Image: Still from Jolly Folly © English National Ballet.

For our Digital Season, film director Amy Becker-Burnett collaborated with Arielle Smith to bring Jolly Folly to life.

As the fifth and final film of the Digital Season, Jolly Folly is like your favourite dance number in an old movie musical. Inspired by playful silent films of 1920s and 1930s Hollywood, it is now available to watch via our Ballet on Demand channel.

To find out what it was like bringing this to the screen, we catch up with Amy:

How was the process of working with Arielle Smith? What did you enjoy about it and what were some challenges?

I absolutely loved it. She was a complete dream to work with. She has an amazing energy. She really wears her passion. Her energy, her enthusiasm and her passion for [the work] is oozing out of her and it’s really inspiring. It was amazing to work with her. I instantly felt we could bounce ideas off each other. She was really open to stuff. She obviously had a strong idea for the project, but she was also quite flexible for me to have my input in as well.

In terms of a process as a whole for the project, I think meeting her and working with her was the highlight. She’s someone I’d love to work with again. She was just so appreciative and grateful, enthusiastic. Even through the process when we got to the post-production, obviously she fed in, but she was just very reasonable and fair. Working with her was great.

In terms of the challenges, it wasn’t so much linked to Arielle or English National Ballet, but it was more that when I came into it I just didn’t know anything. Sam from OB Management emailed me and said we got this project with English National Ballet, do you want to do it? You can team up with a choreographer and you make a film about their dance for digital season. I was like, yeah, a hundred percent.

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Arielle Smith and Amy Becker-Burnett (in the centre) during filming of Jolly Folly © Morgan Sinclair.

I didn’t even ask about the money or anything. I just said yes, because I love ballet. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. From that point I was thinking of things that have inspired me recently and ideas I wanted to try and things I associate with ballet and dance in general. Then when I went in, obviously the dance had already been decided, which is amazing because I’m not a choreographer. Arielle’s inspiration, and how she wanted it to be, and what the costumes were, and how long it was — that was all decided.

That was quite a challenge for me just because I’d usually get a brief and then make it my own. But there wasn’t tonnes of room to do that just because obviously she had had so much creative input, as I think all the choreographers would have done. Until then I didn’t realise how similar that role is to being a director, because choreographers are sort of directing how they want the audience to interpret their dance, which means you then have to adapt to that. That was quite a challenge. I went in thinking about filmic ways I wanted to explore it. And then I realised — okay, it’s been decided.

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Behind the scenes during filming of Jolly Folly © Morgan Sinclair.

I think that was the first challenge. How can I push it, how can I make it something that it also is my own, but be respectful to Arielle and do the dance justice? I think the second challenge was just the length of it, because 15 minutes is a really long time and it was split into three acts. It was logistically very challenging to work out. I was limited… I was thinking about art department and set design, but the dance has got so much energy. They use so much of the space and we had two days to shoot it.

I was  limited in terms of how far I could push the art direction and had to think about ways I can make all those three acts feel very different and I could switch it up and keep the audience interested over such a long space of time. The length also was challenging for — how are we going to capture it? Usually I’d love to be able to plan every shot so every single shot looks beautiful. But in two days with a 15 minute film, that’s not really possible. We had to pick our favourite moments and then just cover master files of the dance. So these were challenges that I could overcome, and that I think were good for me.

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Still from Jolly Folly © English National Ballet.

How do you think you developed your vision and your creative approach to the film other than the choreography? What other sources of inspiration did you draw from?

When I first went in, I spoke to Arielle. I just saw the dance and for someone who’s not super experienced with all different genres of dance, I wanted to get an idea from her, how she wanted it to be and what it was all about. She told me that it was based on silent film, Charlie Chaplin, and that Singing In The Rain was one of her inspirations. So I went away and I was thinking about silent film, and even beyond silent film, to the Hollywood golden era.

What I found interesting was that the reason we’ve done this dance — the reason the Digital Season is happening— is because of COVID. What is really interesting is that I love how ballet feels like complete escapism from reality and something that is so separate from all the chaos that’s happening with the pandemic and how it has affected everyone. It does feel like a really nice little slice of fantasy. I’m really interested in the history of film and in the 1930s after the Great Depression, I think in popular culture and entertainment, anything that was film, radio, live music, offered really good escapism for people who were suffering, from the reality of what was going on.

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Still from Jolly Folly © English National Ballet.

