LONDON >> “Work from your shoulder blades,” Steven Hoggett shouted as six performers swirled across the stage at the Palace Theater here. “Soften your left hand, wrists like chewing gum snapping back! Puff up your throat, like an angry bird!”
The six men puffing up their throats like angry birds were not dancers. They were actors, rehearsing a scene in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” the theatrical extension of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise that opened to rapturous reviews in London in 2016. This April it arrived on Broadway, receiving 10 Tony Award nominations and winning six.
Hoggett, nominated for best choreography — “Cursed Child” was the only nonmusical in that category — did not win the Tony. (That went to Justin Peck for the more traditionally dance-heavy “Carousel.”) But the recognition was well deserved: His choreography and movement direction for the two-part “Cursed Child” is no less meticulous and detailed than any dance number, and as important to the theatrical language of the play as the writing, by Jack Thorne, and the direction, by John Tiffany.
Unlike the movie versions of the seven Harry Potter novels, “Cursed Child” does not employ computer-generated imagery, stunt people or elaborate special effects. Instead, the play’s magic, in both the theatrical and the literal sense, comes from the way swirling capes, moving staircases, fast scene changes and miraculously quick switches of identity (and costume) keep the story and the imagery in a constant flow of motion.
Much of this is the work of Hoggett, who has been collaborating with Tiffany, a childhood friend, since 2003. The results they achieve together, he said, come from attention to every detail, from the beginning of a production to its final staging and beyond. “I wouldn’t have the confidence to arrive in Week 4 and tell you how to move,” he said in an interview before a rehearsal in spring. “It’s not just about finding an aesthetic; it’s about emotional qualities and text analysis.”
The physical world of “Cursed Child” began with discussions between Tiffany and Christine Jones, the set designer. “We sit down, share music videos, film clips, talk about visual languages,” Tiffany said in a telephone interview. “We’ll start to imagine a transitional vocabulary — for a lay person, that’s a scene change, but for us it’s what the physical journey of the play will be for the audience, and how that physicality will connect to the narrative.” Once they begin rehearsing with actors, he added, “Steven has the morning, and I have the afternoon. It’s very democratic.”
Hoggett said the idea of moving staircases, suitcases and clocks as building blocks of the staging was essential to the development of the movement — and to a cinematic, crosscutting effect. “Everything and everyone had to be fluid, easily moving and reforming,” he said. “In the first act, there is a 16-minute sequence that moves through four years at Hogwarts. Jack’s script is incredibly snappy and pared back to essentials, but with a real sense of rhythm, and I wanted to echo that and inform the audience we are going to be swift and keep narrative on the front foot.”
He began rehearsals, he said, with tasks for the actors. “Can you bring in a suitcase that we don’t see until you leave? Is it possible to do a 10-second flourish with a cloak, then do it in reverse? How many ways can you fall off a staircase safely?” When the performers are involved in generating the movement, he said, they take ownership.
“He creates movement that feels organic to you,” said Sam Clemmett, who plays Albus, Harry’s middle child, on Broadway. “The show is teched within an inch of its life, but it also goes back to the idea of a company of actors just pushing on a piece of set, and a swish of the cloak to create the effect.”
One of his tasks, Hoggett said, was to help the actors find a specific physicality. “He makes you understand that there is power in the way you move your hand or your head, that you can tell a story with your body,” said Noma Dumezweni, who originated the role of Hermione and is reprising it on Broadway. And in “Cursed Child,” that can also mean helping the actors imitate the physicality of another character. (Let’s just say that a polyjuice potion, which temporarily enables a physical transformation into another person, might be involved.)
“For example, there is a big illusion with Harry’s character, and the technical precision of where his spine had to be was causing issues,” Hoggett said. “I suggested to Jamie Parker that he convulse like a cat throwing up a fur ball. It worked perfectly — the action allowed the illusion to happen, and the joy of that is that the specific physical instruction can really help the performer. You want him to feel that it’s part of the character and narrative rather than being a stunt.”
Although there are no dancers in the production, there are also several, more traditionally choreographed numbers, including a “wand dance,” a “stair ballet,” a sequence with a band of menacing figures, and — most difficult in terms of movement quality, Hoggett said — aerial choreography.
“It’s really different creating dances for actors than for dancers,” he said. “They have lots of other thoughts about who their character is, and they will create something without thinking about the aesthetic effect. In its own way that’s very inspiring; you can work on ideas like, what would it look like if you had a wand that doesn’t behave, and they come up with great choices.”
“Cursed Child” is the 10th production Tiffany and Hoggett have worked on together, but the men have known have known one another since they met at age 15, in a youth choir in Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, where they both grew up. They hit it off instantly, bonding over a shared love for Kate Bush and for Michael and Janet Jackson videos, and remained close friends through their college years. (Hoggett studied literature at Swansea University in Wales, Tiffany studied classics at Glasgow University.)
But their interest in theater started separately, Hoggett said. He had no dance, movement or theater training when, after completing his degree, he decided to audition for Volcano Theater Company, a Welsh physical theater troupe. After a year with Volcano, he founded his own physical theater troupe, Frantic Assembly, with Scott Graham.
In 2007, Tiffany asked Hoggett to collaborate on Gregory Burke’s “Black Watch,” about a Scottish army regiment in Iraq. “It was the first time we got together in a room and conceived a production together the way we work now,” Tiffany said.
After that, Hoggett said, “I was suddenly much clearer about how to allow an audience who don’t think they know the first thing about movement” to be onboard. He realized, he said, that he had to “create an arc rather than sequences,” seamlessly integrating movement and text in a way that helped viewers learn more about characters. “So that later, when you have big thematic reveals, everything is in place for the audience to feel they know what is going on.”
That subtle guidance through physical means is present even during more elaborate magic effects and illusions (created by Jamie Harrison) in “Cursed Child,” Dumezweni said. “He just finesses it, so that you know how to enable the illusion, and the audience knows where to look.”
Hoggett said he saw his role as giving the audience an interpretive skill set. “If you can get that right, you are in some ways as powerful as a writer.” And he added, the role came with a bonus. “I get called a choreographer. It’s brilliant!”