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When three worlds collide: choreography, academia and the world of Bridgerton

Heidi Ashton on set at Bridgerton
The Netflix series Bridgerton has taken the world by storm. One of the most watched television programmes of all time, it tells the story of an imaginary family, in an imaginary world which looks like Georgian England. Dr Heidi Ashton, assistant professor in Creative Industries at Warwick’s Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies was assistant choreographer for the series. She talks about her experience and explains some of the creative processes involved in mashing the modern with the fashions of the period.
Bridgerton is not historically accurate - so what?

Bridgerton is not for the historical purist, that’s for sure! But it was never meant to be a slave to history. It is not a museum piece or a documentary or even a dramatisation of a story from that era. The author Julia Quinn is a contemporary American novelist. The intention, as I understood it from my position as assistant choreographer, was to have something that was sympathetic to the imagined time period in which it was set, but also that was relatable for a contemporary and inter-generational audience. It is a world of 'what if'.

Every element had to be connected and coherent to create the world that the Bridgertons inhabit; this meant walking a fine line between the imagined era and the contemporary feel and for this to work without jarring or distracting the viewer, all of the elements of the show had to pull together.

This is the job I did in terms of the choreography. If it had been a purely historic piece, the lead choreographer was an expert on the period - so he could easily have achieved the required end product but, accurate, historic dances would have jarred with the more contemporary elements of the narratives and aesthetics of the show. It was also true that if the choreography had been too contemporary it would have jarred with the period aesthetic and the world would have been less believable. So it was a tricky balancing act that required the creation of many versions of the dances. But ultimately the whole world comes together and is coherent and I think that’s why it works so well.

Historical accuracy is important elsewhere

Some people may say it is essential that programmes set in a given period are perfectly accurate, but others may argue artistic expression and connecting with an audience more important. I’d say it depends what you're doing and whether the world you are creating hangs together. If you are creating a dramatisation of someone's life, someone who is well documented and well researched, like a bio pic, then it is more important to remain true to the historical context for the narrative to work and for the aesthetic to serve it well. Similarly, any factual entertainment or historical programming should reflect the era accurately. There is certainly a place for historic accuracy if that is the vision and the world that is being created.

It is also extremely important that we understand the historic context even when we create a new world. So we ask questions like why did people dance in groups? How did they learn the dances? Why was it important? What were the social norms of the time? What was happening in this context in this era? Without this foundation of knowledge and understanding the creative process will lack integrity with the narrative and the piece. Elements of Bridgerton are historically accurate. You won’t see a plug socket in the corner of a shot for example. But it is also important to have space for creativity and innovation in story-telling, particularly in fiction.

Planned, rehearsed but never finalised

I was brought on board for Bridgerton by the choreographer, a renowned historic dance expert and movement director from an acting background. We had just worked on a project requiring a similar combination of his historical knowledge and my more dance focused background. So, when he got the job I was employed to assist him in creating the movement vocabulary and dances for the show.

Heidi Ashton on set My work on Bridgerton ranged from researching dances, music and aesthetics, reading the script and workshopping ideas to assist the narrative, auditioning dancers, developing the movement vocabulary and dances, teaching and rehearsing the dancers and cast and creating very detailed plans of exactly what steps were danced when. For each dance this included the music title, version, time signatures, beats per minute, bar numbers, counts for each step and all times precise to the second. The dances were not created in isolation, they need to serve the script and the narrative which involved all departments working together so that the set designs, hair and make-up, costumes and script came together to create a coherent whole for this imagined world and for each particular ball or scene. On set I worked with the sound department to cue the music and ensure the dancers could hear it, resolving any issues and of course, rehearsing and positioning dancers and rehearsing with the cast.

But just because it is planned and rehearsed doesn’t mean it goes ahead. Our job is really to give the director choices which means the dancers sometimes have to adjust the steps they have learned between takes. What you don’t see in a finished shot is that dancers may need to do part of a dance, change orientation, create a new pattern, leave the dance floor to avoid tracks and equipment, then join in another position or adjust their dancing to allow a steady cam through, being aware of everything around them but without ever looking. They are very highly skilled, they can do this without a hint of hesitation or concern and will be able to reproduce the dances accurately with various changes take after take. Over the years I have learned so much about being behind the camera and seeing what the camera sees, how it changes the perception of space and generates the ‘feel’ of the moment. This of course changes where people are positioned and how they move in the actual space on set.

The whole process of learning the dances takes patience and focus and last minute changes require the ability to adapt and learn in the moment. All of the cast (and I include the many dancing lords and the Prince here!) and crew from directors, to props, were an absolute joy to work with. It was humbling and I learned so much from them all. The energy that they brought to every rehearsal and every shoot was incredible.