I quite like how that mirrors what’s happening now almost. Not that it’s as great as a depression after a war, but I think, with people being anxious and the uncertainty, film and popular culture can transcend us back to the past or offer that escapism. I loved that, the similarity between now and what was happening in that period of time that Arielle was referencing in her choreography. I wanted to make it feel as much like escapism as possible and draw on the idea of dreams and fantasies. We did black and white, and that just paid homage to those classic movies. We did the lamp posts as a reference to Singing In The Rain. I really wanted to do water, but that wasn’t logistically possible.

I was obsessed with Fred Astaire films when I was younger. My granddad loved them and I always used to watch them with him. There was one where Ginger Rogers had an incredible feather dress on and they’re dancing and then they moved up into the clouds. So, for the clouds scene, I wanted to reference that. Then the third one is the boxing ring and the graphics that we projected was more an aesthetic reference to sort of German brutalist architecture, which I quite liked. So just trying to inject magical moments from different films, all from that golden era of film.

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Still from Jolly Folly © English National Ballet.

I really wanted it to be, not lo-fi, but going back to simple craft. When we did the overlays, I wanted it to seem like one of them was dreaming and that it was inside their head. An editor just placed it on top, and she said, maybe in post we can finesse it? And I said I don’t think it should be finessed. It’s almost how you would do it if it was film and you just double expose it.

How was the experience different to other films you’ve worked on and had you filmed any dance before?

It was totally different to anything I’ve ever done before, totally different to any other experience I’ve had. I think better than any experience I’ve had before, because English National Ballet really trust Arielle and trust her vision. So it was mostly just the communication between Arielle and myself that mattered. I think that’s really nice, that you’re not answering to anyone or having to explain your ideas, and that you collaborate with is someone that is on the same page as you. That is really nice because you never feel like you’re fighting for something.

It just all felt really organic and that collaboration worked so well. But in terms of the process, anything else was just logistics in terms of time and money. Creatively, it just felt so smooth. Even if we thought — we need to get English National Ballet’s feedback — they always just said if Arielle is happy, we’re happy. It was really smooth in terms of the creative process. Obviously logistics, time and money is always going to make things a bit difficult.

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Still from Jolly Folly © English National Ballet.

I always try and work on projects that inspire me in some way, but I think sometimes it can get quite filtered down and you can end up losing sight of the core of it. With this that just didn’t happen, which was really nice. I think, looking back on it, obviously you learn from everything, but I’d have loved to have pushed it further. Just things that I thought — I wish I’d done that, I wish I’d just gone for them.

I had dance and movement in my work but I’ve never ever filmed a choreographed piece or done a piece just solely with choreography, but I absolutely loved it. And it’s something I want to do more of. I love dance and it’s just the way things have happened and the kind of work I’ve started to do and then started to get more. I haven’t had as much opportunity to do it, but it’s something I definitely want to do more of.

Do you have any favourite dance films?

It’s really cheesy but I just love old Fred Astaire films. They’re not my go-to favourite films, but in terms of dance and in terms of relevance to this. I grew up watching Fred Astaire films with my granddad and I know that’s referenced a lot now in adverts and music videos. Those films where there was big productions and amazing sets and where they did everything in camera. I remember watching, I don’t know if it’s Top Hat? I can’t remember, but Ginger Rogers has an ostrich feather dress on and it’s floating. I remember thinking, oh it’s amazing.

In terms of more current stuff, like music videos, I love Holly Blakey lately. I love her music. Her choreography always has so much passion and raw emotion in it, and it’s quite contemporary. That’s a totally different dance style but I love her stuff.

How did you find working with and directing the dancers?

I loved it. It was so good. What was really nice was — because the dancers are on such a strict schedule and they can only do certain hours — so from the start, Arielle got me to present my treatment to them and talk through my ideas. I went to loads of rehearsals so they felt involved from the start, which I think really helped. Not that they wouldn’t have been willing to be involved but I think it inspired them with how much they wanted to give.

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Erik Woolhouse during filming of Jolly Folly © Morgan Sinclair.

Of course it’s really exhausting to have to keep repeating moves. One dancer had to keep pirouetting over and over so we could get his hands spinning. Another dancer for this end scene had to jump on this rock and then fall on it. It was a prop, it was a bumpy surface and he had to fall on his back, and we had to do that loads of times. Obviously that’s draining, physically draining for your body and probably quite painful, but he was just really up for it. That part of the film was quite poignant because it was when he’s up in the cloud. I think he was excited to be in that part so he was really up for it. They were all really easy to direct, very patient, enthusiastic. They’re all looking at the monitor, interested by it. I think they also had a really good relationship with Arielle. So there was also that other layer of direction there that she was giving them. It was great.

Find out more about Amy Becker-Burnett here.
Jolly Folly is available to watch on demand. Rent it today for just £3.49, along with a mini-documentary by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt.