The Place: Given that most of your work is firmly in the commercial pop culture sector, were you always secretly a musical theatre kind of guy?
Anthony van Laast: The strange thing is that when I trained at the London School of Contemporary Dance and later joined the London Contemporary Dance Theatre I actually had no interest whatsoever in Musical Theatre. I didn’t really have an interest in the pop world, I was completely focused on being a contemporary dancer. I hadn’t even choreographed very much, because working with phenomenal choreographers in this building – Robert Cohan, doing Martha Graham’s work, Merce Cunningham was our teacher – the idea of choreographing was really quite intimidating for me. It was purely by chance I started working with Kate Bush doing videos with her, dancing with her in the beginning and then I started choreographing for her. This was a kind of world that I felt secure to choreograph in and that was my breakthrough into the video world and then later the musical theatre world.
The Place: Is there something you learned in contemporary dance that you find is still really useful or helpful in your work now?
AvL: I was very lucky to train at the London School of Contemporary Dance because through Bob Cohan in the school and later in the company I learned so much about theatre. Dance was just the language we used to make theatre. And so, the principles I learned from Bob and from working at The Place, I was then able to take out of this building and into all the other work I’ve done from movies to musicals.
The Place: How is working on film different to working in theatre?
AvL: Working on film is unbelievably different to working in theatre! Choreographing for theatre is much more about the two dimensions because you are normally working in a proscenium arch facing the audience, whereas working in film you have a 360˚ rotating eye on whatever you’re doing. So, when you choreograph for film, all the time you’re moving around, you see the camera move and you’re looking at whatever you’re choreographing from so many different angles. There are so many more choices in film. Also, in theatre you may know what you want the audience to watch, but they could be watching anything, they could be looking at the proscenium, they could be looking at the orchestra … When you are working in film you can absolutely prescribe by your shot what you want the audience to see, that’s why I love film.
The Place: How do you go about planning chorography for a feature film, how do you guide that 360˚ eye?
AvL: Choreographing for film is a long process. I work a lot in small workshops, getting ideas first with my own troupe of dancers, and then I work with storyboard artists working out the shots. I film everything I want in the studio, so by the time we actually go on to the main stage, every shot is worked out, every angle is worked out, because a filming day costs a quarter of a million pounds! So therefore, you need to know exactly what you want to do so there’s no experimentation, you absolutely go in there and you film every stepping stone you’ve prepared along the way.
The Place: This term and last terms you’ve been working with the MA Screendance students. What do you enjoy about working with them?
AvL: I really love it. It’s so important to work with younger people with different ideas, with different approaches. I’m teaching them stuff, I hope, but also being with them and seeing the work they’re doing is really interesting and inspirational. I’m enjoying it very much. I also consider it a responsibility of those of us who’ve been in the dance world and worked in the dance world to teach. You only learn, especially in the dance world, from word of mouth so I really enjoy passing on my thoughts to them.
The Place: I feel like a lot of your work is centred around very strong, positive women – Mamma Mia, Sister Act, Tina The Musical, Cher – is that something you do consciously? Are you drawn to strong female stories?
AvL: Am I drawn to strong women who are sometimes called divas… (laughs) I don’t think you always end up choosing who you’re going to work with. I mean I’m a freelancer! I wait for the phone to ring or I get a text message and it’s another diva! It just happened that way. I’ve also done a lot of work not with divas, but it’s not been so successful. Maybe I’m good at working with tough women.
The Place: Lastly, can you share some great celebrity gossip?
AvL: The trouble is that some of it is so gossipy I can’t even talk about it… I think Pierce Brosnan is a great case really. When we were doing Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again, Pierce was untiringly skipping up and down all the hill sides and I stopped him and said to him “Pierce, do you mind skipping up and down all these mountains?” And he said “Listen, it makes a lot of people very happy, so as long as I make them happy, I don’t care really.” Pierce Brosnan is a really lovely man. There’s so many gossipy stories I can’t even…
The Place: What can people expect from An Evening with Anthony van Laast?
AvL: For the evening I’m doing here at The Place in March I’m going to talk a little bit about myself and my backgrounds and how somebody from the rarefied world of Contemporary Dance has moved into mainstream commercial theatre and then moved from musical commercial theatre into film. I’m going to talk about my passion for film and I’m going to show different clips of films and talk about the work experience and how I create things especially for film and then I’m going to show, with my MA students here, little bits of their choreography and their film because it’s just all about my passion for film.
Anthony Van Laast will share his experience as one of the world’s leading choreographers in stage and film.