Interview: Monica Nicolaides Talks Choreography & Movement Direction

Monica Nicolaides has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share when it comes to chatting about working as both Choreographer and Movement Director. She’s a featured choreographer for One Dance UK and has been one of Hiive’s ‘One-to-watch’ and has received support previously from Arts Council England. As someone who has been working across theatre, dance, opera and film, Monica is pretty much a treasure trove as the latest interviewee in the Backstage and Beyond series. Here, she ruminates on some subtle distinctions, discusses work from her impressive portfolio and shines a light on the processes of crafting movement for performance…

How and when would you say you ‘fell’ for theatre and live performance?

I trained in dance, so I was one of those children that started performing straight away in shows. I think my first show was at six or eight years old and being on stage, I loved it (laughs). I just remember the lights and the costumes and I was like ‘oh wow I get to dress up and dance around, this is awesome. And people clap at the end – even more amazing!’ I remember being backstage was so much fun because you had to keep yourself busy, right? But you still had to be quiet, so we had to figure out ways of keeping ourselves busy. I think I was a little bit hooked since then – I think it’s that kind of freedom that you don’t really get in any other places.

So you fell for the applause, the costumes, the twirling and the freedoms – pretty classic! What’s your route into the industry been like then?

It’s been very meandering I’d say – in the sense that I started out as a dancer, so I kept up with my training, went to dance school and did my MA in Performance as a dancer in mapdance. After I graduated, I started auditioning and performing quite a bit. I think after a couple of years in the industry and getting used to rejections (obviously, because it’s part of the job) and to the responses of ‘you just don’t fit’, ‘you’re not what we’re looking for’ rather than ‘you don’t know how to do things that we are looking for’, I realised that my look was very important to get work. I started thinking ‘I’m not sure whether this is the right move for me’. I always enjoyed creating, I just always thought I was going to do that in ten year’s time, not straight away.

I had work that I was developing for myself and I kept saying ‘no, I’m not going to be a choreographer, I’m not ready to produce things. I’m quite happy being on stage and following orders’. One day I was working with a company, and conditions were not the best ones – in terms of funding, hours, it was just a lot of pressure and people were getting injured every single day after a certain point. It was tough choreography but we didn’t have the recovery time, which was always an issue with that kind of work. I remember going to myself ‘I don’t think I should be performing any more, I want to have more control over things’ and I just started choreographing from there.

I created one of my own productions first, then started getting commissions here and there. I slowly started moving away from conventional dance performances and wanted to experiment a lot more. That brought me to more theatre, installations, site-specific work and opera as well. I got to the point where I didn’t want to work with dancers as much, but instead wanted to work with other people – because it just felt for me that I started to get into this place where I was never satisfied with what I was doing and I needed something new. I remember talking to someone about four or five years ago and they were like ‘oh you just need to look into movement, not dancing.’

And that changed my life completely because at the time, I didn’t realise there were movement directors as much as there are now. Obviously there were choreographers coming in as consultants, but you had to be at a certain level to come in to theatre. It was just such an amazing thing to discover that I had the ability and I had the knowledge and the language to go in and be able to fill that role –  and feeling that when collaborating on something, my voice mattered, even if it wasn’t my production.

Thats quite a journey. Im really interested to know then how youd describe the distinction between working with choreography vs movement direction?

It’s a debate within the field as well, to be honest. For me personally, movement direction feels more open – in the sense that as a choreographer, you’re usually a little bit more restricted in terms of the brief, the scene, the music, the costumes, and it needs to fit within whatever it is. And within opera and theatre, although it’s part of a bigger narrative, choreography is much more set and defined. For me there has to be a rhythm with it always.

Movement I feel is a bit more open and it breaks away from those barriers. Sometimes it’s needed; for example in opera, every time I work as a movement director – obviously we have music and you can’t really get away from it – it’s not me telling someone ‘these are the steps’, it’s more about figuring out what works for the character or the scene. So I always find movement direction a little bit more abstract and free because it has to work with whoever’s performing it. It can’t be something I tell someone to do. Whereas with choreography, I always feel that the way I work, I set the scene before I even go in the room. I know the phrasing, the shapes and what kind of scene it is. If it needs to adapt a little it will, and there’s some space for improvisation, but it’s still very much within a structure and it always feels that it’s very clear, like ‘these are your steps, this is your pathway, this is the pattern’.

