Dancing from The Wolsey to Hollywood

She's Tim Burton's favourite choreographer, she's worked with Steven Spielberg and Mike Leigh, was the dance advisor on The Da Vinci Code and has just finished working with Keira Knightley on The Duchess but, for all that the glamorous world of film-making has to offer, Francesca Jaynes has always had a soft spot for the New Wolsey Theatre.

Andrew Clarke

She's Tim Burton's favourite choreographer, she's worked with Steven Spielberg and Mike Leigh, was the dance advisor on The Da Vinci Code and has just finished working with Keira Knightley on The Duchess but, for all that the glamorous world of film-making has to offer, Francesca Jaynes has always had a soft spot for the New Wolsey Theatre.

Despite working on Tim Burton's latest production of Alice in Wonderland, currently shooting in Portsmouth, Francesca is back at the Ipswich theatre, juggling her schedule, so that she can choreograph the Wolsey's latest musical Little Shop of Horrors.

She admits that she adores regional theatre. “It keeps me grounded. It's what real theatre is about,” she says tucked away in a cramped, less-than-glamorous office at the Wolsey Studio, where rehearsals are taking place.

Francesca has previously choreographed such well-regarded New Wolsey productions as the Some Like It Hot musical Sugar, Ellie Greenwich biography Leader of the Pack, this year's comedy Laurel & Hardy and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

For Francesca variety is the spice of life. “I started off in rep and I just love it. In fact I did my first ever theatre job with Pete (Rowe) at the Liverpool Everyman. I love the people that theatre attracts, I love actor/musician work and I am lucky that I can mix it all. I think it is very good for your soul.

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“Different disciplines utilise different skills, one informs the other and it all helps to keep it fresh.”

Away from the theatre Francesca has become known for her work with Tim Burton - devising the movement of a hundred Oompa Loompas, all played by Deep Roy, in the recent adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

That was a huge undertaking which meant working out in minute detail the movement required for the complex dance and movement sequences in which Deep Roy is seen to interact with himself.

“The filming of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was so complicated that some days we were really pleased just to get a couple of seconds of finished footage in the can - thankfully not all the film was that slow.”

She has recently finished work on The Duchess, a period drama about the 18th century fashion icon, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. The story revolves around her marriage to the cool and distant Duke, played by Ralph Fiennes. Unwittingly she finds herself in a ménage-a-trois with her husband and best friend LadyBess Foster, played by Hayley Atwell.

It's a big budget, historical spectacle - the sort of movie that we do very well. As far as Francesca is concerned, the film has two major dance sequences in it which required a lot of research into formal dancing of the period.

“I was very aware of having dead space. Even if you have a small room with lots of people dancing, it is amazing how many people you need to fill it because people are constantly moving.

“I also worked extensively with Keira, advising on etiquette and movement in general. She is going to look great. She has some amazing wigs. The Duchess was the Princess Diana of her day - the fashion icon of the time. In one scene, her wig is so tall that it comes into contact with the lighting and catches fire in the middle of the dance.”

Working on big budget movies is nothing new for Francesca who revels in the contrast of working in regional theatre. She says she enjoys the fun and discipline that working in theatre requires - and relishes the inventiveness which is required to overcome the ever-present budget constraints.

“I enjoy working in the theatre because largely it is a lot of fun. Certainly here at the New Wolsey, I spend most of my time laughing because there is such a tremendous company atmosphere. By contrast film sets can be strangely impersonal, isolating places.”

She started off as a dancer and started her career as part of a group called The Lovers. Suddenly Francesca looks rather abashed and hurriedly explains: “Yes, well it was the '70s,” before explaining that the group launched her into choreography far earlier than she had intended.

“I started choreographing pieces simply because no one else would. Then I had an accident with my back, after a year. So I was forced to choreograph much earlier than I had expected.” She said that The Lovers stayed together for about five years before they went their separate ways.

Through a friend at Granada Television she was introduced to Peter Rowe, a young director at The Liverpool Everyman theatre, who was staging his first rock'n'roll pantomime and was in need of a choreographer. The pair struck up a friendship which has continued to this day. She worked on his productions at Theatre Clywd and The Bubble in London as well as at the New Wolsey.

The fact that she is busily working on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and making time to journey to Ipswich to choreograph The Little Shop of Horrors speaks volumes about her love of theatre.

She believes that regional rep theatre provides fantastic training for actors - actors of all ages but particularly young actors as it offers a wide variety of roles which are not normally available in the star-driven, high pressure world of London's West End.

“That's why I always come back to theatre because that's where my roots are. That's where I get to recharge my creative batteries and funnily enough it's one of the reasons why Mike Leigh asked me to do my first film Topsy Turvy.”

Topsy Turvy was Mike Leigh's evocative look at the tempestuous relationship between Arthur Sullivan and WS Gilbert, the darlings of Victorian light opera, as they set about finding their inspiration for The Mikado.

She said that she spent a wonderful six months working with Andy Serkis, who later rose to fame as Gollum in The Lord of Rings, who was cast as the company's eccentric choreographer. “I worked with him in the studio, working on his distinctive movements. It was lovely reunion because I knew him from my days at The Bubble.

“Topsy Turvy was so rich in detail that you can't help but soak it up. Even now when I watch it, even though I worked on it, I always find something that I have missed before.”

She said that the film was amazingly truthful in the way that it portrayed actors. It balanced the petty rivalries and jealousies with the fact when anything threatened the company or the show then they all banded together. “It deals with the whole business of putting on a show. At the first company get together, which Mike held at The Savoy, he said he wanted to celebrate the remarkable lengths that people go to, to put on a show.”

