Odessa Munroe is a Film/Television dance choreographer based out of Vancouver, BC who works mainly on U.S. projects shooting in Canada. Odessa’s favorite credit is working on Center Stage: Turn it Up – every dancer’s dream! Some of Odessa’s other film choreography credits include : Smallville, Men In Trees, Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The remake of the Goodbye Girl, Life As We Know It, Little Man, Stan Helsing, Split Decision, Romeo, and Wilder Days. Odessa has choreographed routines for actors Anne Heche, Johnny Depp, Patricia Heaton, Aaron Ashmore, Allison Mack, Peter Falk , Tom Waits to name just a few. Odessa began her dance career as a competitive gymnast and then immediately after trained in Jazz, Ballet, Musical Theatre, Street Jazz, and Hip Hop. Odessa has danced on numerous film sets and commercials as well as hundreds of industrials.
Q. When did you start dancing?
I was actually a competitive gymnast until I was eleven. I’d just made the national development team and I didn’t want to do gymnastics anymore, so I started dancing.
Q. What type of dance did you study?
I studied jazz, ballet, musical theater, a little tap, hip hop and street jazz.
Q. Did you ever dance professionally?
I’ve danced professionally since I was nineteen. I went to class and I danced professionally. I’ve danced professionally in films and commercials. Sometimes I’m the choreographer; sometimes I’m a dancer. I’ve also toured with shows. There was a group called Body Shock that I toured with based out of LA— a lot of Laker Girls were in the show—we went to Singapore twice. I’ve also toured with Disney and I’ve done hundreds of industrial events here.
Q. Did you also take acting classes?
I’ve taken acting classes since I was about 20. Everything was simultaneous with me. When I got into dancing professionally right away I got into taking acting classes. I was acting. I was dancing. Sometimes I’d be hired as an actor because I took an audition as an actor. Sometimes I’d audition as a dancer, if there were dancer roles. It was an equal love for me at the time. I would also go out for choreography jobs as well. So I’ve done all three for about ten years, and recently because I’m so busy I’m just choreographing and dancing.
Q. I understand from your accent you’re Canadian.
Yes. I live in Vancouver, B.C.
Q. Do you audition in Canada or Hollywood?
The way it works is that there is quite a busy film industry up here—movies and television series that are from LA and New York do a lot of filming here. So, when a production is shooting in Vancouver quite often they consider actors, dancers and choreographers who live in Vancouver. A lot of us have worked on American productions but we’re Canadian. Because I have a family I’m Canadian-based in Vancouver. When I was younger I did tour and I lived in LA for a bit. Basically, any movies or TV shows that shoot up here, the leads are usually booked out of LA and then the smaller rolls are opened up to Canadians. Sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes they fly up an American choreographer. Sometimes after they see a demo tape or by word-of-mouth, they’ll hire a Vancouver person instead of or as well as an American.
Q. How did you get into choreographing?
I was nineteen when I started teaching dance around Vancouver at numerous dance studios at all levels and I did that for about five years off and on when I wasn’t touring. I’d get substitutes for my classes when I booked gigs. In teaching you choreograph for the competitions and year end festivals etc. By the time I was about twenty-four I fell into choreographing industrials and by then I was also going out for dance parts in commercials and TV and film. A Toyota US commercial needed a choreographer so a casting director put out a call and about 10 of us who wanted the job sent them via tape the ideas we had for their commercial. I got the job and I also danced in it with five or six other people, and from that, I got referrals for other jobs. I got on the film and TV choreographer list and I just kept on going out for jobs within the TV and film world after that.
Q. I was looking through some of your choreography credits on IMDB and many are for shows that you wouldn’t think of as having dancing. What did you do for them?
It’s always different. Center Stage: Turn it Up was great because it is a dance movie but there aren’t enough dance movies shooting up here for a choreographer to stay busy. Fortunately, a lot of shows here and there will have a scene like in Smallville where I choreographed a really cool tango number between Aaron Ashmore And Allison Mack.
Q. What kind of dancing do we have to look forward to in Center Stage: Turn it Up ? I understand it’s a lot more than just ballet.
There are about 17 clips or dance scenes that are ballet and I think AJ (Aakomon Jones) had 7-10 hip-hop and break dance scenes. AJ was hired before I was hired. He was brought on out of LA to be the hip hop choreographer. When I was hired, I had two assistants come aboard with me (Kyle Toy and Marco Arimare) because we were only given ten working days to do the 17 scenes.