With movement, sometimes it’s so discrete, or subliminal I’d say, that you don’t really realise until later on that it’s an accumulation of things and I think sometimes there’s a lot more experimentation with movement direction rather than choreography, or at least the way I work anyway.

To me it sounds like the distinction sits with set choreographed movement, usually to music, versus movement direction in terms of focusing on the more subtle elements of physicality to explore characterisation – does that work?

Yes, so you tend to meet quite a few choreographers that are needed for, say, transitions in theatre. In theatre and opera there’s quite a lot of movement for actors or singers entrances or exits, and to sort out transitions. That is the bit that crosses the two, because it’s very much about spacing and who goes where. It’s a bit like Jenga, right? Or Tetris. It’s figuring out the puzzle and making it work so that it all fits and someone doesn’t end up hitting someone else with a tray for example. Because it’s defined, even though it’s not set on music, you’ve put in a structure for a specific reason, and performers have specific cues. That for me is more choreography rather than movement direction, but it’s the point that blurs everything.

Whereas movement direction – say you’re doing The Tempest, and you’re working with Caliban. This character is a very physical one and depending on the interpretation, it requires a movement director to create that physicality with the actor who’s doing it. It’s based on what the director wants but also what is possible to do with the actor’s body. Sometimes you can come in as a creative and go ‘I want to do this amazing thing’ and you realise ‘oh wait, there’s things we need to reconsider here because it doesn’t look like I’ve imagined it’, because sometimes bodies do not work that way and you can’t, you know, wrap someone’s leg around their neck.

I’d say that a movement director doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do, it’s really more about how you do something.

Whats the dynamic between director and movement director like then?

Up to now, every production always felt like more of a collaboration and a discussion with the director. I don’t think it’s always the case in the broad scheme of things, but I tend to work more with people who have a collaborative process. That’s how the relationship can build when coming in as movement director, because you’re still another director – you’re not an assistant to anyone, you’re not an observer or someone following orders; you have a creative input.

Usually the director is the lead artist and you have to be able to communicate with each other. If the director has something very different in their head for a character, and it’s not coming out, maybe the communication with the actor is not there, usually because of time. As a movement director I can facilitate the process by focusing on movement and just be a bit more technical (movement-wise) about it.

If there’s scenes that we watch in rehearsals and I notice something that just doesn’t feel quite right, I need to feel comfortable enough to go to the director and say ‘it’s looking good’ or ‘I think this is the way to fix this’. It might sound like a very minuscule thing but especially within live performance, there’s a big element of how you perceive something in that moment of time.

I feel that as the movement director, I look for the moments where something can be a little bit more powerful in terms of what we want from the scene and I have the conversation with the director. There’s a lot of bouncing off each other – also it’s developing a language in the room that allows the actors to feel that they can morph themselves into the character. Quite a few times that I’ve been in the room, sometimes it’s the embodiment that’s the tricky bit because as a performer, you’re like ‘yeah I know what I need to do and I know what it should look like but it just doesn’t feel right’ and if I have a bit of time with them, we can work together to find out what’s really stopping them from completely immersing themselves.

Lets say you had an actor then, playing Caliban, who wasnt particularly agile but perfect for the role. What kind of approaches and exercises would you employ to get the best out of them?

There’s lots of exercises to do. I went to Laban so I do tend to take a little bit of inspiration from that, but also most of my work looks at human behaviour and body language so I sometimes work from the emotional state. Sometimes, I get actors to tap into their own experiences to connect with the character. A lot of it is building confidence. If people are not confident with doing certain things then it’s not that they cant do them; they just don’t feel natural doing it because it’s not something that they’re used to.

There’s a lot of visualisation that I use, but the warm-up I always find is super important and I think now performers are much more open to coming in and warming up not just vocally but also physically. For example, singers are amazing, and the voice is such an important thing that they focus on that sometimes they forget about the body, so it’s quite nice just for five or ten minutes to get everyone together and really just warm up literally every muscle in your body – it also helps you to stop thinking about everything else that’s going on outside and helps you to focus as well.

So I assume then that you approach a choreography job very differently to a movement direction job – how does your process begin even before you get into a rehearsal room?

If it’s pure choreography, I need to have the music. Even if I have a really big open brief, I really need the music (laughs) I cannot stress that enough! Because there is the assumption that you hear the music and suddenly you know the steps and I definitely don’t work that way (laughs). I probably need to hear the music like six or seven hundred times before I go ‘okay, now I know what I want to do’. A couple of music videos I did, I only had maybe a day for rehearsals so that’s not a lot, especially if you don’t know your dancers beforehand. So you need to be ready with the choreography set before you go in. That means having the music, choreographing at your own time and also having a bit of a contingency plan if something might not work. At least that’s the way I work. I have a couple of friends of mine who are like ‘I just need to feel it’ and then they just move – I’m not that way!

If it’s a bigger production, I start with class if I have the luxury of having an hour or two – more to see how people move, to get warmed up, and because I can start throwing in things that we’re probably going to do in the choreography anyway and it starts giving the performers the time to familiarise themselves with my style of movement as well.  If I ever have the choice of one full day of rehearsal or two half days, I’ll always choose two half days. Time in between rehearsals lets your body settle with all the new movement that you’ve absorbed, so the second time around, things look ten times more natural, and they make sense because you’re giving yourself that time to breathe and become familiar with the style.

For both, there’s quite a bit more preparation, probably because there’s not much time, and there’s a lot to remember – I have to make sure they’ve got the movement by the end of the day. You may have a day here and a day there, and you just pray that they remember everything because the schedule is so tight. The good thing about movement direction is if it’s not the exact steps, it’s not that big of a deal; in choreography, it can really mess things up sometimes, especially if it’s fast paced or contact work – and I do tend to work a lot with contact!

And you work across dance, theatre, opera and film which just sounds phenomenally challenging. What are the major considerations of each field – and by that I guess I mean, which are the most far apart in terms of your approach?

I think film is a beast of its own. I’ve only done short films and music videos up to now, but that’s just different. You mostly work on scenes so it feels like a short thing; you come in, you do your thing and you get out. I think the difference is, with film, the work needs to be done before being on set. Anything live like theatre, and I will say opera up to a point, if you’re in tech week, you still have the luxury of changing a few things. With filming, especially music videos, it’s measured in scenes, everything is premeditated so you can’t go in there and go ‘I’m just going to change the whole thing’ without a reason. So freedom is very limited. And if you’ve booked to film in a room for say ten hours, you can’t extend it.  You need to have as many takes as you can so you can’t really waste time.

So film is far less collaborative compared with working on live productions?

I think so, it still is at the moment. Things are changing quite a bit and it’s really nice to see, but it’s still very much in departments. You’re probably not going to see the costumes until the day of filming. You might see images of it or something similar, if they still haven’t sourced it.

How do you cope then if and when costumes impacts upon movement and flexibility?

Well it depends. You have to just have a plan of adapting a little bit when you’re there. We did a music video and we were talking about this person being in a car accident and coming out of the car to dance. I had an idea of what we were working with, but we didn’t actually see how the performer would move in costume until the day. They decided ‘okay we’ll have blood effects but we can’t smear things because of continuity. It takes time to re-set everything and we didn’t have any other costumes for the performer to wear’. So we just had to work around that, changing a little bit of the movement so that it worked with the costume.

Can I ask if you feel a pull towards a particular field in terms of enjoyment?

I do love working in film quite a bit. I think it’s because of the fact that it’s so many departments coming together and you don’t really know what everyone’s been doing till you see it.

So its a bit like show-and-tell?

Yes, like, the art department, they don’t know how I prepare for it so they’re not going to know what the final choreography is until the day. The only ones who really know everything are probably the director and the producer. There’s something about working on a closed set, it’s basically a group of people all pushing against time, and what’s really nice and really horrible at the same time is once the day’s done, there are no re-takes.

So you enjoy the pressure, being up against the clock and the surprises?

