Climax film choreographer Nina McNeely reveals how she designed dance for Gaspar Noé's new film

Nina McNeely is a choreographer and animator who has worked with international stars such as Rihanna, Nick Jonas, Major Lazer, Fergie and just choreographed award-winning French director Gaspar Noé's mind-bending horror film Climax, which followers a group of hip-hop dancers having a bad trip. Here Nina tells Mandy News how she landed the gig, choreographed the dance for Climax and shares details of the challenges she faced on set.

8th October 2018
/ By James Collins

climax film gaspar noe nina mcneely dancer choreographer NINAMCNEELY

How did you first get into choreography and how did this take you into working on-screen?
I started dancing at a very young age but I can't remember a specific moment when I was first interested in choreography. It has always been on my mind. I could never do my homework to music as a teenager because I'd get distracted by visions of dancers in incredible costumes flying across the stage. 

I moved to LA in 2001 to pursue a dance career but I was always choreographing for shows and club nights. My first time working on a set was as a dancer, but my first time working directly with the medium as a choreographer were pieces that I created and filmed myself. I’m also a filmmaker, editor and animation designer. 

Being a choreographer gives me a unique opportunity to observe and study different directors and their techniques. After years of creating my own work, I finally got signed as a choreographer and started getting asked to choreograph music videos, commercials, and short films. Climax was my first time choreographing for a feature film.

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How did you get involved with Climax?
Sofia Boutella and I met through a mutual friend and started hanging out. Gaspar messaged Sofia about the film and she asked him who was choreographing. He originally said he wasn't sure if he needed a choreographer, then he wanted to use someone local. Luckily Sofia suggested me and sent him my work. I didn't hear anything for a while until I got an email asking if I could Skype with Gaspar the following morning... My heart dropped because I'm a huge a fan. The more I learned about the film the more it became my wildest dream – choreographing pieces about drug induced mania to Aphex Twin under the direction of Gaspar Noé! Whaaaaaat?

Nina McNeely Choreography Reel 2017 from Nina McNeely on Vimeo.

What was your process/approach to working on the film?
Every project has a different process and this one was very fast and instinctual. Gaspar and I sent references back and forth from films, music videos, styles of dance, and dancers for a week or two before I arrived in Paris to interview potential assistants. I couldn't use my American assistant because some of the dancers didn't speak English, and unfortunately I don’t speak any French. Luckily, I found Julie Dorvall, a contemporary dancer and voguer that had already worked with some of the cast. Gaspar and I also listened to a lot of music that he was interested in for the film. 

We decided on Supernature by Cerrone for the opening dance number, then I prepped with Julie for an evening before the rehearsals started. We began our first day with a freestyle circle/battle to see all the dancers skills and personality. Some of the cast had traditional dance training, but most were not used to being in choreographed routines. Since this opening dance needed to be a six-minute single take there were a lot of counts and cues to remember. We had three days of rehearsals total and not all of the dancers were there. 

We didn't have the full cast until the shoot day. I had done quite a few projects with street dancers prior so I had developed some structured improvisation techniques to show off the dancers personal style while synchronising certain accents and dynamics to bring them together. I experimented with various walking patterns and classic compositions. Scenes from A Chorus Line (1985) and Bob Fosse's The Rich Man's Frug were included in my references for some of my favourite camera work with dance. 

After we shot the opening number, Gaspar asked me to stay to help with blocking for the remaining long takes and help the dancers with their drug-induced movements. I showed them a montage I created from YouTube clips of real people on drugs, public freak-outs, nervous breakdowns, etc. Basically anything that showed people on the edge of sanity.

What were the biggest challenges you faced?
Aside from the aforementioned language barrier, let's just say it wasn't a room full of quiet ballerinas. The dancers were rowdy, loud, and slightly unruly, but so full of energy. I quickly realised that's why Gaspar chose them. As we watched them warm up one day, he leaned in and whispered with a chuckle, "I love the dancers that are the most savage." I was also in a constant state of yelling with the microphone in my hand since we were so pressed for time and that was extremely exhausting. I almost fainted on our first shoot day!

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What are you currently working on and what's coming up for the rest of 2018?
I'm creative directing and choreographing two fashion shows for L.A. Fashion week in early October – one for Dutch brand Maison The Faux, and another for LA based designer Radka Salcomannova.

I'm also gearing up for another holiday tour with Mac Cosmetics. I've been choreographing for them for the past three years and it's actually a very similar creation process to the film. I have three days of rehearsal to create three five minute numbers with 10 dancers before we go on tour. I was also very inspired by Gaspar's instinctual techniques and how he operates the camera, so I have some guerrilla dance projects in the works that I will be choreographing and filming myself.

What advice do you have for others dancers/choreographers to follow your path into working with film?
Working as a choreographer is aways a collaboration between you, the director, and the dancers. Be a good listener and learn how to use collaborative language. Instead of presenting your idea with "I think we should do this”, offer suggestions in the form of a question. “What do you think about this idea…?” Teach class as often as possible if you can. It's a great way to experiment freely without the pressure of having to fulfill someone else's vision. 

I teach twice a week - one class at Ryan Heffington's The Sweat Spot in Silverlake, and one at Edge Performing Arts center in Hollywood. I like to think of my class as my little laboratory full of young, agile trolls!! Try to encourage moments of improvisation from your dancers to bring out their individual talents – it will elevate your vision and give the dancers an opportunity to shine. When a dancer really shines, it motivates them to give it their all. 

More than anything, work hard and trust your instincts.

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This was super advice i am also very creative and from a young age when i listen to music actually choreograph a video to each track with an intense relationship to peoples feelings - i have written two books and feel they would best be portrayed through dance and performance which i would like to help choreograph .I also design clothing so a Fashion Show is also a future aspiration .