Putting ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ in motion
By Gia Kourlas
“Dance — when are we getting it back?” Amy Sherman-Palladino asked. “Nice to talk to you about the thing that doesn’t exist anymore.”
While dance does exist, the live version has been hard to come by during the coronavirus pandemic. For now the screen is where it lives.
Sherman-Palladino, the writer, director and creator of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” has been doing her part for years by presiding over an unofficial dance preservation movement. In her world, dialogue and movement meld together, always emphasizing the idea that choreography on television is not just a possibility but a shimmering, transformative experience.
So, yes, we are in a waiting game in terms of being able to see live dance again. But until then, Sherman-Palladino has provided us with options. “Mrs. Maisel” — nominated for multiple Emmys for its third season — happens to be full of dance. And we can always watch “Bunheads” again — and mourn that it was canceled after just one season.
Dance is infused, indirectly or not, in just about everything that Sherman-Palladino touches, even going back to “The Gilmore Girls.” Remember the dance competition in “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” That recital at Miss Patty’s dance studio? When Rory had to review a dance for the school paper? (I’ve never felt more understood.) That led to “Bunheads,” in which dance was everything. It was real, and it was funny — as Sherman-Palladino knows, dancers are both.
What else do “Mrs. Maisel” and “Bunheads” have in common? For Sherman-Palladino and her husband and creative partner, Daniel Palladino, it is a choreographer: Marguerite Derricks. “We call Marguerite our secret weapon because it’s as if we have another almost a director onstage,” Sherman-Palladino said. “She understands how to do dance for camera, because it’s actually a different animal — it’s not a proscenium, it’s 3D. It’s everything the world envelops.”
The third season of “Mrs. Maisel,” set in the late 1950s and early ’60s, opens with a USO show. “I was thinking, how can I give my line producer the biggest heart attack?” Sherman-Palladino said. “I’m like, well if we’re going to do a USO show, I want a dance number. I want 850 dudes screaming at the dancers.”
“Mrs. Maisel” has expanded the use of dance in conventional and unconventional ways; it breathes dance in many directions. There are those over-the-top numbers with the fervor and splendor of an MGM spectacle, but there are also intimate duets, like the dancers floating along the Seine in Season 2 and the sultry dance between Midge Maisel and Lenny Bruce in Season 3.
The dances have a way of slowing down time in certain moments, while the show’s choreographed walking shots — bodies and dresses sweeping through city sidewalks or apartments or department stores — speed it up, crackling with purpose. It’s as if the Rockettes, in street clothes, had taken over Manhattan.
But all of “Mrs. Maisel” feels like a dance to me. It’s helpful that Sherman-Palladino, who trained in ballet, still misses every part of being a dancer, from class to “those dopey cattle calls” in which, she said, “you stand in line for 12 hours and then get to dance for a half hour. Then you’d get to go home and figure out how to pay your rent.”
And dance is as much for the head as it is the body, she said: “There’s also a discipline and a mental clarity about, ‘Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again,’ that I think is important in life in general.”
In advance of the Emmys, Derricks, who studied at the National Ballet School of Canada and has choreographed for numerous movies and TV shows, including “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Glow,” joined Sherman-Palladino for a conversation about the constant motion of “Mrs. Maisel.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Why is dance so important to you?
AMY SHERMAN-PALLADINO: I was a dancer. There was one point where I was never out of tights. I think that everything I do is filtered through that lens. So I write with a dance rhythmic view of a scene in mind. And I think that my characters tend to have an energy that even when they walk down the street there’s sort of an internal beat to them. Then when directing came into play, I really realized, oh yeah, I can finally tell my mother that the dance lessons paid off. It’s been channeled through an unusual way, but I definitely direct like a dancer.
Q: In many scenes, there’s a choreography of walking through and taking up space. You use dancers in walking scenes, right?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: We stage things that people don’t think are staged. In the season finale, we’ve got our girl Bailey [De Young, who plays Imogene] just walking down the street in slow motion to Nina Simone. Those are dancers. Those aren’t extras because we needed physicality, we needed crosses, we needed people, we needed presence. I don’t even like to call them extras because they’re so integral to our process.
DERRICKS: The most fun for me is that I get there and Amy tells me where the pas de deux of the camera’s going to happen. She says, “OK, this is where the camera is going to move,” and she kind of dances around and shows me. Then I get to fill in the background dancers musically and choreograph them — even if it’s just them spinning over their shoulder and walking across, it becomes this beautiful “Swan Lake” on the floor. With Amy, it’s always like she and I are dancing together.
Q: In the season finale, Shy Baldwin appears at the Apollo and the performance includes a striking, sexy solo by Ra’Jahnae Patterson. What were your ideas for the solo?
DERRICKS: Amy wrote that she starts onstage with her leg up over her head and it just hangs there. So I was like, Oh, I knew exactly where we were going. I researched Black women doing jazz from that time period, and then I just super heightened it. I took it to a level that I knew that she could handle. She makes everything look so easy, and she’s incredibly sexy without trying too hard.
Q: What kind of research did you do for the Hines brothers tap duet?
DERRICKS: Maurice Hines was one of my first friends when I moved to New York, and he’s kind of like a big brother to me, so when I saw that I was going to get to pay tribute to Maurice and Gregory, I called Maurice. I also talked to him about that time period. I took a deep dive into making sure that I was doing the tap that they did when they were teenagers as opposed to what they did as adults. For me, what made it the easiest was the Foreman brothers [the dancers are Jaden and Ellis Foreman] — these young guys are so well educated on the masters of the past.
Q: How much did the Foreman brothers know about the Hines brothers?
DERRICKS: They were huge fans, and so they knew the style. One of the brothers does this thing where he taps his toe really quickly and he points down to it. When they battle back and forth, Maurice was kind of this really flashy showoff. The Foremans knew that already. They knew the history, so they came in there and they embodied it immediately.
Q: There’s so much digital dance around now — the quality is not always great, and it’s often not very creative. Would you ever consider making a film of a company like New York City Ballet performing a George Balanchine work?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: Absolutely. There’s nothing in the dance world that I would ever not be interested in doing. I was just watching the “Pina” movie again. The way they captured those dances was so fabulous. It’s a different way of looking at dance. I mean, it’s beautiful to sit in a lovely theater and watch a gorgeous ballet. And I long for the moment when we can — believe me.
Theater is where everything happens. Everything that I do onscreen happens because I live in the theater. Everything that I breathe happens because I watched it, I saw it, I lived it for a while. And it challenges you and the camera to give people that same feeling.
Q: Is it possible?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: You’ll never get that same feeling. You shouldn’t try to replicate what you feel in a live theater. I think that should be its own thing, but it can inspire you to push the camera, in a way.