How Sydney Dance Company helped bring a Hollywood movie to life

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Dancer Emily Seymour was rehearsing in Sydney Dance Company’s waterfront studios when she noticed choreographer Benjamin Millepied sitting at the front, watching.

A household name in dance circles, the French-born, US-based Millepied is best known for his work as a dancer and choreographer for Black Swan – the movie on which he met his wife, Natalie Portman.

“I was like, ‘Isn’t that Ben Millepied?’” Seymour recalls, laughing. “Why is he here?’”

Emily Seymour danced in the new movie Carmen, as choreographed by Holly Doyle.Credit: Anna Kucera

With Portman scheduled to shoot Thor: Love and Thunder in Australia, Millepied decided NSW would be the ideal location for his directorial debut, Carmen.

Starring Academy Award-nominated actor Paul Mescal (Normal People; Aftersun) and Melissa Barrera (In the Heights), Carmen is a modern reimagining of the opera of the same name.

It depicts a young woman fleeing Mexico after a cartel murders her flamenco-dancing mother (Sydney dancer Marina Tamayo). When a border-crossing goes fatally wrong, Carmen joins troubled war veteran Aidan in evading US authorities, ultimately seeking refuge in Los Angeles with an enigmatic nightclub owner (Rossy de Palma).

Spanish actor Rossy de Palma stars as nightclub owner Masilda in Carmen.Credit: Lisa Tomasetti

Filming took place in the area around Broken Hill (standing in for the Sonoran Desert) and in Sydney (the site of LA fight club scenes and a nightclub).

As the movie required flamenco and folk dancing in the nightclub, hip hop and krumping in the LA underground, and dreamy surrealist sequences in the desert, Millepied began scouting for the best Australian dance talent he could find.

That search led him to Sydney Dance Company (SDC), run by Spanish Australian choreographer Rafael Bonachela. SDC alumna Holly Doyle recalls the phone call she received from Bonachela. “He said, ‘Benjamin’s looking for a rehearsal director for his new film’. I said “I’ll drop everything and do it!’”

Doyle’s role evolved into assistant choreographer. “Along the way, Ben and I progressed the choreography together,” she says. “He’d make the dance on me, and I’d mould myself into his movement vocabulary. Then we’d teach all the steps to the dancers.”

Millepied was unusually hands-on for a director. “He knew exactly what he wanted,” Doyle says. “He’d present the movement and we’d learn it. It felt like being in dance rehearsal rather than a film because he’d be there sweating with us. Once we’d created a draft scene, Ben would use his iPhone and experiment with being the cameraman himself. We’d choreograph the cameraman and all his camera angles, then teach the cameraman his choreography.”

Sydney Dance Company dancers perform with American rapper The D.O.C. in Carmen.Credit: Lisa Tomasetti

Dancing in a movie, Seymour says, is totally different to performing on stage. “We’re normally performing outwards to the audience. But dancing with a camera that can film you from all sides and behind is more involved. We had to connect with the camera and the cameraman, as well as the movement.”

SDC also ran a dance boot camp to teach Mescal and Barrera to dance – although Barrera had some experience from In the Heights. “They’re such big stars but have not an ounce of ego,” Doyle says. “We’d watch them act and be in awe, but when they were in the dance studio they were in awe of us. They’d say ‘teach me, teach me!’, they were just so eager to learn.”

Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal participated in a dance boot camp to prepare for the movie.Credit: Madman

Mescal’s dance scenes involved lifting Barrera, so Doyle asked SDC’s male dancers to demonstrate. “We did a lot of work with Paul on the technique of lifting a dance partner; how to make it efficient and easy,” she says.

For Barrera, the focus was on ballet barre training. “Mel actually had quite good, delicate footwork, so it was just a ballet barre most days to help her find the softness in the arms, the effortless upper body. They were both such fast learners, so smart and hard-working,” Doyle says.

Doyle is proud of the way the movie showcases the talents of Australian dancers.

“I’m always amazed by dance in Europe and the US,” she reflects. “But Australia really holds its own. Australian dancers are athletes, with a unique physicality that has artistry at the same time. So, Carmen felt very special and celebratory of dance in Australia, and it highlights SDC really well.

“It’s also very rare to see great dance in film. There’s all this wonderful dance talent that the film industry isn’t aware of. Ben is a beautiful bridge between the two worlds, and hopefully the film exposes SDC’s brilliance and gives people an insight into the talent here.”

Carmen is in cinemas now.

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