Like the Elizabeth Bennets and Fitzwilliam Darcys before them, Jo March and Theodore Laurence are brought together thanks to one iconic dance. In the case of Greta Gerwig's Oscar-winning Little Women adaptation, there are four dances, but the efforts of choreographer Monica Bill Barnes and associate choreographer Flannery Gregg mean the scenes are so seamlessly woven into the plot that Louisa May Alcott's timeless story feels like one big cotillion.
Even though they were responsible for one of the film’s most talked about scenes, Barnes and Gregg were not stringent with their choreography. While each dance was planned, edited, and rehearsed, the beauty of Little Women’s organized chaos meant embracing every bump and bruise when the cameras turned on. This freedom even gave background performers the room to explore their own stories, something actor and dancer Preston Martin took to heart.
“I had this whole storyline for my character,” Martin told me a recent morning ahead of the Oscars, where Little Women would win for Best Costume Design. “I decided that I wanted to be the one queer at the party. I was like, This will just be so much more fun if I can be myself.”
Martin and Gregg first worked together in 2018 as director and movement director, respectively, on New York University’s “The Reality Show,” an elaborate, informational variety show. A year ago, Gregg brought Martin to Boston to join the cast as a dancer. Through a series of coincidences, I end up sitting across from them at Refinery29’s office, eager to hear any new gossip about a film I’d already read literally everything about — and the two deliver.
I’d seen the film three times in the cinema, which is another testament to Gerwig, Barnes, Gregg, and Martin’s work. Each time, I discovered a new line, moment, or meaning, and talking to Gregg and Martin, I experienced a similar feeling of discovery. The collaborators took me not only behind the scenes of how stars Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, and Emma Watson prepared for their dance numbers but also inside Martin’s own unique storyline as a queer character hiding in plain sight of this 19th century story.
“My brain has never worked so hard,” Gregg said of the rewarding process. It’s almost enough to make me head to the cinema for round four.
Refinery29: First of all, what was it like just being on that magical set?
Preston Martin: “What was very special was walking around in these costumes between locations. There was a holding room, which was an old Quaker house that had been preserved. Boston already feels like it's in between so many different eras.”
Flannery Gregg: “I love seeing everyone in their tux and tails and dresses just eating like it's 2020.”
Martin: “It is frightening because at that moment, you have all of the crew and all of the extras [for] the day all in one spot. It's like high school. You're like, Oh God. Do I have a seat? And of course everybody's kind, but you're still like, I'm only going to be here for a day and I just want to feel comfortable for this day. I just want friends. Our little dance group, I think it was 10 of us or so, we stuck together.”
Preston, tell me about dancing with Emma Watson during her character’s debutante ball scene. That one was really tonally different than the other dances.
Martin: “We were dancing to ‘Let's Dance’ and it was on repeat.I love David Bowie a lot — I have done David Bowie drag before. I did completely lose myself, but not in the world of the party, but in the world of, like, none of these things belong together and this fucking queer body does not belong here. I really got off on that.”
Wait, you played a queer character?
Martin: “I had this whole storyline for my character. I decided that I wanted to be the one queer at the party. I was like, this will just be so much more fun if I can be myself. I had this partner and every time the cameras were rolling, I would start talking to her about how her dress was fitting. I had decided that I had built her dress, and for weeks [our characters] have been planning this. I'm telling her like, It fits pretty well, I think we chose the right colour. This is all really wonderful and I'll be right back [mimes turning to another person] I think we did a really good job on your dress. So my secret was that I had built everyone’s dress. That was a really fun way to fill the time and also for me to queer [a story] that is already very politically relevant.”
In general, how much preparation went into the dances?
Gregg: “You build a dance for the movie and then Monica and I would build three or four or five versions. We wanted to be ready if Greta wanted a vibe shift. So we had all these dances lined up, but then within each of those dances on the day, we were like, we actually have to cut this one in half and then do the end of one into another and maybe switch partners to make those connected tissue shifts on the day. My brain has never worked so hard.”
I want to hear everything you can tell me about working with that amazing cast.
Gregg: “Monica's work is very grounded in music that is nostalgic and fun to dance to. So Timothée, Emma, Eliza — even though Beth doesn't dance, she was there — Saoirse, we were all there for one [practice] day. Monica took us through some warm-up type thing that makes you okay with your vulnerability”
Martin: “In the rehearsals, me and Emma were dance partners. She was like such a dream and I just remember feeling so respected by her. I shouldn't be surprised but I was, not because of her, but just because of celebrity in general. You never know how their day is, what they've experienced in the process. Things can be really difficult and overwhelming. It felt like it was artists-to-artist. The cotillion is all about push and pull, and tension and release. It's very sexy without any sexual elements to it.”
Gregg: “Both [Chalamet] and Saoirse have a kind of force to their movement and a momentum to it that is hard not to get captivated by. I got to dance with [Chalamet] as Jo and I got to dance with Saoirse as Laurie. Timothée would always surprise me with how far he travelled with his chassé. He was so game to try all the beats.”
Were there any major challenges filming these complex choreographies?
Gregg: “Greta would let the camera roll for a good amount of time, like 15 minutes. And then at a certain point, the structured choreography loosened up and we all were doing the same vocabulary but different tracks. I think, especially for the German beer hall scene, it allowed us to look like a topsy-turvy, swoopy beer hall dance. That's when Saoirse and I bumped into each other. And they kept the bump.”
Martin: “There was a dance that I struggled to pick up...We were kind of messing it up. And then there was like sort of this realization, it's like, Oh, but that, that would happen. If we mess it up, we just laugh about it and then hop back in as we can because it's not meant to be choreographed and clean.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.