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Masters of Body Language : Choreographers create 'vocabulary' for entertainers

June 25, 1989|JULIE WHEELOCK

Choreographers Jacqui and Bill Landrum had to do considerable research for their work in the upcoming Orion Pictures production of "Great Balls of Fire." They consulted historical societies, viewed archival footage of Jerry Lee Lewis concerts, pored over old photos and did some bar hopping. A lot of bar hopping.

"We became known on location as 'The Partymasters,' " said Jacqui, laughing at the memory of the pre-production month she and husband Bill spent in Memphis cruising juke joints, cowboy clubs and honky-tonks, searching for dancing extras with authentic period style. "The greatest teen-age boppers of 1956 are still bopping at clubs three times a week and they all had Jerry Lee Lewis stories to tell us."

Those stories were a vital part of the Landrums' most challenging task--choreographing movement for non-dancer Dennis Quaid, who plays Lewis in the film opening Friday. They used their research to put together what Bill calls a "movement vocabulary" for Quaid.

"We went for essence rather than exact looks," he said. "Method actors often get nervous when we're too specific because they think it inhibits their spontaneity. Dennis spent a lot of time observing Jerry Lee, who is built like a classical ballet maestro, forward in his hips with a straight back and open chest.

"Dennis is a guitar player and former boxer, so his upper body was a little closed up," Bill said. "For the first two weeks, we 'stretched' him open, especially his hamstrings, for that straight back. We gave him a certain vocabulary that he played with and fit on his body until he was comfortable with it. After that, our work together was just guidance, feedback and notes. The difficult part for him was doing the lip sync along with the extreme body movement, and he worked very hard."

Besides their work with Quaid, the Landrums were responsible for staging five dance numbers and many crowd scenes, which involved about 1,600 extras--both non-professional dancers and non-dancers.

"The dance numbers were meant to move the story along, not provoke applause," Jacqui said. "We needed to create social, pedestrian movement with just an edge of theatricality, and it had to look natural, raw and spontaneous."

Best known for their eclectic repertory of jazz, modern, ballet and theater dance, the Landrums, marriage and career partners for 20 years, worked with choreographer Donald McKayle's company before founding their own Landrum Dance Theatre in 1977. More recently, they've worked on film, television, theater and concert projects. Faculty members in USC's Theater Arts Department for 12 years, the couple won an Emmy in 1981 for an episode of their cable television talk show, "In Rap With Dance," and say their teaching experiences with non-professional students enabled them to communicate more effectively on "Great Balls of Fire" set.

But on an individual level, their technique with non-dancing actors, they say, begins with analysis of body language. "We expand on the person's most natural moves," Bill said, "which is what we did with Bruce Willis in the 1987 episode of 'Moonlighting' that won us Emmy nominations. We created the illusion that he danced a lot, but Sandahl Bergman did the intricate stuff."

"Every actor usually has a nightmare dance story," Jacqui said. "If moving is not what they do well, they can feel embarrassed and inhibited, so we try to work out clean, simple moves for them."

Usually, they say, their experiences with actors are positive, but there have been some exceptions. Bill said that Cybill Shepard was a problem on the "Moonlighting" episode because "she has a sense of what she thinks is right and there's no argument."

He also mentioned a recent experience with actresses on an episode of "China Beach." "They had a vocabulary of three movements and their minds were shut to learning anything else," Bill said. "When we realized that, we reconceptualized and did a lot of close-ups. It's frustrating because you know if they'd just relax and lose their self-importance, they could do it. But some people get so panicked they freak out.

"The prize non-mover," he said, "is Dolly Parton. She's been wearing high heels for so long she walks on the tips of her toes. She's never been seen with her heels down.

"What's really frustrating for choreographers is when stars want you to make them look brilliant, but won't give you any rehearsal time or energy to make it happen."

While other choreographers who deal with non-dancing stars agree this work is challenging, they sometimes disagree about techniques.

Dennon and Sayhber Rawles, who coached John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever," believe in "camouflage." Dennon says: "You build a number around the actor's forte, using other dancers, floor work and good camera work--even what we call 'slicing and dicing,' if necessary."

However, director/choreographer Michael Peters says, "I don't use camouflage because that only points up what they can't do. I don't believe people can't dance. It's the choreographer's job to find out how to make them move best and create so they're the focal point. Whatever camera work is done should only be an enhancement to the dance."

"Fortunately," said Jacqui, "we haven't had many people who were difficult to work with. And for us there's something about the challenge of having our buttons pressed every day and being able to deliver that's really exciting."

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