InDepth InterView: Daniel Ezralow On 2014 Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony, SPIDER-MAN Broadway Memories, Hollywood & More
Today we are talking to a remarkably accomplished choreographer, dancer, actor and director who has crafted uniquely compelling movement for a number of wide-ranging projects in many mediums, all the way from his early work as a performer onstage to creating dances for film, television, theatre, special events and more - the gifted Daniel Ezralow. Discussing his elemental participation in tonight's 2014 Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony, Ezralow previews some of the pageantry, spectacle and artistry we can anticipate in the multi-million dollar production as well as the themes and ideas present within it. Additionally, Ezralow opens up about the technical process in organizing such a titanic production as well as outlines his collaboration with the scores of performers and behind-the-scenes individuals converging to pull it all off for a worldwide audience, live on international TV. Plus, Ezralow comments on the controversial politics and ongoing drama surrounding the games. As if all that were not enough, Ezralow generously recounts his experiences working on the recent Broadway musical SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, recapitulating the troubled preview period and much-discussed injuries as well as sharing his enthusiasm for his ongoing artistic relationship with master director Julie Taymor, extending also into their fantastic Beatles-inspired feature film musical ACROSS THE UNIVERSE as well as THE GREEN BIRD on Broadway and more. Besides all of that, Ezralow also comments on some of his specialty work for awards shows and looks back on some of his most memorable stage and screen work over the years. All of that and much, much more awaits in this special interview with a dynamo of dance!
PC: ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is truly a masterpiece - so unique and so very artful.
DE: Oh, you're giving me goosebumps! Thank you!
PC: The army imagery in particular is so inventive.
DE: I love it, too! I love it.
PC: Was "I Want To Hold Your Hand" your idea - to do it in slow motion with all that incredible mise en scene?
DE: Yes, it was, actually. It was my idea to do the whole thing on the line of scrimmage, too - actually, I remember Julie said to me, "What's a line of scrimmage?!" [Laughs.]
PC: Do you feel that ACROSS THE UNIVERSE contributed to the forward momentum that eventually gave us GLEE, SMASH and now five major movie musicals coming this year?
DE: I love that you're saying that! I don't know for sure, but I'd love to take a little of the credit for it! Sure! [Laughs.] Honestly, you know, when Julie and I worked on that we were very committed to making a mark.
PC: To create a classic like WEST SIDE STORY.
DE: Exactly! Exactly. WEST SIDE STORY is the all-time great. Yes. So, we looked a lot at MOULIN ROUGE!, which had come out a few years before, and then decided what we didn't want to do, and, then, we just went at it - and, we didn't stop. A lot of the ideas, in a sense, were just, "How about we try this?" or "Let's try this, OK?"
PC: A very giving and open collaboration.
DE: Yes. You know, the funny thing, too, is that you can describe a lot of things in dance, but there are a lot of things you can't, as well. I mean, there were a lot of instances where I couldn't explain to a producer or whatever that [for "I Want To Hold Your Hand"], "Well, she walks down the line in slow motion with everyone jumping over her head." It's like, "What does that mean?!" So, I literally went out and created and cast two football teams up in a rehearsal studio on 42nd St. You know, I got real pads and real helmets and we just did it. And, then, I shot it. So, when I slowed it all down and showed it to the producers they said, "Oh, now we get it." It was the same with sliding down the bowling alley lanes and that whole thing, too.
PC: You have to see it fully-realized to really experience it as it will exist onscreen.
DE: Yeah, totally. I think the idea was "How many ways can we make movement come alive?" And you can call it dancing or movement or whatever - when we move to music we call it dance. It was about "How can we make dance come alive in a way that isn't like a high school party or a normal place where you would dance?" So, that was one of our goals with it.
PC: Glee has tipped its hat to ACROSS THE UNIVERSE on more than one occasion, as well.
DE: Oh, really?! They did? I haven't seen that, but I think what Glee is doing with music and how they have brought all of that to life is just amazing.
PC: As someone who has choreographed for big production numbers on The Academy Awards and beyond, was that the best preparation for what you are attempting now in Sochi for the Olympics Opening Ceremony?
DE: Well, I think that they all have been like little stepping stones for me. I mean, when you do the Oscars, it ramps up a lot - especially the kind of rehearsal schedule you have. On that, I worked with Gil Cates, who I love and who is just a marvelous producer who understands theatre really well. The Grammys with Ken Ehrlich was like that, too. All of those things are big shows that really sort of ramp up for you - and I've done some larger-scale stage shows since, too. I really can say, though, that this one is the almighty...
PC: It doesn't get any bigger than the Olympics Opening Ceremony for a choreographer, really!
DE: It doesn't. This is really the almighty. I mean, honestly, I have almost 800 performers for this! [Laughs.]
PC: That's insane.
DE: It is. It's totally nuts.
PC: Before we get to that: looking back, what was the biggest loss you felt with material that was cut after Julie Taymor's exit from SPIDER-MAN? I would assume the spider shoe number, perhaps?
DE: Yeah, that was a big loss - but, it was all right. The spiders and all of that, for Julie and I, was a fun idea that if we had perhaps gotten more time to work on we could have made it work better. Honestly, though, that song in particular was very tough on the dancers and I felt very sorry about it - and, let me say, I apologized to them in public for it. [Laughs.]
PC: Why so?
DE: Well, I really put them through a lot doing that because they had to wear these multiple-legs and everything to do it. I will also tell you, since you asked, that there was one version we did of that where the audience just went nuts for it and screamed and screamed. I don't know if it was because they thought it was campy or fun or ridiculous or silly or what - it had many criticisms and a lot of applause, though, I remember. But, I do remember there was one version that was really great and I think that, had we been able to stay the execution, in a sense... [Laughs.]
PC: You were already swimming in rough waters.
DE: Everyone was out to kill us. You know, there were so many people out to get us that some of the numbers that were really risky - like that one; risky in a funny way, maybe, because it was about women buying shoes for many legs - got completely drowned out [by the negativity]. So, no, I don't really feel it was a tragedy to lose that song in particular.
PC: Choreographers classically push their corps to their furthest extents - Robbins, Fosse and Bennett included. How far were you willing to push the performers on SPIDER-MAN? Obviously, there were a number of well-reported injuries.
DE: Well, SPIDER-MAN is a very peculiar, specific case - I could talk to you about my career in general and how I have dealt with certain shows and people, but SPIDER-MAN is really a different case from all of that. SPIDER-MAN was a very unique situation.
PC: Could you elaborate?
DE: Well, for instance, I, in my career, was a dancer and I know that I certainly pushed myself to the limit when I danced - I danced for one of the most athletic directors, Paul Taylor, and he would push us all the time; but, we wanted to go there! We all believed in taking it to the limit. I mean, for myself, in my own dances, I would choreograph myself into a tizzy! So, there is a part of me that believes that every dancer wants to go to their limit at a certain point, but I know that Broadway has a slightly different kind of essence. I mean, you have to do the shows over and over - eight times a week - and I think that repetitive motor injury is very serious. It's something that a choreographer has to take into account.
PC: A very valid point not discussed often enough.
DE: I think that with SPIDER-MAN, though, in the initial stages, in the studio - forget the flying and everything - I was concerned with finding dancers who knew my work; dancers who had worked with me in television and on Broadway or in other theatre works and a lot of different things so that they really knew who I was and what I did. I think that in the initial workshop rehearsals I definitely did push - and, I pushed them quite hard. You know, I would always ask them, though, "Are you OK? Is this good for you?" and, if so, then we would keep going. So, I find that at times it's not that I am the supreme being in the room or something - I am a collaborator. [Pause.] I very much look at my dancers as responsible individuals - as responsible as I am - to make the show come alive. Of course, I have to use my eye and spurn them on and encourage them and give them reflections to consider and then they become the muscle and tissue that actually demonstrates it.
PC: It's a community effort.
DE: Totally. We're in it together. I mean, I got up and I flew those flights and I went around the house. I put the harness on and I did the full run from the balcony down to the stage and everything.
PC: So you performed the stunt that eventually ended up as the gaffe that sent Chris Tierney to the hospital?
DE: Of course. Listen, I don't want to upset anyone, but I know a lot - everything - about what happened on SPIDER-MAN and I can tell you that not everything has been revealed. I just don't know if it is my place to do that, you know? I don't mean to be in any way holding back or accusatory, either, particularly about this, but I know for a fact that Chris's injury had nothing to do with the flying - it's a whole different situation. It has come out in the press that he wasn't hooked up - and, it wasn't even a flying event! He was just supposed to be standing and have a tether there, so it was a real fluke how it all happened. And, I'll also tell you that I was the first one to get to Chris...
PC: What was the sequence of events?
DE: I ran! I ran from the house down to him and I looked right at him and I said to him, "Chris? Chris?" and I heard him [Groggy Voice.] "Mmuuuhh," and I thought, "Thank God!" I mean, I had worked with Chris for 10 years before that - I brought him out of Hubbard Street [Dance Studio] to do ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. He was part of my dance touring companies in Italy and everything, too - I brought him into SPIDER-MAN. So, Chris means a lot to me and I went with him to the hospital, actually. I was in the emergency unit vehicle with him going to the hospital. I was the first to see the X-rays and get to talk to him. Chris is amazing - he is an amazing athlete. And, for the rest of my life I will thank God that he is who he is.
