What It Was Really Like Getting Tom Ellis to Dance on That ‘Lucifer’ Musical Episode

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Photo Source: Courtesy Netflix

Brooke Lipton is not new to the game, having choreographed 749 musical numbers on “Glee.” But it’s her work on the musical episode of Netflix’s hit series “Lucifer” that has made her a first-time Emmy nominee. Here’s how she works with series star Tom Ellis and other actors to make sure they always look their best onscreen, plus her advice for dancers to transition to the choreography side of the movement equation. 

Congratulations on your “Lucifer” Emmy nomination! What was it like choreographing that musical episode? 
I love that every song was so different and each song was surrounded by a different actor or group of actors. I’ve been working on “Lucifer” since Season 3, so I’ve gotten to work with Tom [Ellis] and get his energy. But it was really great to get to work with the rest of the actors and play with their movements. What I always try and work hard on with those numbers is: I still want to be able to shoot the number from top to bottom, to go from the beginning to the end with the fewest cuts possible. The production value of the show is so phenomenal. Relating it to something like “Glee,” which is a show based around movement and dance—to have a show that’s not created around movement but has this [production] value—they put so much trust [in] me, and it felt so great to be supported. I, as a choreographer, am a very production-friendly person. You have to be smart and focused on the value of everyone’s time. To work with a group that would say what they wanted, and I would say, “This is what it’s going to take to do it,” and they would say, “OK, here you go; take it away,” that’s a really beautiful support system. They trusted that I was going to give them the exact product they wanted because they were able to give me what I needed to do that. It feels really special to have a relationship with a show that really cared about what the product was going to look like.

When choreographing a scripted project like “Lucifer” or “Glee,” how do you ensure the movement is in service of the story and plot? 
The most basic answer is that I want to make sure everyone can do it well, and dancers are very different from actors. Sometimes you have actors who have great musical timing and who are singers or a triple threat from Broadway, and then you have some who have never been on film. So part of it is just: How do you make sure that these things can be done? A lot of the prep heading into it is the story. If you have to sing and talk while you’re doing these dances, then I need you to practice singing and talking, and see if it’s actually possible to do that. That’s where a lot of it is trial and error: What is too hard? How can we simplify things to make it best for the camera—as far as a big performance where you have a huge stage and 20 dancers—[to make it] look great? It’s very different when you’re in a room that is only 6-by-8 and the camera is catching. There’s a different art form to making sure you’re getting the best picture for what you know the scenario is going to be. 

Tell me a little more about working with actors who aren’t necessarily dancers. How do you get them comfortable moving? 
The thing about my job is that it is fun, right? So when we’re on set and a show, whether it has dance once a week or it has dance once a year, the element of having movement and sound and people dancing for the day always brings a different energy to set. I always know, when I’m coming to set, that’s going to be part of the atmosphere. And in that, you want to have fun. That’s getting the crew and everyone around you involved. For the actors, maybe this is nerve-wracking, scary, maybe they love it—but no matter what, my job is getting them to look the best onscreen as possible. I want them to look the most comfortable; I want them to look the most at ease. So if I throw any sort of dance step at them and they’re looking down to the ground or they’ve lost their concentration because the movement is too hard, then I’m not doing my job well. And sometimes, even when you simplify one or two of their steps but what’s happening around them hasn’t been simplified, you’re still making the art form of the big picture as big as possible while also making actor’s job as easy as possible. I want everyone to laugh and have fun and look great. And if you can knock it up a level, great; I’ll put the hardest thing you want in there. But as soon as it starts, as soon as the face goes away, as soon as their body language isn’t telling me what they can do, I’m not going to push it; I’m going to create a better picture around it. 

Does your relationship with the actor require trust? How do you build that with the cast? 
Totally. You can walk into a rehearsal, and someone’s like, “Help me; I don’t want to do this. I’m scared.” I’m like, “Look, I am not going to let you fail.” And again, if you have never danced before in your life, I can have you stand on a platform and hold your arms up in the air and have eight girls throw feathers around you and do flips, and you’ll still look like the rock star that you should, because you pointed this direction, and the world went that way. So that’s my first communication with them: “Trust me. I’m not going to put a bad outfit on you. No one is going to put bad makeup on you. I am here for you, whatever you need.” Everyone just needs something a little bit different. And usually, when they get invested, they’re like, “Wait, look what else I can do!”

For on-camera projects, do you work closely with the cinematographer? 
When I get asked to do a number or a show, the first thing I want to know is what the script is. I want to see what our scenario is: What are we shooting? Are we outside? Are we in an office or in a room? And then we talk about, basically, what is the main goal of that number? If there is no visual to it and no one’s really sure, then a lot of times, I can come up with a plan; but sometimes, between the director and the showrunner [and] the writers, they have, like, a little bit of an idea where something should go. Then when you look at that location, you have to also be smart about camera time. I understand that, to shoot a scene, we’re limited to these three hours. So, what is the scope of our plan? Because that also dictates how a number can move or how I can make that same canvas move from right to left. A lot of times, you’re limited, and it becomes [about asking], How can I make this spot look the best? How can I keep the movement growing and not get stale? A lot of the planning before we even start mapping out the number is: Where should it go? And where should it end?

You started out as a dancer and transitioned into the choreography realm. How did you learn that skill set? 
They’re two different worlds. I was a competition kid, and I got into choreography at a younger age because that was a good way to start making money. I was working with solos and going back to my old studio. When I was 28, I was auditioning for “Glee” as a dancer, and [choreographer] Zach Woodlee had been a dear friend of mine for years. After the audition he said, “Ryan Murphy really wants it to be truly teens, and you’re a little bit older than that. But would you be interested in assisting me?” I started as an assistant and then gradually moved up to associate, and then I took over for Season 5 when Zach left. But when I first joined “Glee,” oh, my gosh, I was so green. The biggest joke is Zach had to teach me what a one-liner was. I really didn’t know how it works with television and film and understanding how many parts and people it takes. It’s not just about what a choreographer sees. We have a storyline to create; we have a backstory between two actors. But that’s the beauty and the art of doing choreography for a show that has pieces that are related to it, not just a random cheerleader dancing. We did 749 musical numbers on “Glee.” It was a really fun way to be thrown into the middle of one of the hardest things and just making it work. 

What advice would you give dancers who want to transition into choreography? 
I would say to that dancer: Understand that you don’t necessarily have to have been a working dancer to become a choreographer. I do feel like being on multiple sides really changes your understanding. Because really, it’s understanding the elements that it takes to create anything. Everyone’s job is really important: the set director, the props, the costumer, the lighting—without those elements, none of this is going to work. So the more that you can learn about everybody else’s positions, appreciate them, work with them, and have an understanding that we’re all in this together, the better your relationship with everyone around you will be. And that’s also going to really help you understand why something can and can’t work, and that’s the most important thing: valuing all the elements of craft.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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