Twitching is dancing. Sailing back and forth on a swing set is dancing, Scratching can be dancing, but only when done upon command. Sitting and standing may qualify, if performed in unison.
That’s why choreographer Peter Darling got a 2013 Tony nomination for “Matilda,” whose national tour comes to Belk Theater Tuesday in the PNC Broadway Lights series.
Darling had won a Tony four years earlier for “Billy Elliot,” a show in which everybody from coal miners to cops does what we think of as traditional numbers. But he quickly realized “Matilda” needed something less ... dancy.
“I’m full of the belief that choreography can be running, falling, jumping, the pedestrian steps of life,” said Darling on a call to his home in London. “It’s how you order and organize them.
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“These actors are children who, by age 10, have only learned how to balance properly for a year or two. But they can replicate and move quickly, much faster than adults can. So you try to harness their own weird movements. They are always twitching and jerking, and you’re trying to harness that.”
This show, which won one of its four Tonys for Dennis Kelly’s book, adapts Roald Dahl’s novel about a child who’s cruelly mistreated by the headmistress of her school – the unmitigated villain Miss Trunchbull – and ignored by self-absorbed parents. Young Matilda finds solace in the protection of a kindly teacher, who herself is bullied by her employer, then becomes aware she can move objects with her mind.
In a brilliant stroke of casting, director Matthew Warchus chose burly Bertie Carvel (who got a Tony nomination) to play Trunchbull, a former Olympic hammer thrower. Ever since, “she” has been played by a man.
“We saw many women for the role,” said Darling, Warchus’ frequent collaborator. “The thing we became focused on was that Trunchbull had to be terrifying and tower over the children. The frame had to be very large, with extraordinary masculine qualities. It can’t be a funny drag thing; you put a man in the role to get the ridiculousness and the scariness.
“The idea for the ‘Hammer’ number (Trunchbull’s showstopper) is that the most cumbersome, heavy person thinks she’s elegant and light. So she gets ballet moves, like the dancing elephants in ‘Fantasia.’ She dances with ribbons, as if she wanted to be on the Chinese ribbon team at the Olympics.”
Darling took visual cues from Quentin Blake, the illustrator who worked on Dahl’s “Matilda,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach.”
“We are seeing a book unfold,” Darling explained. “If you stop-framed everyone’s movement onstage, it would look like a cartoon. Those illustrations ... stretch people’s bodies in certain ways that are extreme.”
After “Matilda” and “Billy Elliot,” colleagues know Darling as someone who plays well with kids.
“You don’t have to talk them out of neuroses, like you do with adults,” he says, laughing. “They don’t come with any baggage. As long as they feel they are safe, they’ll try what you ask.
“I look for willingness to work, the ability to go home and practice. You learn who will hold onto material (you show them). One of the big things is finding someone who connects acting to movement, who has an idea why he’s moving. The mechanics are there to tell a story.”
That said, he’s happy now to work with Warchus and “Matilda” composer-lyricist Tim Minchin on a show with nary a kid in sight: “Groundhog Day,” a musical version of the 1993 movie about a broadcaster condemned to repeat the same day over and over.
“In that one, it’ll look like there’s no dance step at all – until you see it repeated,” said Darling. “I try to resist anything that will stop the audience from keeping its connection to the story. You can’t have them sit back and say, “Oh, isn’t that great dance?’ ”