She said that she has never really broken into West End theatre, preferring instead the London rep feel of the National Theatre, although she did choreograph Stephen Fry's version of Cinderella at the Old Vic - “again that was for a director who wanted a rep feel to the production.”

She said that bizarrely it was easier to break into movies than it was into The West End. Again it was largely down to contacts and being in the right place, at the right time, with the right talents.

“What happened with Topsy Turvy was that my agent had three actor/musicians up for the movie, and asked Mike's assistant if they needed a choreographer. She sent my details along and I got an interview. I had a three month old baby and I went along thinking that there was no way I would get the job because I had not done any films. But, as soon as I went in, I knew immediately that if he didn't expect something of me he wouldn't have seen me. Suddenly the stakes just hit the roof.

“We started talking and the more we talked, the more I wanted the job. And I also knew that I could do it. We talked about the fact that I had a baby and then I went home and I waited for 24 hours, I was on tender hooks: everything was running through my head head, 'Why haven't they phoned me back? Is it because I have a baby?' Then I had a phone call saying that I had a recall. I went back and we chatted some more, we talked about research and then he said: “Well do you want to do it then?

“It's all about making that connection. That interview changed my career.”

She said that her first film Topsy Turvy set the standard which all her other work has to match up to. “Tim Burton achieves this because working within the studio system he has the resources to get whatever I need. The differences between Mike and Tim are huge. With Mike you can talk and talk and talk about a subject but Tim, he has got to see it. I can start to talk to Tim about a dance and I can see his eyes start to glaze over. Then he'll go: 'Get some dancers, show me.' As soon as he sees it, then he can talk about it.

“I can understand why Tim always has the same team around him because you have got to have that understanding. He's quite shy but very perceptive. He's a very visual person.”

She said that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was her baptism of fire into the world of Tim Burton. “I went for an interview for Charlie with the producers and I didn't think it had gone very well at all. It was one of those interviews where I couldn't remember anything and I thought it all sounded a bit vague. The problem was that I had had a terrible time on De-Lovely, the Cole Porter musical, and I was a bit wary of working with Americans but then they invited me back to meet Tim.

“My rather stumbling interview worked in my favour because the producers knew you can't have someone who talks at Tim, you have to listen because Tim sometimes finds it hard to articulate what he's after which is why he'll often grab a pen and do you a drawing.

She said that since Charlie and the Chocolate Factory she has worked on Sweeney Todd and now Alice in Wonderland with Tim Burton - a relationship which was buoyed by her work on AI: Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg's science fiction homage to the work of Stanley Kubrick.

“The first thing that Tim said to me was 'I like the movement you did with Jude Law', referring to the work I had done on AI, and he was the only person, outside family and friends, who had noticed the work that went into that and that's because of the way that he animates his stop motion work.”

She said that working with Spielberg was best described as a scary, extraordinary and exciting experience.

“Like so much, it started with a single phone call, Spielberg needed someone in England to work with Jude Law, to get him ready to play this robot/gigolo.

“The idea was that if he met a Latino woman he would break into Spanish (dancing) or if he met a Japanese woman he would do kabuki. We had the most amazing time and worked on all these different styles. It was great working with Jude - he could have been a dancer. He moved so well. He had a wonderful physique. But I still didn't know if I was going out to Hollywood or not.

“Spielberg was coming over and we met in Claridges. I was sitting having coffee with Jude when someone appeared, tapped me on the shoulder and said follow me. We went up the back stairs into a private lift and were shown into a private suite occupied by just him and his wife - no minders, assistants, no entourage and no phones. We sat down and just chatted, we chatted for about two hours. It just felt so comfortable. We talked about vaudeville, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, that was the kind of feel that Steven was after for Jude.

“Then after two hours he said: 'Do you want to come out with us? Do you want to come to Hollywood.' So I went out there for nine weeks. Where the difference is between working over here and in America is that if they like you and trust you, they will give you all sorts of things to do. They'll throw things at you. They'll let you fly. If you have good ideas or you need something to make something better then you'll get whatever you need but they expect results… you can't afford to mess up. This came into sharp relief three days before I flew out. My job up until then was just to take care of Jude, that was it, someone else was taking care of the other robots. Then I get this phone call and I'm told: 'Oh it hasn't worked out with the other choreographer, you're doing everyone. It wasn't a question of can you do it, it was you are doing it. But they trusted me and they were happy just handing it all over.”

She said it was a real-eye-opening experience watching Spielberg at work. Gone was the relaxed conversationalist from London. In his place was a man absolutely focussed on the project in hand - a man who could not be distracted by anything. “On set he seemed to absorb everything because it produced it as well as directing it. He'd do a shot and then he'd turn to his co-producer and say 'Okay if we do it like that, how much is it going to be? 50?' And they were talking about optional shots that would cost 50 grand. And every lunch-time he'd be out editing the previous days footage - he was a complete work-a-holic. As a result you don't really develop a relationship with him in the same way you do with a British director or someone like Tim Burton.”

She said that she would love to do more work at The National Theatre but at the moment was really enjoying putting some soul into the dancing of Little Shop of Horrors - the rock musical with a mean green man-eating plant from outer space.

“At the end of the day, it's the variety I enjoy. I'm lucky that I have so much work to choose from.”

Little Shop of Horrors runs at New Wolsey Theatre from September 11 until October 4. The Duchess is on general release from September 5.