helped actors and dancers move their bodies in shows such as American Idiot, Peter and the Starcatcher and the upcoming Rocky: The Musical.
Once, the 2012 Tony-winning show about a musical romance between two songwriters in Dublin, arrives in Toronto this week with the unforgettable, dream-like choreography that I wrote in my review from New York “doesn’t try to knock you off your feet Broadway-style, but gently sweeps you off them.” Hoggett, 41, spoke with The Globe and Mail over the phone from New York.
I read in an interview that you found it more challenging to come up with choreography for Once than for Black Watch (which won a 2009 Dora Award for outstanding touring production). Why is that?
Once is really about people who don’t express very much … If you watch the film [the musical is based on], they don’t move, they don’t dance, they don’t use their bodies at all. The point is that they can’t – the music does it for them. Whereas something like Black Watch, there were a lot of very obvious ways in which physicality is what the soldiers’ world is about.
How did you get around that, then?
We did two workshops – and in the first one, we tried creating a sub-story between the scenes where we would track the life of a relationship. It all looked completely wrong and so I went for the approach of thinking the other way around about choreography – to the idea of stillness. How small can it be.
You are the co-founder of the U.K. indie theatre company Frantic Assembly, which does movement theatre like Canada’s Theatre Smith-Gilmour or Theatre Rusticle rather than dance theatre. Is that what makes your work on musicals so different?
I guess so. With Frantic Assembly, it was never about making choreography – we always work from the text. For me, even if it’s a musical, it tends to be about character or story or song lyrics. I tend to work with a score on the page.
Do you have any dance training at all?
When we formed Frantic in the mid-nineties, every time we made a brand-new show, we’d bring in a choreographer to teach us their particular school or style. I did get an education, but it was very much vocational. It wasn’t in an academic environment or a structured school.
The work you did with Frantic was all devised with the actors. Is it the same with your work on Broadway?
Yeah, I don’t make the material until I’m in the rehearsal room. Until I’ve met the actors, I don’t know what we’re going to do – and then I build on their bodies. Those actors have to perform the movement, rather than just dance it. I don’t refer to them as dancers.
It is harder to work that way now that you’re involved with these big productions?
It’s not actually. Director Michael Mayer was the first to give me a job here in America, on American Idiot. He asked me what my process normally was and said, “I don’t think you need to change to work on this.” If you asked me four years ago if would I be doing this, I’d say absolutely not. I didn’t really know – I assumed it was all traditional show-stoppers. I do feel that directors are becoming more adventurous in how they think about choreography and choreographers.
It’s great to see a different aesthetic in musical theatre. For a while, it was about choreography that was bigger, more athletic, more extreme – you’ve managed to be very successful in dialling it back.
Part of the success of Once is that it came the year after all the bombast and spectacle of Spider-Man. This is how culture works, how popular taste works. Once you’ve had the excess of something like that, maybe what you want next is something lo-fi and small, very human and quiet and emotional. In a couple of years, we might want something explosive again.
Speaking of, I was recently in Hamburg and saw your work on Rocky: The Musical, which opens in New York in February. How did you make the Rocky Balboa/Apollo Creed bout look so much more realistic than most stage fights?
Partly, it’s because they are able to hit each other. It’s about tensing the body, but not completely, so there’s some absorption. It sounds perverse, but you are actually softening the punch by moving towards it and trying to wrap that part of your body around it.
Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck