“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” based on the popular West End show and not the 1996 film with Mara Wilson, doesn’t sing and dance its way to Netflix until Christmastime. But already, one musical number — the foot-stomping anthem “Revolting Children” — has captivated the internet’s attention, much to the surprise of choreographer Ellen Kane.
“I know that dancing is popular on TikTok, but I didn’t really understand quite how popular,” she says from her home in London. But Kane, whose theater credits include “Legally Blonde,” “Billy Elliot” and “Groundhog Day,” is grateful, nonetheless. “It shows you the power of dancers.”
It’s not Matilda (played in the film by Alisha Weir), a young girl with awful parents and a powerfully vivid imagination, who has been commanding the digital limelight. The viral moment — inspiring interpretations from JoJo Siwa to Missy Elliot and possibly every TikToker on the planet — spotlights a student named Hortensia, better known online as Red Beret Girl.
In just 38 seconds, 14-year-old Meesha Garbett — one of 300 dancers in the movie — manages to make the internet fall in love as she glides confidently down the school’s corridors — while students front-flip and parkour off the walls — singing, “We can S-P-L how we like! / If enough of us are wrong, wrong is right! / Every word N-O-R-T-Y / ‘Cause we’re a little bit naughty!”
The catchy “Revolting Children” takes place as the children stage an uprising against their oppressive headmaster, the terrifying Miss Trunchbull. Kane, who spoke to Variety via Zoom in advance of the film’s Netflix premiere, says director Matthew Warchus wanted the sequence to feel explosive — “like a flood, like dams bursting,” she says. “It’s about revolution and kids finding their voice.”
How much did the choreography in the stage show inspire the movie?
None of the choreography from the stage show is in the film. The film is completely new. I’ve always been a huge fan of classic movie musicals and getting the opportunity to use dance in a film like this, really front and center, was something I was super keen to do.
Were you involved in the dancers’ audition process?
Yes. For me, it’s really important to be present in making sure that every single child that came onto the project could get to this extraordinary level of storytelling through dance. We started [auditioning], and then the pandemic hit. We then continued that process by asking children to film themselves in their living room doing a minute of their favorite dance. And then we went through with my team again, looking at how the children might fit into the film. It was an extensive process.
How many child dancers ended up in the movie?
We ended up with almost 300 children in the film, but they all do very specific things. You can only work children a certain amount of hours. It’s actually not useful to be working them more than that. They get too tired, and it’s a lot for them to take in. So we had to have a lot of children in order to divide the work so it was manageable and challenging, but it wasn’t overwhelming.
One number that’s really resonated with people is “Revolting Children,” and specifically the girl with the red beret. Can you talk me through that scene and what you wanted to achieve?
That scene in the film starts with the character Bruce, the boy that eats the cake. But when we were discussing “Revolting Children,” I was super keen to split that song so we had a female and male child leading the revolution. It starts with Bruce actually opening Hortensia’s eyes up to that power, and she joins him. What we don’t see on all of those viral clips is that Bruce has his own corridor dance with his gang that he collects, and then she essentially answers with her corridor.
Matthew wanted that whole sequence to feel like a flood, like dams bursting. It’s about revolution and kids finding their voice. It’s about empowerment; essentially smashing down what was in order to create what will be.
How did you approach the number from a technical standpoint?
I was looking at parkour, and I saw some incredible performers. I said to Matthew, “Why don’t I try — I say ‘try’ quite literally — to make this sequence, which is a hybrid of dance with parkour, so it’s literally like they are smashing through the school, almost like a wrecking ball?”
Initially when those children were coming down the hallway, I made that material have hockey sticks. She says a line before that, “Take out your hockey stick, and use it as a sword” so I thought it might be fun to see her gang coming with hockey sticks. It felt a bit too aggressive. I took it out. Once I settled and found the parkour coordinator, [he said] it would have been too dangerous. Already, people thought I was crazy. There’s a lot going on, and they’re doing that in real time. There’s nothing that’s sped up. There’s nothing that’s cheated. The precision and excellence of those children had to be rehearsed and tweaked so that the story and lyrics came across, but also that they were incredibly safe. And now it seems to be super popular.
There’s so much movement in the background. Is there anything that audiences should pay attention to outside the center of the frame?
The clip that’s gone viral is Hortensia in the red beret. But once you go into the lobby, which is the huge space in the school, there are parkour kids front-somersaulting down huge flights of stairs. If you look above their heads, there are bars where there are children spinning and spinning and spinning. Then if you look on the staircase that is coming down to the lower level, there are children running and front-somersaulting over those banisters into the block. They’re doing that as kids are dancing around them. It’s incredible.
What was your biggest choreography challenge?
I could rehearse all of that stuff with their masks on. But I wasn’t allowed to [rehearse it] on film without their masks because of COVID regulations. I had to tape lines on the floor, which the children could not cross. They knew exactly what step they needed to stand on. They knew when they moved, and when they didn’t. When I came to shoot it, it had to be split up and then pasted together. That was an issue because if they were in the wrong place, they would disappear in the frame. And so when you look at it, you will think it was filmed at the same time, but it had to be pieced together because of COVID.
What’s the biggest difference between working with kids versus adults?
The main difference with kids is you can’t change the material once you’ve taught it. It’s very hard for them to unlearn. I made mostly all of that [choreography] in workshops with adults and then when Matthew was happy with the work, we went about teaching children. My team would rehearse with the camera so they also understood what it was going to feel like when someone is in their way. Dance can sometimes lose its energy on film. I use the rehearsal process to be incredibly specific with them, incredibly detailed, to make sure the energy in every single frame is doing what I wanted it to do.
What is the key to successfully bringing a Broadway show to the screen?
What served me strong every time is to go back to the story and lyrics. I feel like I’ve honored dance in storytelling. Even though it might feel quite loud at times, it is explosive because it needs to be explosive. In “Revolting Children,” it’s a revolution. It has to feel like that. Once you start using dance as an accessory, it’s really easy to think that it’s not important in storytelling. I’m a firm believer that dance to tell stories is so important.