Q. Who in the cast did ballet?
Rachel Brooke Smith was the lead who played Kate, Kenny Wormald who played Tommy, Sarah Jayne Jensen who played Suzanne, Daniela Dib who played Allison, Christian Vincent who played Harris, and all of the ballet class dancers in the movie and all of the auditioners in the theater scene. We were on set with Ethan Stiefel, but as he’s the king of ballet, it was always understood that he was going to come and do his own thing and he pretty much decided when he got there what he was going to do. We came up with back up ideas just in case for some reason when he got off the plane he didn’t want to choreograph his own stuff… but he certainly did and he was amazing! He sort of felt out what the scene needed and came up with his own ideas and just blasted it off on set.
Q. How is the music chosen that is used in the dance scenes?
The director Steven Jacobson chose the music and I’m sure the producers in Sony had a say in it as well.
Q. So you had the music and the script in hand when you were doing the choreographing?
In film it’s almost impossible to choreograph something correctly without the script because a lot of the time what they’re doing is so dependent on the flow of the scene. For instance, what was really fun was that in 3-4 scenes there’s dialogue throughout the dancing, so the script might say he drops her as she falls out of a lift and she gets mad and then they try it again and this time they’re good and then he turns her and she falls into the wall. Obviously, if you don’t have the script you have absolutely no idea what to choreograph. You have to go through the script with a fine tooth comb and make sure what you choreograph matches the scene.
Q. What about the director in terms of the kind of camera shots he wants to use? How do you work all that out?
I talked to Steven a lot. He was wonderful to work with. He was open to all of our ideas… but he also had in his head what he wanted. Between Steven and the director of photography I would ask questions like if there’s a ballet class scene I needed to know if they wanted to shoot people doing a ballet combination straight across the floor or through camera where someone does a jete—a split leap. I would say in the class scenes they played around a lot more moving the camera to the side or the corners to make it realistic but it made it much more challenging for us. We only had a certain amount of room to get everyone across the floor, and if a dancer didn’t aim their jump exactly correctly to the side or through the camera, they’d have to re-shoot it. Steven also wanted to keep the class scenes realistic so I would tell him in a class this is done… or when they go across the floor they’d do this facing front or they would do this going diagonal.
Q. Were you always present when the cameras were rolling?
Yes. As a film choreographer you have to be on set because things are always changing. Let’s say we thought we had enough room for eight class dancers to be in a scene but all of a sudden with the cameras and the lighting there isn’t enough room and you have to pull two dancers. Sometimes you have to change the direction of a turn or pattern because it isn’t working with camera. It’s far too time consuming to change the camera set up than to just quickly change the choreography. Everything is usually set and choreographed before you get to set and then often things change when you get to the set. You have to be there and you can’t get stressed out at the last minute changes.
Q. What was your relationship with AJ? Did you work together on any of the same pieces?
All our scenes were separate. We didn’t have the same shooting days. I did meet him. He’s a really nice guy. The only thing I did with him was that he couldn’t get to Vancouver for casting so I auditioned his street dancers and his hip hop dancers. I put them on tape and he chose his dancers from the tape. After that we were off to choreograph separate scenes. I’d see him when we would rehearse in the same studio in two rooms beside each other. We were both extremely busy.
Q. Did you cast your dancers?
How it works is that technically as the choreographer you help the casting director and director cast the dancers. So, when a dance movie comes to town or a TV shows that needs dancers, after the choreographer is hired, the choreographer usually posts audition notices in the appropriate places in the city to get the right people out. I run the audition and tape the dancers. Sometimes the director wants to have a say in which dancers you cast and sometimes the director leaves it completely up to the choreographer.
Q. In film it’s common to do a story board of the scenes which is like drawing the film out shot by shot almost like a comic book. As the choreographer, do you ever do any kind of a storyboard?
No. I don’t even see story boards. All I get is the script. Even with the script I have to ask questions such as how long do you want each scene? Often times no ones really thought of the actual time so I have to say, “How long do you want the finale to be?” or “How long do you want this class scene to be?” Usually they have to think about it. I need the times of the scenes because I don’t want to have too much material or not enough material. I’m given the script and after asking how long they want each scene from there I come up with ideas. I tape it, show it to the director and he either approves it completely or says I love 95% of it just change this or that and that’s how we do it.
Q. In film, there’s generally two schools of thought about how you film dance. There’s the Fred Astaire system where you just put a camera where the audience would be and pretty much leave it there for the whole number and then there’s the Busby Berkeley school where you move the camera around a lot, do overheads, side shots, angles—do have a preference or care?
