With credits including the National Theatre’s Exit the King and Netflix series The Crown, as well as two shows now in the West End, EJ Boyle tells Tom Wicker how movement direction defines a production’s visual language
For someone whose decision to change career as a dancer to work behind the scenes was “not planned at all”, EJ Boyle has become one of the UK’s most acclaimed choreographers and movement directors. Her impressive CV of work on stage and screen includes work at the National Theatre on Exit the King, as a choreographer on the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games ceremonies and on the hit Netflix series The Crown.
We meet at London’s Young Vic theatre shortly before she watches a run-through of Stef Smith’s Nora: A Doll’s House, a radical take on Ibsen that Boyle has both choreographed and movement-directed.
Straight after that, she is dashing across town to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End to continue work on Tom Stoppard’s much-anticipated play Leopoldstadt, set among the Jewish community in Vienna in the early 20th century.
While not able to give too much away, Boyle is deeply excited to be working on a new Stoppard play she says is both epic in scope and deeply personal. She is full of praise for the “rich and detailed” script. “There’s so much to mine from – so much in his language about who these people are and how they evolve.”
Meanwhile, she has been involved with director Elizabeth Freestone’s production of Nora since it debuted in early 2019 at the Tramway in Glasgow, where Boyle also lives. It opens this month at the Young Vic with a largely new cast.
Boyle had worked with the company producing it, Citizens Theatre, several times. “I think they suggested me to Elizabeth,” says Boyle. “We had a chat about it and she sent me the text. We just hit it off in terms of our thoughts about it. And I knew of Stef Smith’s work. It was exciting.”
Smith has taken Ibsen’s 1879 play about the titular Nora’s traumatising experience of marriage and oppression in a male-ruled society and spun it out across three time periods: women’s suffrage, the supposedly liberated 1960s and the modern day. “Stef’s writing is really rhythmic and clear, visually,” says Boyle. “She paints pictures with her words. I felt incredibly connected to the story.”
From a movement perspective, Boyle says: “It was about looking at the distinct ways people interacted with each other across the three time periods – how tactile they were, what the space meant, what was ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ and what expectations there were of men and women.”
‘In Scotland, there’s a freedom that comes when there’s not as much of a commercial focus’
To support the storytelling, her job has been to help the actors develop character through a clear, physical language “that felt believable in those periods”. If they were playing different people across different decades, it was also about helping them switch between those roles, “which is pretty technical at heart”.
In the workshopping time Freestone set aside for her casts and creative team to collaborate, Boyle worked with the actors to identify “a shift in their centre of gravity, or which part of their body was driving a particular character”. She adds: “We experimented with their way in. It’s individual to each actor.”
Boyle’s ideas come to life in the rehearsal room, not before. “When it comes to creating choreography, the steps are the last thing,” she says. “It’s about who I’m working with, how they move and what they can do. It’s also what they want to achieve out of a moment: what the story is; what the text is saying to us; if there’s music. All of that goes first for me. It becomes about the person or the company.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a terrible waitress – an awful one. I got fired.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Petrushka at Opera North in 2002.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it’s about playing the long game.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Peter Darling. The ‘what’ is film. It’s always been a medium that has really inspired me and that I’ve connected with. I’m a visual person and artist.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
The people on the other side of the table either know exactly what they want, have no idea what they want, or think they know what they want but are willing to have their minds changed. You have no way of knowing, so all you can do is be bold and trust your instincts, be prepared and then be flexible and open to direction and change.
If you hadn’t been a movement director, what would you have been?
I had a couple of years of being out of work and really struggling, so I started a psychology degree. I only made it two years, which isn’t great, but clinical psychology has always been a Plan B.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I had loads when I was a performer. Now, it’s all about stationery – the books I use, the order in which I write notes and the way I write down how I’m going to make my work. I suppose it is a superstition, because I always buy the same notebooks and use the same pencils.
How does she define movement direction as opposed to choreography? “Movement direction is being responsible for the overall visual language of a show, from the interpretation of the text on stage, to the language of scene changes,” she says. “Choreography sits much more with music for me – and for most choreographers, I think. Depending on where you’re working, if it’s a musical, it’s more discrete in its application through a show.”
As Boyle has worked with more directors, “the big shift is that there’s far less having to explain what ‘movement direction’ is”, she says. “Many more actors have worked that way. There’s more training on it. It’s more familiar.”
In the commercial sector, she points to the impact made by the wave of choreographers and movement practitioners that hit the West End in contemporary dance and physical theatre shows more than 10 years ago.
One of these was Rufus Norris’ multi-award-winning 2006 production of Cabaret, in which Boyle was assistant choreographer to Javier De Frutos. Although this raised her awareness of choreography and movement direction as a career, she maintains that while she was “a very happy assistant, and really loved that job, as dance captain”, in her head she was still a performer.
Boyle worked as a performer for 12 years. Productions initially enlisted her as an assistant choreographer because of her background in classical ballet – acquired in her home of Glasgow at the Dance School of Scotland, followed by the Royal Ballet School. She then studied contemporary dance and jazz at London Studio Centre, Jazz Art UK and Steps in New York.
She credits Peter Darling’s style of choreography on Matilda the Musical as a “massive influence”. Boyle was a performer and dance captain in the first cast. “He blended the line between movement, intention and working with the director in a way I hadn’t experienced before,” she says. But even though this “fired things in me, creatively”, it wasn’t until she returned to Glasgow for family reasons after Matilda that her career took its current direction.
‘Film directors are basically choreographers in their brains – it’s the basis of that world’
Boyle is still based in Scotland. “It was – and is – such an exciting place to do work. When I moved, there was really experimental stuff going on.” There is, she thinks, “a freedom that comes when there’s not as much of a commercial focus, which there can be more of in London”.
She got to “work with a million people and evolve my craft”. After Matilda, she had been approached about movement direction and it “kind of snowballed”.
Boyle’s first movement-directing job was on David Greig’s Victoria, at Dundee Rep Theatre, where she later became an associate artist. A key production was at Glasgow Citizens – which she describes as “one of the greatest theatres in the country” – working on Oresteia: This Restless House, Zinnie Harris’ electrifying re-imagining of Aeschylus’ Greek tragedy. Boyle says: “It was a massive landmark in terms of the merger of movement direction and choreography. It had a creative team I felt I had to step up to.”
Her work since has included choreographing a huge, all-cast ceilidh at the end of The Crown’s first season. “As an actor, I worked a fair bit in film. Film directors and first assistant directors, with directors of photography, are basically choreographers in their brains. It’s the basis of that world, in a sense.”
There isn’t, she says, a huge technical difference between choreographing for stage or screen. “But film can be more exposing for actors. There’s no hiding. There’s a precision and level of detail that’s required, just in terms of being able to replicate something again and again.” For the ceilidh, “which was like three scenes in one big dance sequence”, she created “a bulk of stuff” that could be used flexibly during filming.
Would Boyle happily keep moving between theatre and film? “Absolutely,” she says. “I love the variety. It’s nice to work with their different challenges. It’s good to keep your own way of working evolving – and to bend and shape the medium you’re in.”
Born: 1983, Halifax, West Yorkshire
Training: Dance School of Scotland; Royal Ballet School; London Studio Centre; Steps, New York
• Oresteia: This Restless House, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (2016)
• Exit the King, National Theatre, London (2018)
Agent: Kirsten Wright at AHA Talent
Nora: A Doll’s House runs at the Young Vic, London, until March 21
Leopoldstadt runs at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until June 13