Choreographer Anthony Van Laast on ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and teaching a teapot how to dance

Emma Watson stars as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," a live-action adaptation of the studio's animated classic. Credit: Disney Enterprises

Emma Watson stars as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” a live-action adaptation of the studio’s animated classic.
Credit: Disney Enterprises

In March, Disney’s remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” starring British actress Emma Watson as Belle, had the seventh-biggest domestic box-office launch of all time for any movie, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

espnW recently spoke with the film’s choreographer, Anthony Van Laast, about his work on the movie, the challenges of overseeing animated dance segments and how he convinced English actor Dan Stevens — who plays Beast — to dance on stilts.

espnW: Why was this project a must-do for you?

Anthony Van Laast: I was a fan of the original animation. Bill Condon, the director, and I have previously [worked] on Broadway. I absolutely adore the man, and when asked to join, I completely jumped at the chance without hesitation. I love the music. I didn’t realize when approached that I would have to do all of the CGI choreography initially, but it dawned on me later.

espnW: Where did you draw inspiration from? 

AVL: I knew the book and stage play very well. I enjoyed the animation with my kids when they were young. However, I only viewed it once afterward, because I didn’t want to be totally influenced by it when we made the new version. Bill was influenced by the Jean Cocteau (1946) version.

espnW: How did you go about designing dance steps for a candelabra, a clock, a teapot and other objects? Take us through that process.

AVL: Those sequences were done in motion capturing. The motion was so complicated. I had to get technology lessons to understand the different techniques. I didn’t even know what pre-visualization meant at the time. Pre-visualization is moving the storyboards.

espnW: What was the most challenging scene?

AVL: The opening scene took a bit of time to do, but it was fun for me. We wanted to make it look like real people in a real village, not a village full of dancers. We wanted it based on reality. But doing the pub scene with Luke Evans, who plays Gaston, and Josh Gad [who plays LeFou] was really fun. 

espnW: You had to teach lead actors Dan Stevens and Emma Watson how to waltz. How much prep time did you have with them?

AVL: We had three months of movement training. I’ve worked with Emma on the Harry Potter [franchise] before and choreographed a dance with her then.

espnW: Oh, and Stevens had to use platform shoes to emulate the Beast’s height for the ballroom scene?

AVL: Because Dan’s height had to be altered to suit the Beast’s character, we used 10-inch stilts taller than Dan’s normal height of [6 feet]. First, he had to learn how to walk on them, then dance, and finally teach him the waltz. He physically had to be that tall so when Emma held on to him it was the right height. There could not be any special effects. Emma’s biggest fear was he would tread on her toes.

espnW: She also had to practice with one-pound weights on each of her wrists to help with posture for the waltz scene. 

AVL: Right, I wanted her to get the right shape of the arms. The weights make you engage your back muscles.

espnW: What other projects are you working on?

AVL: Well, I just finished a comedy film with Will Ferrell. However, my next big [project] is the Tina Turner musical. She is a wonderful woman. It’s going to be a very exciting project. Her presence is definitely felt and admired.

This interview has been edited for length.

Meredith Harper Houston is a Los Angeles based Choreographer, Dancer, Beauty Expert, and Founder/Artistic-Director of The Swan Within: Healing Through Ballet non-profit for incarcerated teens and Merryland Dance Studio

The Dance of Life – Play Vista Direct Cover Story

dance1

 

To bring ballet down to Earth, Meredith Harper Houston lets the beat drop
(Photo credit: Playa Vista Direct – Christina Campodonico)

Ballet is an elite art form, often accompanied by classical music.

But for Playa Vista dance instructor and resident Meredith Harper Houston, classical ballet doesn’t always need an orchestra. In Harper Houston’s “Banging Ballet Body” adult ballet class, for example, hip-hop, pop and rock coexist alongside traditional ballet steps.   