PC: How harrowing.
DE: Yeah, we shouldn't just talk about all the injuries on SPIDER-MAN, though.
PC: Glenn Berger has quite a bit to say about it in his book!
DE: [Sighs.] I don't know what to say about Glenn. But, I can say that I am still very close to Julie and I care deeply about her - I love her and I loved everyone I worked with on that. Bono and The Edge were wonderful; and, George [Tsypin] and Glenn and Julie - we were all best friends on that. Michael Cohl, the producer, Julie, Glenn and I had dinner together almost every night! So, it's a long story and maybe one day Julie will write about it - I think it is really important that she does do that; and, I was right there and I know everything that happened, but it's not something that I feel I should. So, at this point, I feel both positive that we had the experience and that also it is difficult how it has turned out for some and for others, but I think that we have to accept everything that happens to us in life and say, "Hey, this is an opportunity to learn." So, I think that, strangely enough, it was quite an opportunity to learn, and I did. Some people made the right choices and some people made different choices along the way. But, Pat, honestly, it's such a long story we should save it for another interview. [Laughs.]
PC: Would you attempt it again - perhaps even the recently announced upcoming Las Vegas edition?
DE: Of course. Absolutely. I loved working on it. In the end, I came to dance in a roundabout way, after all - I mean, I was pre-med at Berkley and I took a dance class and that's how I started.
PC: How unusual!
DE: Yeah! Yeah. After that modern dance class, I was hooked. So, a couple of years later I went to New York and I started with a modern dance company there and then I broke away and sort of started my own company and then I started working with David Bowie and then Hal Prince called me for something and it's just been this kind of progression. I mean, I didn't even realize I was a dancer until I had been doing it for 10 years and then I didn't realize that I was a choreographer until I was doing that for 10 more years! It's just all about creation and creativity for me - if I can collaborate with people I am inspired by and if I can help serve them to be inspired, then I will do anything. I love to create. So, yes, to answer your question, I would love to get involved with another production of SPIDER-MAN - I think that would be great. That's the strange thing about my career, though - I am open to anything; I have hopped from dance to theatre to cinema to television, modern dance, Broadway, the Olympics now...
PC: That's covering a lot of ground!
DE: And they are all different! So different. There's no question about it. But, at the same time, I can say that I am thrilled by each one of them - and I am thrilled by their differences as much as I am thrilled by the difficulty of adapting to the differences. So, in a sense, what I am basically interested in doing is inspiring other people - through choreography, which is what I do.
PC: What are some of the more popular TV ads we may know you from - whether or not we are actually aware of you being involved?
DE: Oh, I've done so many of them - all around the world, too. I was the Dannon Yogurt guy in Italy for five years - I was the guy standing on the cliff! [Laughs.]
PC: And you are Mother Superior in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, too!
DE: [Laughs.] Exactly! That's me. I was the Mother Superior - yes.
PC: What have been some of your favorite recent projects?
DE: Recently, I've done some videos for Sara Bareilles that I loved doing - we did some really fun videos together. I did the video for "Gravity", for instance - that was so much fun.
PC: You also were in charge of Josh Groban's first PBS special, speaking of pop/Broadway crossover personalities.
DE: Oh, Josh was great - I really enjoyed doing that. With that, Josh was a new discovery who had had a huge success all over the world with his voice but he had never actually performed live in a professional venue like that - actually, he was a little afraid of going onstage at the time. So, I remember working with him quite a bit on that - it was a PBS special that we shot at the Pasadena Civic, but it looked like a live tour that he had been doing for years. It was in front of a live audience. So, I worked extensively on Josh with that because it was his first show and everything and it was a really thrilling experience. It was a lot of fun, too.
PC: Do you enjoy the process of working one-on-one with headlining performers like him and Sara and Bowie?
DE: Well, I actually didn't start out doing that very much but then I did this thing with Bowie when Toni Basil was choreographing his GLASS SPIDER tour and she called me to come in and work on it. So, I came with this idea and I worked with him a little on it and tried to channel it to him and he got it - he really got it. So, I guess that, in a way, I do like doing that as long as it can come from an intention point of view. It has to be very clear when I work with an actor that all the movement comes from the intention - which is true about all movement anyway, whatever it is; it has to be about the intention.
PC: By the way, is it true you did the choreography for the musical numbers in 80s classic EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY?
