The ‘How’ of Bringing Dance to a TV Drama

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Photo Source: Ryan Green/ABC

If you didn’t see the Feb. 3 episode of the ABC drama “American Crime,” you missed a notable development in the history of dance on television. Outside of PBS and shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” TV-watching audiences don’t get much exposure to dance—even less when used to tell a dramatic story as part of a larger narrative. But Andy Noble and Dionne Sparkman Noble, co-founders of Houston, Texas’ NobleMotion Dance, got the opportunity to work with John Ridley, the Academy Award–winning screenwriter and showrunner for “American Crime,” to insert an expressive dance as part of the storytelling arc of the anthology. We asked the Nobles, who co-choreographed the four-minute piece for the show, about their experience working on TV, and how dance can (and should?) be incorporated into drama more often.

How did the dance project for “American Crime” come to you?
Andy: John Ridley wanted to investigate touch in all of its manifestations, so dance quickly became an important component of this season. John had very specific ideas of how dance could add complexity to the story and was looking for raw and gritty choreography. Apparently, during his search for choreographers, our name came up. After several phone conversations, he decided to make the trip to Houston. We were brought on board shortly after; it was a real honor.

The dance you created was a single-shot, four-minute piece. What were the challenges to do that for the cameras? How long did it in fact take to shoot it?
Andy: From my understanding, it was the most challenging shot of the season. They used an NFL wire cam, which required four operators, and two long days of rehearsing and filming. The camera essentially became the 11th dancer, as it had to be choreographed through the middle of this complicated piece. One of the operator’s jobs was to accompany the camera at all times and protect the dancers. We did nine full takes without any collisions or injuries and did not have any cablecam shadows cast into the frame. At the end of the ninth take, the dancers received a rousing standing ovation from the actors and 750 extras. We got a little emotional.
Dionne: [Andy and I] were able to watch each take backstage and adjust the dancers in between runs, whether that be their performance or spacing. It was an extraordinary experience to see something like this come together and see how the pros do it.

What was the collaborative process like?
Dionne: Because we created and rehearsed the dance in Austin [where “American Crime” is shot], John Ridley and the director of the episode, Rachel Morrison, were able to visit the rehearsals and provide feedback regarding the structure and direction of the dance. To create the dance, Andy and I were given a loose understanding of the plotline without a lot of details. I believe this was intentional as the goal was not to create a dance representative of the story or characters directly, but more the complicated emotions felt by the many characters.
Andy: Working with the composer, Mark Isham, was a real highlight for us. We got to direct him inside of his creative process and he created a haunting score that really served as the anchor for our dance.

Do you see this use of dance as evidence of how filmmakers can use the medium to expand dramatic narratives?
Dionne: Dance can be used as a powerful tool to tell stories. Movement can reveal the emotional underpinnings of a narrative in subtle and dramatic ways. Dancers are actors, and choreographers are directors. I think the marriage of dance and film is a natural, and I hope more opportunities arise for the dance community to add to the conversation.

“American Crime” airs Wednesdays on ABC.

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