“Sometimes we do balancés to Michael Jackson. Sometimes we do tendu exercise at center to Led Zeppelin. We’ll do pliés to Rufus Wainwright. We’ll do adagio to Justin Timberlake or to Radiohead,” Harper Houston says of her ballet classes, which she teaches not only to Playa Vista residents, but also to adolescents in juvenile hall and foster care, athletes in training, children, and even tech-industry professionals at Google’s Venice campus.

“I like to mix it up and show the dancer that ballet’s not just about snooty pooty,” she says.

In the private class I watch her teach at The Resort, Usher and Rihanna pop onto the playlist, as does Tchaikovsky’s iconic theme from “Swan Lake.” Like the soundtrack, Harper Houston is a hybrid: one part sage ballet mistress — “The whole point of tendu is to work the shape of the foot,” she tells one student — another part encouraging coach and cheerleader — “Give me Lincoln Center! Misty Copeland!”

Harper Houston’s unconventional teaching style may seem heretical to ballet purists, but she sees her approach as a way to acquaint beginning ballerinas with ballet technique in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming, intimidating or sound like a completely foreign language. (French is ballet’s lingua franca after all; classical music another animal to decode.)

So Harper Houston, through her mash-up of ballet exercises and pop songs, has figured out a way to make ballet not only digestible to a beginner mindset, but also accessible.   

“You throw on a Katy Perry song and do grand battements, they get it,” says Harper Houston, 41. “You can see how the technique fits into contemporary music.”

The proof is in the pudding, so-to-speak, in how her students have taken to Harper Houston’s unique style of ballet instruction.

“I love how she mixes in classical and contemporary music,” says 35-year-old Playa Vista resident Angela Lin, who trained in classical ballet growing up and now works at YouTube.

“It’s kind of a good urban mix,” adds 25-year-old ballet newcomer Devi Ohira, who has a background in hip-hop and street dance. “It actually makes me look forward to ballet, versus something stuffy and un-relatable.”

But Harper Houston’s ballet classes aren’t the only things that upend expectations about ballet. She was just as surprised when she started teaching ballet classes last year at Google’s L.A. headquarters in Venice.

“In my mind, I was thinking, ‘OK, teach class at Google. I’m going to have just mainly engineers … maybe they don’t have a creative background,’” says Harper Houston.

Then she saw them dance.

“There are girls within Google who come in and I’m even like, ‘Why did you not pursue dance?’ They’re phenomenal. I have girls who are on pointe, who come to class in pointe shoes and who do the class on pointe. It’s nothing that I expected.”

Then again, Harper Houston has never let expectations define her. A car accident in her early 20s broke both of her legs. Doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to walk again, let alone dance. But she was determined.

“I spent almost a year in a wheelchair, then to a walker, then to crutches, then to a cane, then to walking. So I literally had to learn how to walk — like heel first, then toe, heel first, then toe,” says Harper Houston.

Dance classes in New York came later, followed by a move to L.A., marriage, a baby and burlesque dance residencies at Harvelle’s Santa Monica, the Viper Room in West Hollywood and The Sands in Vegas.

Harper Houston doesn’t often share her story with her students, she says, but in Silicon Beach she has found a home to build her particular brand of ballet with her Merryland Dance Studio, based out of Playa Vista’s Resort.

“As George Balanchine said, dance is seeing the music. You’re showing the audience what the music is doing, what the guitar is doing, what the piano is doing. You’re showing every note, every key. That’s what dance is,” says Harper Houston. “So I try to show people where it fits. How does ballet technique fit into modern, contemporary music?”

For Meredith Harper Houston, the answer is often between the beats of a pop melody or a wicked rap.      

Meredith Harper Houston teaches dance classes at The Resort, 12852 W. Runway Road, Playa Vista. Visit merrylanddancestudio.com for a complete schedule.