DE: Oh, God - yes, that is true! [Laughs.] I actually was also the double for Jeff Goldblum on that.
PC: That was one of Jim Carrey's first big movies, too.
DE: You're right - it was. And, after that, years later, I did THE GRINCH with Jim, too, which was a blast to do.
PC: You more recently worked with Jake Gyllenhaal on LOVE & OTHER DRUGS with some specialty material, true?
DE: Yes, I did. In LOVE & OTHER DRUGS there's this scene where he does a little Viagra number - it's a silly little scene. I remember it was with Jake and he says, you know, [Announcer Voice.] "And now, ladies and gentlemen...," and we did this little Macarena number. It was silly, but I liked it because Ed Zwick, the director, was really open and collaborative and so we worked a lot on the projections and stuff. I remember I said to him, "It would be really cool if we could put a girl inside of a Viagra pill!"
PC: What an image!
DE: Right?! After that, he was like, "OK, I wanna work with this guy!" [Laughs.] So, even though it was just a little scene, it was a lot of fun to do.
PC: Are we entering an age of even more advanced aerial choreography and even parkour elements that perhaps will also integrate the use of digital projections and new visual tech? In particular, I'm curious about the Olympics...
DE: Well, there is going to be a lot of flying, that's for sure! Not so much humans, but there will be a lot of objects in the air and it's really great and really cool to see.
PC: Is your SPIDER-MAN work a reason you were employed to do this job, do you think?
DE: Well, George Tsypin [SPIDER-MAN's set designer] is doing the sets for this and it's still a surprise what he has done, of course, but I can tell you that he has done a lot! He has been really participatory in these Olympics, along with the director. In a strange way, I think it was he who involved me - I think at some point George said, "Hey, you've got to get Danny involved in this." And, so, a year ago I met with the director about it and at that meeting we really connected.
PC: Can you take us through the whole process of putting it all together, then until now?
DE: Our first meeting was about a year ago. Andre, the director, met me in Rome where I was doing a production. So, we sat together there and I showed him some of my stuff and he told me what he was thinking about and so we sort of traded ideas by looking at stuff on the computer and he would say, "Oh, that's cool!" and things like that. We kind of had a really fun connection immediately, so, at that point, I said, "Hey, man, I'm down for this and you really understand what I am about." He really liked my work that he had seen, I think. Actually, the way I really first became involved was that I think he said to George at one point, "There's this movie that I really love and if I can get that guy...," and, George said, "What movie?" and he said, "ACROSS THE UNIVERSE!" and George said, "I can get that guy for you - we just worked together on SPIDER-MAN!"
PC: ACROSS THE UNIVERSE reaches across the globe!
DE: [Laughs.] Definitely! Definitely.
PC: What preview can you give us of the music that will be used in the Opening Ceremony?
DE: I've been working with a lot of different music, actually - with lots of very strong, driving themes. You see, there's the speeches and the protocol and all of that and then there is a section about the history of the country. You know, they do that at every opening ceremony - at Salt Lake, they showed the Native Americans and stuff like that - and so for that section I am basically in charge of doing all of 20th century Russia. I'm not allowed to say very much, but we use a lot of music from the 20s and 30s in my section, I can tell you that. Also, I've worked with a composer here on some original material that is just phenomenal, too. We have a section with this really upbeat, beautiful theme that is almost like a Broadway show, actually.
PC: Music to our ears!
DE: Yeah, it's really great. I've done a couple of big numbers - one is very strong, very powerful, very physical and very visual; things in the air and things on the ground. Very red. That number is one where I hope people will just sit there with their mouths open going, "What?!" Then, after that, we do this whole reconstruction of history - I really dug into Russian culture and worked with the directors to really try to use music that everybody knows. And, there is so much! We created this kind of medley for that part and at the dress rehearsal the audience just went nuts! Everybody knew every single piece we are using - and, what's really fabulous, is that it all links together with characters, since they are all characters that people will be familiar from Soviet life. But, basically, I am in charge of doing 20th century Russia.
PC: What an undertaking!
DE: It is. But, for me, my grandfather was Russian and he was in the 1905 Russian Revolution - he knew he had to get out of there fast or else he would get in trouble, so he fled to Canada, where my father was eventually born. From Winnipeg, they moved to California and that's where I was born. So, if this were a mere 100 years ago, I would be Russian - which is wild to think about.
PC: How do you view the official oppression of gays and lesbians in Russia today and how that affects participants in the Olympics itself - particularly those, like yourself, in the performing arts or who may be out, proud and gay?