Yes, I do! That’s what is really nice about it because you can film something a few times but at the end of the day you’re like ‘okay I’m done, I don’t have to worry about the next three weeks it being as good’. It’s a final product and you can pick and choose the really good scenes. With live performance, you might get a really good day and then the next one just doesn’t feel as good. You try to figure out why, and half the time everyone was doing the same thing but the vibe wasn’t there. That’s always the excitement of live work.

It does sound very varied – Im not sure how Id handle the need to be that adaptable!

It very much is the same thing, your medium is just different. You’re still choreographing or using movement, whatever it is. You’re still working with performers, in whatever capacity, I just always think of the frame as my stage so I already know where my audience is most of the time anyway, and from there on, the only variant is music and the setting.

Can I ask if theres been a particular piece that you still get gooey eyed about, that feels particularly special?

I don’t think I have one…

You love all of your children equally eh?

Yes, I think they’re all perfection in my eyes – not (laughs). I think the one I’m very much attached to, still, is Nurture Vs Nature (Nu.V.Na) because it was the first production I did, my first time taking the plunge with choreography. It was something brewing for about three or four years beforehand and I think I was very ambitious with it, given the choreography. I think it put things in perspective at that time and looking back on it now, I feel like it’s got so much potential as a piece of work, it just really needs to be reworked – for me, where I am now. Taking the plunge going from performer to choreographer, was really scary because it forces you to work a different way. It’s probably why I don’t really like watching my own shows live. I like watching them later (laughs).

Ill be interested to know what your answer will be to the next question then…what would you say the biggest joys and challenges are for you in these roles?

I love the troubleshooting part of it. Spacing and cleaning choreography or scenes are probably some of my favourite things. I think for many it’s tedious because it’s repetitive and if someone’s really detail-oriented, they’re probably going to go over every single detail of every single movement. I remember when I was a performer, I used to love it because afterwards I could say ‘okay, great, I know exactly what I’m doing and I know what to do to fix it’. It gets to that point of detail where your arm is here but it needs to be here (laughs). There’s something quite cathartic about the process. Just going back and saying ‘okay this really works, we just need to make sure that the quality’s there’.

That and being on set, working with lights – actually, working with lighting designers on set and on stage is always really cool, I love it – with the colour, shades, mood, any shapes. I feel it transforms the space, especially if it’s something that is very considered. It’s the first time you get to see the whole thing as a complete work rather than imagining and piecing everything together your mind.

What about challenges then?

I think time. There’s never enough time. Never.

Its notorious for it though isnt it?

It is, and I was thinking about this actually, today. I was looking into something and it is literally: however much time they give you, it’s as much time you need for work. It doesn’t matter if they give you three weeks or four weeks or five weeks, you’re still going to feel you’re running out of time. That and budget, but everyone says that!

Your practice is influenced by human behaviour and relationships in current society. How do you envision our current situation impacting on your work in the future? I mean, our whole relationship with physicality and contact has completely changed, right?

I think there’s going to be the two extremes. I feel there’s going to be a lot of people, not just in our industry but in general, who feel that they’re steering clear of people for a very long time, whether it’s because they’re enjoying the comfort of their own space on their own terms or because they have to to protect themselves.

In studios, they’ve basically already set those little squares for everyone to have their personal space. I think it makes things a lot more stressful. I think dancers are going to have the biggest problem with it of all performers because contact is such a huge thing, not just part of your training but also in the way you communicate with people. If you’ve basically spent most of your life specialising and working in a medium which is basically about how we communicate, it’s really really tough to tell all these people ‘you’re not going to dance the way you did anymore.’

 I think it is going to take a while, hopefully not as much as people think. I think this next year at least, if not the next year and a half, it’s going to be tricky to persuade that things go back to normal without knowing what normal is. I don’t think we should go back to normal either, I think we should figure out a different way to update a lot of things in the industry. In a way, it’s the perfect chance to do it because everyone has come to a stand-still.

We just have to hope time is being used wisely.

Yes. And then there’s going to be the other extreme, who are going to be like hugging everyone. They are going to sit next to people and start experimenting with contact. I think it’s gonna take a little bit of time to be fully comfortable with it, especially with people that you don’t live with or you’re not in daily contact with. But it’s going to be extremely challenging to set shows in a way that it doesn’t feel awkward and that it’s not just being done for safety reasons.

