Joe Wright, Composer Dario Marianelli, And Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui Found The Emotional Rhythm Of The Story.
(l to r) Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Vronsky and Alicia Vikander stars as Kitty in director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, Anna Karenina, a Focus Features release.
The theatricality of Anna Karenina further emboldened Joe Wright to use music and choreography more imaginatively – and more frequently – than they are traditionally used in movies that aren’t also musicals. Non-dance sequences were blocked out with choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who worked closely with not only the director but also composer Dario Marianelli.
The latter, as part of his process with Wright, is involved even before filming starts rather than solely in the post-production phase. Wright remarks, “In this movie, music was planned as clearly visible, be it dance scenes, musicians playing, or singers. Music needed to be prepared beforehand to allow the actors to learn the choreography, to mime instruments, and for singers to learn the lines. But on any and every movie, Dario’s composing before and during production helps with the pacing and mood for the actors, and certainly for the movement of the camera.
“In working with [Sidi] Larbi [Cherkaoui], I was interested in not only stylizing the environments and the locations but also the performances as well – though not to the extent of alienating the audience. I’m always interested in human physicality, how we behave towards each other. I feel we do move a lot, so I like actors to be fully engaged. So we concentrated on blocking, how to refine it, and how to be more playful with it as well. That then establishes a rhythm, which comes through in the voices that are delivering the dialogue. Film is basically time and movement, so why not really think about that movement?”
Paul Webster remembers, “When we did Pride & Prejudice, with its village hall dances and the scenes of the two leads alone, Joe proved that he could orchestrate figures moving in space. In Anna Karenina, the choreographic element is an even bigger part of a more stylized work.
“This element was in Joe’s mind from the outset; it preceded his theatricalized re-conception, but retaining that sensibility was able to heighten and permeate the film that much more, even in sequences that do not overtly involve dance.”
With Marianelli and Cherkaoui, Wright discussed making Anna and Vronsky’s interactions more dreamlike. The composer listened to Russian folk songs before working on arrangements and the accompanying vocals. “Yet, on this particular movie, Joe gave me a lot of room to experiment,” notes Marianelli. “So those folk songs were really just starting points.”
Webster observes, “In keeping with the general feel of the film, there is a contemporary edge to Dario’s work here.”
So it was that Marianelli wrote his “quite surreal takes” on a waltz and a mazurka for those sequences in advance of filming, allowing Cherkaoui time to plan out the attendant dances. The choreographer’s unique style is theatrical and dynamic, making him a perfect fit for Anna Karenina. In a series of workshops with him, the main cast explored body language and developed the movement of their characters in relation to those around them, implementing a balletic approach to the drama from scene to scene; additionally, the cadre of trained dancers rehearsed their timed movements.
Marianelli reveals, “The music that you see musicians playing in a scene is at the same time part of the score, adding to its drama and emotion within the scene. Anna Karenina was a wonderful collaboration; I met with Larbi in Belgium to see what he was working out with the music. Larbi asked me to make a few changes, and then with Joe we identified where we could have some pauses and how we could restructure things around what Larbi was doing. It was a very much a three-way collaboration; Larbi would ring me up and say, ‘Can you put eight more bars here?’ or ‘Could you take out four bars here?’”
Cherkaoui adds, “It was ideal working with Dario, because his having written music beforehand helped me to create an atmosphere. His work overall inspired me; sequences such as the French can-can and the Cleopatra dance came to life thanks to the music.”
Marianelli comments, “It was fun for us to put these Russian characters into a French theatre, where the run-down Folies Bergère plays out as if it’s a German expressionist painter’s nightmare.”
On a more subtle note, for non-dance scenes, there was an overlay of choreography to achieve discreet but definitive movements; in depicting the master and servant relationships, the latter were conceived as appearing in a consistent but silent presence. They materialize almost magically when required, gliding into frame to dress members of the aristocracy who do not appear to even be aware of them.
Tom Stoppard clarifies, “The emancipation of the serfs has already occurred, in 1861, but a decree doesn’t change society overnight; the habit dies very hard – and in a certain sense, never did, if you go to some remote villages in Russia now.”
Domhnall Gleeson remarks, “Rehearsing the choreography, and standing there while other people brought our characters chairs and so forth created a guilt in my mind – which was so useful for playing my part, since Levin has money but wants to be on the side of the real people.”
Wright notes, “Larbi’s work with the actors was not only based on facial expressions of acknowledgement or lack of same, it was also about the connection and the distances between people, from how they touched to how they moved to how they held themselves.”
Gleeson adds, “Alicia Vikander and I did a lot of work with Joe and Larbi; she would play with my beard which I grew for the role, we would touch fingertips and create the physical connection that exists between Kitty and Levin. She was so graceful, because she trained as a dancer, and I did not. So what we did during this process came back to us in spades during filming, which helped.”
Cherkaoui clarifies, “For some characters it was less about movement than for others. With Karenin everything is internalized, so Jude Law does less.”
Law offers, “The workshops with Larbi were splendid, but I had to restrict my character to rigidity when everyone else was going along like flowing liquid.”