MERRYLAND DANCE STUDIOS: “THRILLER” BEHIND THE SCENES

WE CAME TO SLAY!!!! Will you please check out my Zombie dancers and their insane “looks”. This group of talent is one that gave it their ALL and warmed my heart in only (4) rehearsals professionals!!!! Sean Milton, our Michael Jackson gave me LIFE!!! He is a STAR. I am proud to say I taught him Shawntee Milton!!! Maria Alejandra Garcia you are an absolute angel to shred, splat, paint, and spray all that blood and gore… making the performance literally come alive!!!! Devi Ohira my Assistant Director you kept the seams tight. Love your beauty and grace!!!! Amazing Makeup to make my studio’s THRILLER horror performance come alive, literally. She is a MUA master of beauty and SFX artistry. (TrueBlood, HouseOfLies, Veep, VeronicaMars, Colony, IATSE, HugeHeart). Susan Werner I am in awe of your hear and for shooting these AMAZING photos and capturing the magic that it “THRILLER”!!!!! Thank you Brookfield Realty for inviting us again to perform Sandra Kitashima Jackie Krutz you bring our community together and make it shine!

photo credit: Playa Vista Photography (Susan Werner)14595608_10211347004095559_2917196163312524796_n 14915478_10211347005015582_3426001959660718195_n 14907661_10211347006095609_5601650865737039770_n

Heal Through Ballet – A Cause For Girls In Need

We thank our generous sponsors  Shelly Shai of Shelley’s Dance and Costume and Phillip Bailey of Earth, Wind, & Fire’s and his non-profit Music is Unity.

Center For The Empowerment of Families (CEF) is partnering with Meredith Harper Houston to provide youth who are living in foster homes and identified as sex-trafficked, physically, mentally or emotionally abused, with classical ballet training as an alternative coping skill.
.
Benefits of ballet training:
Research emphasizes the importance of including the physical body in trauma treatment, to decrease physical and mental immobility common in young victims. Participation in dance can stabilize the sympathetic nervous system and improve psychological distress in teens. Also important, youth will learn to consider dance as a safe coping skill. An alternative to common victim isolation, our participants will experience dance as an option to express their feelings, connect to themselves and others, and lower the chance for post traumatic stress in adulthood. Other benefits of ballet training are better overall image of self; the ability to gain a sense of discipline; increased exercise; and a sense of healthy accomplishment.
.
The Urgency:
This donation is needed to begin previously scheduled groups, and it will help us prepare for our recitals after every eight weeks of class completion. Center for the Empowerment of Families appreciates your donation towards our Youth Intervention Initiative, and Trauma Informed Care Mentorship programing.

This project is my heart. Through ballet we are helping demoralized, traumatized, and objectified teenage girls find the swan within.

DONATE NOW: www.gofundme.com/healthroughballet

Heal Through Ballet

11026258_1426983700955561_5703469738875138137_n

Special Summer Session Pricing!

 

Dear Merrylanders,

Exciting Summer Session news:

Our Summer Session Special for current classes is now as follows:
6 weeks for $156 from July 20th-August 24th!

New classes are running for 8 weeks for $218:
Hip-Hop Tot
Banging Ballet
Kids Combo Hip-Hop/Jazz
&
Adult Hip-Hop

And Don’t forget!: The first 10 MDS students registered will be entered to win a very special raffle prize:
A $100 Whole Foods $100!!!

All classes are held at:
The Resort, 12852 Runway Road, Playa Vista, CA, 90094 (2nd floor)

And one short note about our Social Media Challenges:
Challenges are open to ALL MDS students (both current students and new registers!) Please hashtag photo submissions with:
#merrylanddancemove

Adult dancers (I’m talking to you, my Beyonce girls!): You will also be eligible to win a private photo session with Laura Kunin so strike a pose and get those “likes” on Facebook! *1st, 2nd & 3rd runner-ups will also receive a special prize*

*Social Media Challenge runs July 1st to July 3rd*
Love and leotards,
Miss Merry

11053281_1420683008252297_5420508092237766917_n

First Session Highlights

My Dear Merrylanders,
These past few weeks have been pure magic for me. I’ve studied dance since I was just 4 years old and always dreamed of sharing my devotion to and love of the arts with others and you’ve made that dream come true for me! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am so blessed to have such incredible parents, teachers and students believing in me and supporting Merryland Dance Studio! Merryland has been over 7 years in the making and I truly could not be happier with how our first session has “turned out” ;) Let’s continue what we’ve started and grand jete into our summer session!