Dance brings something extraordinary to a production

Dance and music existed long before there was money, economies, or 'culture' as it is constructed today. It is part of our essence and our being. There are three core elements that dance brings to all media, but particularly film and TV. First is an understanding of movement or the meaning in movement. The way that we hold ourselves, where our weight is, how it relates to our breath, the agility or restriction of limbs, the energy behind a movement or within it can tell us something. It gives us non-verbal cues that can convey a huge amount to an audience with no words at all and sometimes captured in one image. Secondly, dance can provide context as it is constantly formed and reformed throughout history and the cultural meanings attached to it can be pivotal in conveying a narrative or portraying a mood or an atmosphere. Third, dance is an aesthetic in motion which can be particularly powerful in visual art forms such as film and TV. It taps into something very fundamental within us - there's a reason why Tik Tok dance challenges are so popular.

An academic but always a dancer

I first developed my love for the visual arts and dance, having seen my first panto at a small, local theatre. I was struck by the joy and expression in the dancing. I pestered Mum for over a year and eventually started dancing aged nine. I fell in love with the art form instantly. I loved the expression, the freedom and the discipline. I loved how it felt to dance and to watch and be moved by dance. I was fortunate enough to have a local dance school that provided outstanding training (not that I understood it at the time) and then gained a place at a professional performing arts college 'Laine Theatre Arts' aged 16.

As a dancer I knew that my career was finite and I was also aware that with no A levels my opportunities outside the profession were limited. So, I started a course with the Open University, whilst working and touring as a dancer. As time went on, I realised that I could maybe get a degree so I specialised in psychology and completed my studies. At this point I have to pay tribute to the opportunity that the Open University gave me, this is not something I could have achieved any other way and it restored my curiosity. I embarked on an MSc by distance learning at Birkbeck which helped to develop my passion for performance psychology. I still work as a sports psychologist and am fortunate to work with elite athletes. The pressures for athletes are similar to those for performers and athletes and dancers have much in common.

I had been working as a choreographer and occasionally an assistant for some time when an opportunity arose for a teaching assistant job with PhD studies at the Centre for Labour Market Studies (CLMS, University of Leicester). By this time I had definitely gained a thirst for learning and research. This was in no small part due to people in academia who encouraged, supported and believed in me. Not so many people were interested in the creative industries sector at the time and my PhD proposal based on the career transitions of freelance dancers won me the job and enabled me to work in academia whilst gaining my PhD and still working in the sector, albeit with less intensity.

I moved to the Centre for Culture and Media Policy Studies at Warwick in 2019. It was an absolute perfect fit bringing together my practical and academic work. The research at the centre was exactly the area what I was hoping to develop, not only for the benefit of academic advancement but for the industry as a whole. When I was told I had the job I confessed on the phone to doing my ‘happy dance'!

As someone who works across both sides, I would say the academic and the industry parts of my work inform each other. It isn't always easy to extract that interaction or look at it from one side only. I'm a fan of collaboration and really it's having opportunities to collaborate that have been most influential both in my view of the academic literature and the creative industries. I would say that academia has definitely broadened my understanding of the range of influences and challenges for the sector but equally experiencing the work ‘from the coal face’ informs that understanding in a more nuanced way. I am gripped by that dynamic. My academic work has undoubtedly provided me with new perspectives but sitting somehow in the middle and seeing both sides is interesting and offers opportunities to actually affect positive developments in the sector. This is what really excites me.

An academic word on Bridgerton

From my perspective I think Bridgerton is really fascinating. As a piece of art I think it's use of the sensibilities of the past to expose inequalities of the present whilst providing empowering narratives is really interesting. Stories are very powerful in that respect. I appreciate that not everyone will view it through this lens and I have read scholarly interpretations from other perspectives.

From the perspective of a production, the production values are exceptionally high and this is really interesting because the onset of streaming would have suggested a race for content that might compromise quality – but this is not the case. Netflix and other streaming platforms are certainly bringing change to the sector and production within it. This has brought a lot of work to the UK in part due to the tax incentives and strategies but also because of the skill level and talent of UK workers in the sector. The collaboration between Netflix and Shondaland is also noteworthy and signals new developments and growth.

 

 

 

Published:

April 2, 2021

About:

Dr Heidi AshtonDr Heidi Ashton is an assistant Professor in Creative Industries. She has extensive experience in the creative industries having worked as a freelance dancer, choreographer and producer in a variety of settings including film, television, theatre and live events around the world.

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