By contrast, says Cherkaoui, “Vronsky is invasive in Anna’s life, so Aaron Taylor-Johnson steps up and approaches her to get her to go over into another reality.”
Taylor-Johnson took to the concept of applying choreography to his performance. The actor confides, “I prefer using physical movement to express emotions and feelings. That’s where I feel most comfortable, so I was thrilled that we were being asked to convey so much in that way – and with dance, which is part of a lot of my favorite films.
“We had a lot of training with Sidi Larbi, and then he had a performance on at Sadler’s Wells that we went to. It blew me away. There is an intimacy in his dance that’s so delicate. Working with him was phenomenal, and the dances that he choreographed for Keira Knightley and I were beautiful.”
For the ballroom sequence, all members of the main cast participated in intensive dance rehearsals alongside the company of professional dancers – so that their moves would look effortless and natural on-screen, as their own characters would have ensured.
Matthew Macfadyen laughs, “The dance moves were very beautiful but fiendishly difficult to learn; even the professional dancers were saying, ‘This is hard!’”
Cherkaoui admits, “It took a lot of rehearsals for the actors to get comfortable so it felt easy for them, and felt like what their characters would do in their society.”
Olivia Williams says, “One of the main differences between film and stage is that on stage you have to communicate with your whole body. Joe bridged this, so that we would be communicating gesture and movement of the whole body on film.”
Tim Bevan feels that “there is a symmetry to the actors’ movements that audiences will sense, without it being obtrusive. It fits right into the theatrical world that was being created.”
Law notes, “We felt we were putting on this production. There was a sense of being a company before we had even started filming. It was a rewarding energy with which to begin a project; I’ve never felt stronger than I did on Anna Karenina about actors coming into their own with their roles, getting at what the director wanted them to fulfil.”
Taylor-Johnson says, “It was not so different than blocking out scenes. But those weeks of preparation relaxed everyone, and we could move through scenes without speaking. Later, when we were shooting, Joe or Larbi would say, ‘I can remember what you did weeks ago; let’s try and get that back into this scene.’”
Wright did request that some of the movement shade into the unexpected, so that the music could gradually become more intense; camera movements and character movements would interweave as Anna and Count Vronksy’s dance becomes more feverish and intense, and the surrounding dancers become suspended in time as Anna and Vronsky move into a spotlight alone, dancing in their own private world.
Webster remarks, “The visual scheme in this moment becomes more delirious, reflecting what’s happening to our characters.”
Wright states, “It’s a pivotal scene. From this point on in the story, nothing will ever be the same again for Anna. Larbi had choreographed it all, and Dario had composed all the music prior so that it all came down to shooting – three days of madness and beauty.
“The ball sequence was always going to be one of the great challenges for me on Anna Karenina because it’s pure cinema. The physicality tells the story; there is practically no dialogue at all.”
Melanie Ann Oliver, who had recently edited the Marianelli-scored Jane Eyre, notes, “I love to edit to music, especially when it’s as strong as Dario’s. But one day, Joe said to me, ‘I want you to cut the mazurka where Anna and Vronsky come together to a breathing track.’ Editing is not just about the pictures; it’s about how everything is cohering – and, sometimes, the power of silence.”
Cherkaoui remarks, “It’s been a new experience for me to see how you can lead the eye of the audience into things and out of things. I’ve never had that opportunity to such a degree.
“Joe gave me so much freedom to reinvent the waltz, so I could actually approach it in my own style, which was much more about using arms and hands. Knowing that he liked what I’d come up with, it was exciting to teach the actors to go into that flow as if they would know this dance – and it was in part based on one done at that time.”
Knightley marvels, “Doing the ballroom scenes was amazing. Larbi took it to a whole new level and we got to work on these dance routines, which took us weeks and weeks and weeks and were absolutely exhausting – on both my knees and hips! – but hopefully beautiful. The sequence is so much a part of my character, and of Aaron’s. He’s in his white costume, I am in black, and it’s like Yin and Yang.
“I’m not a dancer and it’s not the way I express myself. But saying ‘we learned to dance’ doesn’t quite cover what we did. Whether it was a set piece, a dance piece, or a movement piece, everything had been ‘Larbi-fied.’”
Webster comments, “These pieces would have daunted established dancers, yet Keira pulled them off by sheer force of will and excellent ability.”
Readying for Betsy’s soirée proved intriguing for Ruth Wilson. The actress reports, “Creating something movement-based and not word-based, for a language among women in a high society gathering? Fans were used from the very first rehearsal – brilliant! Since we were not trained dancers, Larbi took what we could give him as actors and created wonderfully detailed moves for us.”
Marianelli muses, “The choreography of figures in space relates very much to the way the camera choreographs a film. With Anna Karenina, it was exciting to be able to explore aspects of a symbiosis between dance choreography and cinema. The dance sensibility is front and center in several scenes, and it then permeates the rest of the film – in an exhilarating way.”
Knightley concludes, “Understanding how to express your emotions through movement and then how you could fit that into your character has given me a whole new set of skills as an actor.”