The latest original musical to grace the big screen, The Greatest Showman follows the life and times of P.T. Barnum, and the events that inspired him to create the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus—often dubbed "The Greatest Show on Earth"—in the mid-1800s. Hugh Jackman stars as the entertainer, joined by celebs like Zendaya (who plays a graceful trapeze artist) and Zac Efron (who plays a circus performer and love interest to Zendaya's character). As Barnum assembles a dazzling spectacle of performers, the cast gets to participate in some epic dance numbers, choreographed by Ashley Wallen. Here, Wallen gives us the behind-the-scenes scoop on the film's moves.
What's the choreography in the film like?
It's a mixture of classic musical theater, old MGM movies, and commercial and pop dancing. I love all the old-style films, and it's a period film, but we still wanted to keep it relevant with the choreography and the music.
Tell us a little bit about the filming process.
This film has been a long time in the making. We've been working on it for seven years. Once the film got green-lit, we did eight weeks of rehearsal in a studio. We didn't have that much time to rehearse on set beforehand, so choreography got changed day-of quite a lot, which is typical for working on film.
As a choreographer, do you find having to change your work on the spot nerve-racking or exciting?
I quite like it. I'm so used to that kind of environment, and to working with Michael Gracey, the director. If I knew it was coming beforehand, I would probably feel sick, but when it just happens on the spot I'm good.
What type of dancers did you cast for this project?
This film is great because the dancers are all individual characters. It was an awesome opportunity to get so many different people of so many different styles. Some were more hip-hop–proficient and some were more contemporary- and jazz-focused.
Did you find it hard to work with stars who had less formal dance training?
Yeah, but we trained them a lot, so we could get them to a great level. And I built the numbers around them. We'd rehearse with the dancers, and then I'd rehearse with the actor in the scene. Hugh was killing me because he just wanted to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse—he's such a hard worker. He was keeping up with all of them.
DS: What are you most excited for people to see in the film?
It's such a compelling story. The film inspires people to say, 'Take me for what I am.' I hope kids walk away feeling empowered.
A version of this story appeared in the December 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "The Circus Comes to Town."