Imagine growing up in a place where artists must operate in secret, where dance is considered an obscene activity and where any nonconformists face violence if caught. Pretty surreal, right? That's the premise of Desert Dancer, in theaters April 10.
What's even more surreal is that this dance movie isn't a work of fiction. It's based on the life of Afshin Ghaffarian, an Iranian dancer/choreographer/actor now living in Paris. It isn't a historical account either: The film takes place in 2009, just six years ago.
Growing up in Iran, where dancing in public was forbidden, Ghaffarian had a natural inclination to dance. When he saw footage of Rudolf Nureyev in action, he was hooked. The film skips ahead to Ghaffarian's college years in Tehran, during the 2009 presidential elections, where he meets like-minded friends and decides to start an underground dance group—despite pressure from the Basij, a volunteer Islamic militia.
From left: Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen and Reece Ritchie in Desert Dancer (courtesy Relativity Media)
British choreographer Akram Khan (who's worked with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and choreographed for the 2012 London Olympics) helped bring Ghaffarian's student dance company to life, creating driving movement that underscores the film's landscape and tone. Reece Ritchie (from Lovely Bones and Prince of Persia) stars as Ghaffarian, supported by Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) and Tom Cullen (yes, "Downton Abbey" fans, Lord Gillingham!). I spoke with Ritchie about Desert Dancer.
Dance Spirit: You dance so much in the film. Did you have any training coming into it?
Reece Ritchie: I grew up watching Michael Jackson as a kid—but that was the extent of my dance background. I also had a few dance classes at drama school, but I was definitely not a trained dancer in any way.
DS: How did you prepare?
RR: We trained with Akram Khan for four months, six days a week, at Sadler's Wells in London. It was complete torture! On the first day, I thought we were going to just jump right into the dance scenes, but Akram looked at us, and then turned to his team and said, "OK, I'll be back in two weeks." I was pretty confused. It turned out his team had to get us all in shape before we could start learning his choreography. That's when I realized it was going to be serious.
On top of that, I had to get into Afshin Ghaffarian's mindset. Moving technically is one thing, but moving with emotion is completely different—and there was a lot of emotion in the film. The two aspects had to run concurrently. Initially, my approach to emotional scenes was very cerebral. As an actor, you're inclined to think your way into your character. Akram would tell me to turn that off, to let the movement itself inform the emotion. I had to learn to trust Akram—and he was definitely right.
Akram Khan (center) works with Pinto and Ritche at Sadler's Wells (courtesy Relativity Media)
DS: Did you watch a lot of Afshin's work, too?
RR: I watched so much online and I went to see him perform Paris. What was so bizarre about preparing for the role was that Afshin didn't really have a technical background—he couldn't have. He learned through YouTube and experimentation and books. I was getting this training that Afshin never had growing up.
Afshin himself was very hands-on in the prep. I spent a lot of time with him, and I listened to everything he had to say about his life. But he wasn't on set with us. I think that would have been very difficult for me since I was giving my version of him. This movie isn't a direct imitation—it's a representation.
Ritchie and Pinto doing what Ritchie calls the "hand dance" (courtesy Relativity Media)
DS: Do you have a favorite dance scene in the movie?
RR: I love the "hand dance" between Afshin and Elaheh [Frieda Pinto]. It was sort of like my Dirty Dancing moment—or that scene in Ghost. It's this iconic movement that's so simple, but so powerful. It says a lot about these two polarized characters who are trying to connect, but who aren't even allowed to touch in public.
The "protest dance" at the end is my other favorite. I think that's the moment when Afshin realizes he has the tools to express what tormented him his whole life. It's the crystallizing moment when he becomes Afshin. In prep, we all thought that the "desert dance" would be the pinnacle of the movie—but it's really this protest dance.
Pinto and Ritchie in the "desert dance" (courtesy Relativity Media)
DS: After watching the movie, I was completely in awe of Afshin and his friends' courage.
RR: When I heard his story, that was one of the fist things I thought, too. I also felt a lot of guilt. I thought, this guy is the same age as me, he looks like me and we've got so much in common. But the fact that he was born under different circumstances meant that he's had to fight so hard to express himself. I knew I had to be a part of this movie and help tell his story.
Watch Desert Dancer's trailer below, and check your local listings for showtimes.