DE: Well, you know, it's hard for me to comment on the whole thing because propaganda is propaganda and politics is politics - and we have so much of it all over the world. We all have it. But, I know that in this situation people are working very freely - no one is having any problems working here. And, the propaganda that we hear in America is not always exactly like the situation really is, either. Look, I am a person who believes in tolerance to the maximum degree with all human beings, no matter who they are, and I think that everyone deserves the right to live their lives and to pursue their happiness in their own way. So, I think that in America we have huge problems with that ourselves - with racism; with poverty; with all sorts of sexual prejudices. On the same hand, I think that the Olympics bring a kind of microscope on the country that is hosting it. So, I am not the one to step up - I think it is inappropriate for me to do so. As an artist, my goal is to inspire people - if it's through ACROSS THE UNIVERSE; if it's through SPIDER-MAN; if it's through the Oscars; my job is to try to inspire people to live another day of their lives and go to bed seeing what I just did and wake up the next morning with a smile on their face like they want to take another breath. So, I can do that here, I can do that in Angola, I can do that in Somalia - but what I have to really do is key into what is going on. So, for me, the issue has come up and it's obvious that it is there, but I don't know if that's what my political agenda has to be right now. Does that make sense?
PC: It's certainly understandable - especially having a horse in this race yourself, as the case may be.
DE: What I will say about it is that we all have to live here on Earth and share this planet and I think a lot of people feel that we have to be as collaborative and open as possible. I will tell you that every single person I have met has been enormously supportive of me and what I want to do - I've had only amazing collaborations with everyone here myself. I have had really, really great experiences. And, I brought three assistants here with me, too, and they all are having great experiences. But, again, it's the creative act we are doing here - not the political act. In my work, I prefer not to make political statements - that's not what I want to do. And, politics are very tainted by who wants what and why, too.
PC: Does the director you are working with come from theatre or does he come from a different discipline?
DE: He has directed some theatre, but he works mostly in television and film. He is quite a well-known director here. There is a real connection to the mainstream media and popular television and theatre with the team here - the head of Channel 1, Russia's main TV station, is involved, as well. Of course, every situation has its drawbacks and whatever, but I have had nothing but the utmost support in everything I wanted to do so far.
PC: Is this the next step for you into becoming a full-fledged director yourself of events of this scale?
DE: Well, I am only the choreographer on this, so I can imagine that directing the event would be a lot of work - even more than this. But, what Andre did was to basically hand this particular section on 20th century Russia over to me and say, "What I need you to do is not only choreograph but to direct this section," and, so I guess you could call it directing and choreography for a part of this much larger piece.
PC: Did you employ any of your own dancers?
DE: No. I wanted to and I actually did a workshop with 10 of my dancers, but they really wanted to keep it all-Russian. So, what I did was to bring three of my assistants over and then there are 10 other assistants, too. It's all-Russian in the show, though - but that's what it should be; it's the Russian Olympics.
PC: It's been a long journey from Rome to here, then?
DE: Yeah - we've had lots of meetings over the last year and I've flown back and forth to Moscow many times since March. Then, in September, we really started fleshing out the ideas and everything. You see, my process is not to come in with a lot of ideas - there's a lot of exploration. In all honesty, I think that a lot of choreographers work that way - I'm no different than anyone else in that regard, I don't think. Of course, I have my ideas and things I want to try, but I don't believe in saying, you know, "Do this - it worked on my body so it should work on yours." For me, frankly, I care as much about the performer as I do about the steps, so what I am really looking for is a way to find a direction for my intention - I have a very strong idea of what I think it is, but how can I possibly know for sure until I see the colors on the palette? Until I have the bodies in front of me, I don't know what hand will go where or who will move in what way. It's more like, "Does this feel right? This is what I am seeing." It's a very collaborative thing. And, I mean, I've worked with these people a lot. I worked for about a month in LA with my 10 dancers and then I came Moscow and worked with about 80 professionals for a month here and then I added 500 more in another city and then another 200 in another city. So, we really are up to 800 performers now - I wasn't exagerrating!
PC: It makes the most expensive Broadway show in history, SPIDER-MAN, look like outright community theatre in comparison!
DE: [Laughs.] You're right. It does.
PC: Do you have any idea how much the Opening Ceremony alone cost?
DE: I have no idea - none. I think they spent what they felt they needed to spend to put on a really great show - and, I think we have a really great show.
PC: This was so fascinating and I really appreciate your honesty. Thank you so much for this today, Daniel.
DE: Oh, thank you so much, Pat. This was a lot of fun to do. I hope you like what we've come up with! Bye.
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More On: Daniel Ezralow, Julie Taymor, NBC, Glee, The Academy Awards, Gil Cates.