There are dance films and then there are films that use dance as a background, like the recently released Red Sparrow. Even with the main storyline featuring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy, her character’s beginnings were rooted in Russian ballet.
To help whip Lawrence into dance shape, associate choreographer Kurt Froman worked with the actress five days a week for four-hour sessions at her home in Los Angeles over a three-and-a-half-month period.
“She had mirrors, a ballet barre and a wood floor that had been put down, so we were working in her garage 90 percent of the time,” explains Froman to Dance Dish. “It was hard because I couldn’t lift her all of the way up because she would hit her head on the ceiling. But, it gave us some privacy and it maximized our time, which was the most important thing.”
Froman has earned a reputation as a “celebrity dance coach,” thanks to his work with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis for Black Swan, Christina Ricci for Z: The Beginning of Everything and Rooney Mara for Song to Song. In addition to his career as a Broadway dancer and choreographer, he’s found a niche that few people specialize in.
When Froman began the project, he worked with Red Sparrow’s choreographer Justin Peck a week before he started training Lawrence. He was there in the rehearsal studio with Isabella Boylston, Laurence’s dance double and James Whiteside, who was filling in for Red Sparrowstar Sergei Polunin.
“Justin walks into the studio with a good sense of what he wants, but there’s a lot of trial and error,” he says.
Once Froman learned Peck’s choreography for Lawrence’s character, he headed back to LA to work with the actress.
“He left me alone to do my thing, which is exactly what I wanted because I trust my abilities,” he shares. “Sometimes hearing from a singular voice is the easiest way for an absolute beginner to understand the material because you can have too many cooks in the kitchen. It can be a little more confusing.”
When you have someone who doesn’t have ballet basics, you have to keep it as simple as possible.
“There are three distinct sections of the choreography. So, the partnering is what I started with because it's an adagio, it's something I talk her through and it’s something I could physically manipulate her body with to go from one step to another,” Froman says.
That simplicity was also included in the language they used. Froman says he would remind her of steps with things like “this is your favorite part” or “this is you reaching for your dog, Pippi.” There was no French ballet terminology used in their rehearsals.
Each rehearsal consisted of a warm-up, a 45-minute ballet barre and then three hours of practice. Director Francis Lawrence wanted Froman to teach Lawrence the full routines because he needed her to be able to follow the footprint of what the dance double Boylston was doing.
Lawrence would master sections of the routine, but she had a hard time remembering the choreography only days later.
“That is one of the struggles of being an absolute beginner because you don’t have the muscle memory for that mind-body coordination,” Froman explains.
In the finished film, the upper bodywork shown on camera is done Lawrence, while any of the intricate footwork en pointe is done by Boylston. Visual effects are used to match Lawrence’s face to Boylston’s dance moves during intricate dance sequences.
Froman shares, “It's virtually impossible to get someone's head-to-toe body trained up in only three months to look like a professional dancer. But Jen had to know the whole dance because the actor needs to be in the same place on stage and has to match the actual choreography for it to be the best match doing any kind of visual effects.”
He noted that Lawrence was great at understanding her body positioning and what was a beautiful or ugly line in ballet. Some of that has to do with her consistent Pilates work with trainer Kit Rich. She would work with Rich for 90 minutes after her four-hour rehearsals with Froman each day.
Lawrence also had to research the Firebird ballet, not only to know what the story was about, but also to understand different dancer interpretations of the role. Former New York City Ballet principal Merrill Ashley’s performance was watched along with archival photos of Melissa Hayden and Maria Tallchief.
Froman gave video updates to the choreographer and director about his work with Lawrence. When they all joined up again, Peck focused his energies on Polunin and Boylston while Froman focused on keeping the actress as comfortable as possible on-set.
“I wanted it to feel as intimate between the two of us as possible when she performed in a theatre full of people,” he explains. “I wanted her to just listen to my voice and not let anything rattle her.”
That’s exactly what why we’re dubbing Froman, the dance whisperer.
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