Is it Friday yet? WOMP. If you, like us, are suffering from a severe case of the Mondays, we've got a little something to ease your pain (or at least distract you from whatever productive thing you "should" be doing).
You know we love a good dance-in-movies supercut, and today, we're sharing perhaps the most epic montage yet. It features 88 dance scenes in just over three minutes (88!)—and it's set to Walk the Moon's "Shut Up and Dance," which is pretty much always good advice.
The coolest thing about this supercut is its range: It has your classic dance flicks—Dirty Dancing, Center Stage, Footloose, Save the Last Dance, Flashdance, White Nights—and a number of movies you wouldn't automatically associate with dance. Like who'd have thought to include Perks of Being A Wallflower in a dance supercut? Or what about She's All That, or (500) Days of Summer? This supercut genius thought outside the box, and we're pretty pleased with the results.
Now that we've given you a head start, it's time to test your dance-in-movies chops. Watch the supercut, and see how many of the 88 scenes you can name. (Or, you can cheat and read the comments—the movies are listed frame by frame.)
Aakomon Jones (left) and assistant choreographer Codie Wiggins on set of Get on Up
(courtesy Universal pictures)
Move over, Jersey Boys. There's a new jukebox movie in town, and this one gets a whole lot funkier. Get on Up, starring Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, hits theaters today.
This is one dance movie you shouldn't miss. OK, OK, so it may not be a dance movie the way Center Stage is a dance movie (though Get on Up choreographer Aakomon Jones did create the moves for Center Stage: Turn it Up—in addition to his work for Usher, Madonna and Janelle Monae), but Get on Up is chock-full of smooth—and did we mention funky?—moves, amazing performances and fascinating historical tid-bits. You might even literally leave the theater dancing: At the screening I attended, a guy stood up and danced in his seat during the end credits. (Even Lil Buck couldn't resist!)
What went into recreating Brown's legendary concert performances? I caught up with Jones to find out.
What excited you most about taking on this project?
The fact that it was James Brown was the biggest selling point. But the team was also unbelievable—from the director, Tate Taylor, to the producers, Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger. I had to be a part of it.
A still from Get on Up
(courtesy Universal Pictures)
How did you handle Brown's iconic performances? Did you try to recreate the dances from archival footage, or did you want to infuse the choreography with your own style?
I tried to stick to the performance references, because I wanted the film to be as accurate as possible. That being said, we weren't going for a carbon copy. It's a heightened reality. But any creative license I took came from the vocabulary of James Brown. If I sprinkled any extra moves in here or there—I took from moves I'd seen him do. The research for this film definitely started long before we started rehearsing. When working on a project like this you have to dig deep and look closely at the video footage.
Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get on Up
(courtesy Universal Pictures)
Chadwick Boseman did so much dancing. Was there a dance double?
We did hire a double for one scene—but it wasn't for a performance. Instead, the double—dancer Marc Innis—filled in a body: At one point, James Brown walks past a younger version of himself, and we didn't want it to be digitally added in post-production. Every dance you see—every split, slip, glide, mashed potato, drop to the knees—is all Chadwick.
Boseman as James Brown
(courtesy Universal Pictures)
I've read that Chadwick didn't come in with any sort of dance background. What was most challenging about that process?
James Brown embodied pure, natural talent. It's hard to teach that in such a short period of time. We only had thirty days. We started with two-hour sessions, five days a week, but that grew to four-hour sessions, and then six-hour sessions seven days a week. His footwork really started getting good! What Chadwick did struggle with wasn't the splits or the sliding. It was having to do so many moves at the same time. James would have four or more things going on at the same time—working the mic, stomping his heels, snapping his fingers, using his lower body. And then he'd be singing on top of that.
Watch the trailer for Get on Up below, and then check your local movie listings for show times.
Why is it that short weeks always feel the longest? If, like me, you've woken up each of the past three days thinking it was Friday, never fear, my friends: I have a video that will snap you right out of your funk.
What is this magical film, you ask? It's a supercut of all (well, most) of the great dance scenes in movies. And as if that weren't enough, it's set to "Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats.
We've got Singin' in the Rain and Saturday Night Fever and Footloose (old AND new), Dirty Dancing and Pulp Fiction and Austin Powers, even Mean Girls and Little Miss Sunshine and Silver Linings Playbook. (It looks like there might be a few music videos slipped in there too, but we're not going to complain about seeing Michael Jackson's moves anytime soon.)
Let the healing begin: