Reece Ritchie Talks about Desert Dancer

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.

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