The Old Vic have already started performances – as we’ve seen – and they are keeping social distancing on stage, but I don’t think it’s sustainable unless you change a complete venue. The art form doesn’t work that way; and it’s not just live work, it’s also filmed work. You sometimes get 20 people in a room and they’re all standing behind a camera. It’s a lot of logistics. It’s going to be exciting to figure it out, if we can figure it out, but there’s definitely going to be a lot of growing pains. I think it’s opening people up to working digitally a lot more as well, instead of sticking to traditional stage work.

People are certainly not going to be able to fight this progress with technology I think, it’s become so central so suddenly.

Yes, and it’s nice that people are embracing outdoor work a lot more because it felt like a very niche thing. Now people are starting to realise, actually, you don’t have to be in a theatre to watch and enjoy art, whatever performance it is. The biggest problem that theatre always had is it’s too expensive to go – it’s that excuse, right? And I’m saying it’s an excuse in the sense that I totally get that it’s not the cheapest art forms of entertainment but if you compare it to cinema or going to concerts with hundreds of thousands of people, you’re not that far off price-wise. I know it’s not the same thing, I totally agree with that, but it’s starting to put things into perspective, that there are ways around watching performance, outside maybe.

It’s also very important for access, allowing things to be recorded and streamed for people that can’t go for various reasons. And it’s also encouraging and building a new audience which I think we really need. We can’t really afford to just stick with the people who are happy to come because they’re happy to come; we need to get younger people in, people that really haven’t experienced it or weren’t exposed to it. We need to accept that we probably need to be more open in how avante-garde we need to be in that sense. I think there’s room for all kinds, that’s the nice thing about it.

What would you say to someone considering a career in movement direction or choreography? What kind of advice to you wish you’d have had early on?

Really know your practice. Movement is such a big thing, as is choreography. Movement directors specialise in a certain types of styles of movement, everyone has their own style. In choreography, there’s contemporary, ballet, jazz, classical. Movement direction I think has a little bit of that as well in terms of the techniques used. If you did your masters or director’s training and you come in from that route, many talk about  Lecoq, Alexander Technique fo example. They’re all very valid ways of working, but [you need to think about] whether you want to stick primarily one or two techniques or be influenced by many. I came from a dance background, so I felt that my interest in analysing movement, as clinical as that sounds, is what made me feel more confident in this role.

Also, do lots of people watching. You can pick up so much just by going to the zoo or watching a documentary on somewhere you’ve never been before, and not just hearing what people are saying but watching how they interact. And if you can, put some music on so you don’t hear what people are saying and just see how they move, how they interact with each other.  With animals as well, I find that we have so much in common with animals. Formal technique is important, but there’s something about building on that idea of observation and reading between the lines when it comes to watching people. Keep watching.

I think if you really want to go into the industry, from a practical stance, it’s important to meet as many people as possible, watch as many shows possible and if you can, go to rehearsals and observe for anything. It makes you understand how the industry works because I think that’s one thing we don’t really get in training. You are taught in an ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ scenario, but it doesn’t really work like that when you are a professional. There is no right ‘pathway’ in that sense, you have to start building relationships, it’s really important.

Last question then, whats next for you and how can we access your work?

At the moment, everything I’m working on is in very early stages and we don’t know when it’s happening, for obvious reasons. There are things happening, we are finalising a few things – it’s too soon to announce anything because there’s a lot of logistics involved!

What I have done over the last few weeks is a number of online movement workshops, so I might start that again. It’s Zoom classes, mini workshop series for actors and creatives working in film and theatre, which I’m going to bring back after September. Dates will be announced soon. After September, there’s a prospective project. I announce upcoming events on social media, so that’s probably the best place to find out anything!

So there you have it! To keep up to date with Monica’s work, take a look at her website and be sure to follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For all other interviews in the Backstage and Beyond series, head here.

Image credits (in order): Cover image: Danilo Moroni
1: MonixArts
2: Peregrina EnChatica
3: Thierry Rachedi
4: Anna Kiss
5: Ray Malone
6: Tereza Wilson
7: Smile Music Video
8: Teresa Wilson
9: Matthew Johnson
10: Tereza Wilson

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