Love & leotards,

Miss Merry

Announcements:
Current Class Updates:
Baby Ballerina: Wednesday 10am
Prima Ballerina: Wednesday 4pm
The Queen Bey: Beyonce Series Wednesday 7pm
Fairytale Ballet:  Thursday 4pm
Exciting news!  CLASS REGISTRATION WILL BE OPEN FROM: Wednesday JUNE 25th to JULY 13th and you can sign-up easily through PlayaLink and purchase classes on The Resort Portal!

We’re also debuting some new classes for our Second Session:
BY POPULAR DEMAND:

Baby Ballerina Class- Saturday at 10am
Mommy & Me (Ballet/Groove) Ages 16 months – 2yrs old

Your tiny dancer will whirl and twirl on twinkle toes in this exciting and stimulating introduction to music and dance for girls and boys!  Think dance party, toddler style, as the fun continues when your peanut gets to wiggle and giggle with you.  Little dancers will use scarves, balls, bubbles and fun music to get their grooves on! The class is structured for the parent/caregiver and child to participate in an imaginative interactive experience. The atmosphere is warm, friendly, encouraging camaraderie, cooperation, and a positive self image. **One Adult Allowed Inside The Classroom With The Child ** ($208 for 8 weeks)

Adult Banging Ballet Body- Saturday at 10am
The Adult Banging Body Ballet technique fuses the grace and athleticism of classical ballet with targeted combinations, exercises, and stretches that sculpt a dancer’s toned, long, lean physique. Set to a mix of upbeat music: pop, rock, classical, R&B, reggae and more. ($208 for 8 weeks)

unnamed

Adult Hip-Hop- Sunday at 12noon
A high-energy class that uses the latest sounds in rap, R&B and pop music together with movements influenced by some of today’s hottest video choreographers. Hip-hop encompasses movement that has elements of popping and locking, and breaking, as well as freestyle movement to give students the opportunity to develop their own sense of style. ($208 for 8 weeks)

Hip-Hop Tots (Ages 2-4)- Tuesday at 5pm
HIP HOP TOTS
Ages 2-4Does your tot love moving to anything with a beat? If so, this class is custom-designed for him or her! In these 45 minute classes, we start learning the basic elements of our jazz/hip-hop fusion technique, and explore fun, modern movement to the pop and rock hits of today! Move over Justin Bieber…here come our Hip-Hop Tots! ($208 for 8 weeks)

and

Kids Combo Hip-Hop & Jazz 2 (Ages 5-10)-Monday at 5pm
KIDS COMBO HIP-HOP & JAZZ
Ages 5 – 10yrs old
Combining technical aspects of jazz dance with modern hip hop elements, this class sees students explore the style of dance used in present-day video clips, movies and on dance floors everywhere, while always keeping within the bounds of what’s age-appropriate for our young dancers! If your child dreams of dancing his/her way onto MTV or the stage at The Staples Center, this is definitely the class for you!
($208 for 8 weeks)

Social Media Challenge:
For existing students, get 50 likes on Facebook of you (adult class) or your tiny dancer doing a MDS-taught move or position and be entered to win a private photo shoot session with the amazingly talented photographer, Laura Kunin! www.kuninphotography.com

And for new registers, be 1 of our first 10 new students to sign-up and you’ll be entered into a raffle to win a $100 Whole Foods gift card!

*Bring A Friend Week*: July 6th-10th

“The more the Merry-er!”