Feature: Joseph Mercier - Choreography for Superheroes

Monday 20 April 2015

Joseph Mercier in 'R.I.OT.' Photo: Manuel Vason

Choreographer Joseph Mercier teaches movement and academic research at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Together with producer Clara Giraud he started PanicLab in 2008, touring international festivals and UK venues such as Soho Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, Unity Theatre Liverpool, mac Birmingham to name a few. Their most ambitious creation to date, R.I.O.T. , was launched at Newcastle’s Dance City last October and comes to London this April (Stratford Circus ) and May (The Place). Joseph tells us more.…

Our show R.I.O.T. is the result of a lifetime of wanting to be a superhero, and three years of figuring out how to put that childhood dream on stage. The result is a comic book come to life that mixes spoken text, projected illustrated imagery and high octane fighting.

One of the biggest challenges of the piece was finding a vocabulary for what we’ve come to term ‘the epic body’ – that larger than life physicality of superheroes that is a hallmark of comic books. We discovered early on in the process, to our dismay, that we are not, in fact, superheroes. And experiments in how to represent certain superpowers – like flying – were hilariously lame. It was a humbling experience to discover just how human we are and so the piece quickly became about that: us, as performers, trying as hard as we can to be ‘super’, pushing our physicality as far as we could, but knowing we would ultimately fail at being superpowers.

But this left the question: how do we choreograph superheroes? At first we looked to action films. We studied fight sequences and tried to replicate them, but apart from stealing a few moves here and there, ultimately we found this unhelpful. Without all the tools available to filmmakers – finite control over time, space and audience perspective, for instance – this produced results that were equally as lame as our attempts to fly. But taking our cue from the likes of Captain America and Batman, we fought on, even when all hope seemed to be lost, and found success by inventing our own physical language. We found hope in the form of three particular physical disciplines: Mixed Martial Arts, Pro Wrestling and Flying Low/Passing Through.

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) highlights:

Commonly referred to as Cage Fighting – which does little justice to the actual skill and technique this discipline requires – Mixed Martial Arts formed the base vocabulary for most of our punches, kicks and take downs. Jordan Lennie – fellow PanicLab-er and performer in R.I.O.T. – and I were introduced to MMA by artist Kira O’Reilly and fight coach James Duncalf. We trained extensively in the technique and then fought each other, in what became our version of the Rite of Spring (2013), performed at the Chisenhale Dance Space on the 100th anniversary of that piece.

Clips from PanicLab’s Rite of Spring:

R.I.O.T. is the antithesis of this piece: whereas the Rite of Spring used real punches and kicks, real take downs and real impact, R.I.O.T. plays with the fake, the fantasy and artifice of comic book/superhero fighting. Everything is over the top. It is MMA blown out of context and clearly fake. We found ‘the dance’ in the vocabulary and magnified it. We took the MMA vocabulary, and rather than emphasis effectiveness and efficiency, we emphasised awesomeness!

Pro Wrestling
Think WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), stunt style wrestling. Hulk Hogan, The Rock, The Undertaker, this was the other fight language we drew most heavily on.
Video of London Based Pro Wrestling company Lucha Britannia:

In 2010 I undertook a research project with artist Jamie Lewis Hadley, whose own practice draws on his experience as a Pro Wrestler. What I discovered was a whole new amazing vocabulary of ‘play’ fighting, a kind of improvised dance that played with impact, collaboration and epic theatricality. Jamie coached us and helped us develop this language for the show.

Flying Low/Passing Through
Clip of a Flying Low workshop with Leila McMillan:

All four of the performers in the piece have trained quite extensively in Flying Low and Passing Through, some with David Zambrano and some of us with London based Leila McMillan. Although, this technique is not obvious in the choreography, it provided the basic principles of our choreographic language: spiralling in and out of the floor and around one another. This allowed us to adapt some of the fight vocabularies of MMA and Pro Wrestling choreographically.

The combination of these three disciplines became the basis for the development of our superhero choreographic language. To make each of the fights distinct– the fights act as kind of musical numbers without singing – we gave each of them a flavour, drawing on a variety of influences: key comic book and superheroes references of course, but also video games, other martial arts, tango, flamenco and musicals. So although we did not discover how to actually fly or teleport, we did discover a rich, playful choreographic language that, like the rest of the show, was assembled from a plethora of references, styles and sources.

See R.I.O.T. at
Stratford Circus, 30 April & 1 May More details & booking
The Place, 27 May More details & booking

Also at Zoo Venues in Edinburgh, 7 – 31 August


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