I don’t have a preference or care but I always need to communicate with the director who communicates with the director of photography. Certain dance moves just don’t look good if they are not shot from the front or at an angle that the dancers are intended to be seen from. For instance, in the finale, because it takes place in a theater and people are watching from the front, we have to keep that in mind for the reality of the script. A couple of times when they tried to shoot some really big leaps from the side, they just didn’t look flattering because the leaps are not designed to be watched from the side. We had to go through the dance sequences to see where it would make sense based on the choreography to shoot from the side or the front and get those fun shots in. It’s fun if the director of photography wants to shoot something from over top or at an interesting angle, but if the camera is going to move all over the place we usually shoot the scene in short clips. In post the editor will put the routine back together. Usually the whole routine will be shot from the front and then they start playing around with close ups and great angles. It’s time consuming if all these things aren’t thought of before you shoot.
Q. In the first Center Stage, the camera is more static in the Fred Astaire style. In Center Stage: Turn it Up, it sounds like you did a little bit of both?
Yes. We did a bit of both.
Q. What are some of the dance highlights in Center Stage: Turn it Up that people should look forward to seeing?
There’s so many different little scenes and big scenes. The finale was definitely the place where the director played a big part in giving his ideas as to what he wanted… so I would say the finale. But there are also some really fun class scenes that are cute and fun and then AJs stuff is really exciting too. There are great dance scenes all throughout the movie.
Q. Besides Ethan Stiefel who are some of the star ballet dancers?
Ethan Stiefel is the huge star and everyone should come out to see him. The young ballet dancers we hired for the class scenes and the audition scenes were so excited when he was on set. You could just feel the buzz…but there are also some really good dancers from Pacific Dance Arts as well as The Goh Ballet. We didn’t hire any one dance company but the dancers who auditioned for this movie are from numerous dance companies and well known schools here. The girl who played Allison is Daniela Dib. She’s a really good ballerina. A lot of ballet dancers came out to audition for this movie and we chose who we felt was right.
Q. Who are some of your choreographic influences?
I’m a product of the eighties. When I was a young girl in elementary school I was always being bossy in the school yard choreographing my friends, although at that time I didn’t know what that word meant. I would make up shows for everybody and I was really organized about it for someone that age. When Flash Dance came out I was completely inspired and also inspired by movies like Staying Alive. My aunt took me to New York and I think Cats was the first Broadway show I saw and I loved Chicago and Cabaret as well. Even though I have ballet training I’m a jazz dance choreographer first. I was really into commercial jazz dance and what influences me the most are dances who aren’t just technically proficient… I get bored. They have to be great performers! I love watching Baryshnikov, Gregory Hynes. Dancers who give it that extra zest! Fred Astaire. Those people rubbed off on me much more than just technically proficient dancers. I think one of my favorite shows was Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. They amalgamate jazz/ballet/contemporary and it’s so free! Everyone is just such a great performer. I also love the old school black and white Fred Astaire movies with all of the great costumes and the fun musical theater type dancing. That’s what entertains me the most. To stay busy up here you have to branch out into a bunch of different styles. When I’m choreographing I think of whoever is my favorite person from that style.
Q. I saw on your resume that you did something with Johnny Depp? What was that?
It’s actually a sad story. Obviously, everyone knows that Heath Ledger passed away, but before that, I was hired to work on IThe Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. It’s a Terry Gilliam movie. 60-70% of it was shot in London prior to Christmas and then after Christmas they were supposed to come to Vancouver to shoot all the green screen scenes. I was hired to choreograph Tom Waits and an actress doing a tango scene and also a bunch of dancing cops doing a hilarious theatrical scene and then Heath Ledger was supposed to dance with a woman. I had choreography intended for Heath whom I hadn’t met yet and we were just waiting for him to arrive but then he passed away. When that happened, we went on hiatus for a while and then they filled that tango scene with Johnny Depp. They changed the script a bit to have it make sense which it totally does. It’s going to be a great movie. Johnny Depp came up here but unfortunately he twice missed the rehearsals that I was to teach him the routine at. Since it was a tango scene we needed two people to show it to the actors so my assistant and I taught his partner and then when he showed up to shoot the scene I had to send my assistant to teach it to him on set because the movie changed the shooting day at the last minute and I was already booked to fly to Toronto that day as I was up for being a judge on So You Think You Can Dance Canada. I choreographed the scene and my assistant Joanna got to teach it to him. I met him briefly the day before but Joanna still thanks me for flying to Toronto and letting her teach it to him! She says he was really great to work with.
Q. What are you working on now?
I just finished working on Stan Helsing which is a really funny movie that was shooting up here. They’ve wrapped now. It’s done by the producers and of Scary Movie and it’s really fun choreography. What I’m working on at this very moment is waddling around my house getting ready to have my second son in 2 weeks. Late November I will be doing the choreography on A Christmas Movie.
Q. When is Center Stage: Turn it Up coming out?
It’s on DVD Jan 20th, 2009.