Wed 19 Apr 2023

The language of dance… with Jess Williams

Jess Williams started dancing when she was a teenager and discovered a whole new language that she loved. She has brought this love of the language of dance to our current production of 'Around the World in 80 Days' with such beauty and precision, it has to be seen to be believed! We asked her how she did this...

When were you asked to be a part of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’?

Hal and I met back at the end of last year, October or November 2022. We didn’t know each other prior to this project so he had contacted me through my website. We’ve got a lot of mutual friends from doing this kind of work and he’d seen something that I’d made, and that show had a lot of travelling in it (laughs), moving from place to place and so he thought I’d be suitable for this I guess.

What was that production?

It was called ‘The Boy with Two Hearts’, it’s a very different show to this, about a family of 5 that journey from Afghanistan to South Wales (BTW Jess is Welsh) in the year 2000. It’s a refugee story about a family who ends up in Cardiff and makes it their home.

Did you bring anything you learnt from that into this?

I guess so, you always bring the experience from every job with you in a way. It was a really really different show, but I think, like this, how many different ways can you show travelling? How many ways can you tell a story and when is it still interesting? How do you set up a language, so people know what is going on but also keep developing the language, so it doesn’t become predictable? There’s nothing predictable about this show (laughs). And Hal had so many cool ideas that gave us a really clear direction to head in.

How did you get into movement?

I originally trained as a dancer, a long time ago now obviously, at the London Contemporary Dance School, which is right in the middle of London. Then I did a year at the Laban Centre, then I worked in the dance world for a while and then I met a company called Frantic Assembly who are a Theatre company who use a lot of physicality. I started working for them and sort of transitioned more into theatre than dance through all the work they gave me. So, I became more of a Movement Director but with them I did a bit of everything in terms of movement, a bit of performing, bit of making, developing ideas. So that was my Segway into theatre and now I mainly work as a Movement Director for Theatre.

When did you realise that dance was important to you?

I came to dance quite late, in dance terms, I didn’t really start dancing until my teens. I was really attracted to the physicality; it suited my temperament. I guess even then I was interested in telling stories physically, even if I didn’t know it then, otherwise I would have been interested in writing. I think it was unlikely that I wasn’t going to ever do anything that wasn’t creative. Math’s wasn’t really an option, mind you math’s can be creative! (laughs)

After working and training in dance for a while, where I loved the physical discipline of it all and the beauty of it and the beauty of bodies, there was a point where I missed story a lot. Some contemporary dance it is more abstract. Personally, I wanted to find ways of telling stories that is accessible because I think often that, by adding movement to a play, it means more people can access it. More people can be moved by it because everyone reads stories in a different way. By aiming to make it a more complete experience with movement and sound and the way you use the set and the text and all the other elements, I think you’re more likely to reach people.

Do you have a memory from when you were younger, when you first found that love of movement and dance?

My dad was really good when I started dancing as a teenager, there were loads of theatres about in South Wales, where I’m from. There seemed to be loads of stuff going on at that time. I remember really clearly seeing a company called Earthfall who don’t exist anymore, but they were a physical theatre company in Cardiff. They were more on the dance side, but they used text too and it was really devised and was raw, energetic stuff. I have really clear memories of that and thinking ‘oh yeah, Id’ love to do that!’.

At the time in Wales, in the late 90’s, it felt as though there was a lot of community dance that was really accessible. There was loads of stuff that I was doing, like cheap, accessible and creative. It was as much that side of stuff as well as seeing stuff, the doing and performing that started me off. Then when I went to train, I didn’t have loads of technique, in terms of traditional ballet but I had done a load of performing because these youth companies all around South Wales that were just brilliant. That is what pulled me in.

My dad took me to the theatre when I first went, he really got into it as well. I went to dance classes on my own but my dad was really supportive, supportive parents are really useful (laughs).

What were your first thoughts about Around the World in 80 Days?

How are we going to do an elephant (laughs)? I had a read of the script before we met, and noted down all of the events and halfway into the first half I was like OMG so much happens in this play because it moves so quickly. My initial reaction was there is so much possibility for movement, obviously, because they are constantly journeying. There are fantasy sequences written into the script too so my initial was response was ‘yeah it’s going to be really really cool and also there’s a LOT!’. I also loved the energy Hal approached it with, he made it seem doable and really exciting.

How do you then break that down?

I normally write down a list of all the immediate things that are either obvious or written into the script like a movement section or musical numbers. Then I make another list of things that could be movement that might not be immediately obvious, possibilities and initial ideas I’m excited by. This show has some really obvious bits where you need to get from one place to another. Then for the rest of it there’s endless of possibilities for what you could do. The scenes are really snappy aren’t they?

How do you know when to stop?

Yeah it’s sometimes hard to know when to stop. The way I work is layered anyway, so I like to make work in collaboration with actors. I don’t normally teach steps or not initially anyway. I set them a creative task and then shape what they make into what we need for that sequence or number . I’ve sort of got an idea of the finished product in mind, they might not know what that is but we make some material and then I’ll mold it. That’s layer 1, a rough cut, then I start thinking about all the other stuff that goes on top of it if it’s musicality, structure story and loads of other physical detail. So we’re layering, layering, layering and in that way I guess it is like painting and you have to work out when you need to stop. When do you leave it and how long do you keep finessing it and certainly with a show this busy you feel as though you could just keep going. We could easily spend another 3 to 4 weeks going ‘oh this, that, change this!’

Will you try to see the show again and see how it’s developed since you left it on Opening Night?

I hope so, I really want to see it in Hull Truck Theatre, and it’s going to be really interesting to see what they’ve done with it and how it’s evolved. I think with this show, with the amount of costume changes and stuff it’s going to feel really full on for a while. I’m interested to see when all of that stuff has settled what else the actors find on top of it. Things will naturally get faster and slicker. So sometimes it’s a bit of a game, a bit of a balancing act and it can be a good thing or a bad thing.

Have you had a moment yet that you could see what you were hoping to achieve at the beginning?

I’m not sure if I’ve had it yet because the technical sessions have been crazy the last few days (this interview was recorded before the very first dress rehearsal and preview night). I’ve been running around on stage trying to work it all out with the actors. There are going to be some really magical bits of this show, I really loved working with Ben and Anna (Music Composers – see their interview). The speed with which they made stuff was incredible and the quality of what they’ve produced is brilliant. The way they respond to what we make physically is magical! They have a great way of accenting everything we’re doing and the personality they’ve given to the show is really brilliant. It’s felt really collaborative too, ideas have evolved really naturally.

The music is really modern sounding even though the production is set in Victorian days, I think it grabs peoples attention.

How much adapting your movement to suit the actor influences what you do?

What I try and do is come in with an idea and a task that means everybody can approach it in their own way. I try not to have to undo the way somebody moves. So essentially everything the actors are doing are things that they have made, and it fits them and it fits their bodies. We talk about the physicality of their character but that of course is based on their physicality as themselves as well. I have a conceptual idea and a structure in mind and then the actual moves are dictated by what the actors are able to create. In my experience with actors, that’s how to get the best out of their bodies and working with them. They’ve been a great bunch of actors to work with, really creative! (laughs)