Glee : Fancy Footwork Tells The Story
20th Century Fox
The turn around time for a TV series production is always quick. For a choreographer, preparation time for a dance number can be mere hours. After reading the pilot for “Glee,” Zach Woodlee was not deterred by the timeline that would allow him a day and a half, at the most, to perfect multiple dance routines for large groups of young dancers.
“This is going to sound absolutely ridiculous,” said Woodlee, “but after I read the script for the pilot, I was absolutely 100% in love with the idea.”
Woodlee’s experience with dancing began at a very early age. His parents owned a dance studio where he, along with his three brothers, would report after football practice. Upon graduating from high school, Woodlee pursued a career in geriatrics with the intention of developing recreational programs in retirement homes. When a close friend moved to Los Angeles to pursue dancing, he decided to join her.
“I kind of missed it, so I thought, ’Sure, I’ll give it a try’ and then I sort of feel in love with it all over again,” said Woodlee.
With a dedication to improving his craft, Woodlee worked from 4:15am until 10:30am at a Starbucks, wearing his ballet clothing under his uniform. At the end of his shift, he’d race to the Performing Arts Center in Van Nuys, where he participated in seven classes a day. Studying under actor/dancer Joe Malone, Woodlee was introduced to choreography for film and television. After a teacher cast him as a background dancer in a LeAnn Rimes video, other onscreen dance opportunities followed.
As Woodlee’s resume grew, so did his desire to work behind the camera.
”I wanted to transition into choreography and eventually move onto the other side of the camera, which I prefer," said Woodlee. "Ann Fletcher, who started out as a choreographer before she became a director, needed an assistant and I jumped at that chance. I went through the process of learning her way of transitioning movement onto the screen, and it was a very interesting learning period. Then Adam Shankman, who was directing “Hairspray,” brought me on as an associate choreographer. One thing led to another, and here we are."
As choreographer for "Glee," Woodlee is responsible for every element of the dance numbers, a task that’s provided him with a co-producer credit. He determines the type of stage used, how long the number should last, how many people should be involved, and the environment for the dance numbers in addition to casting dancers and developing the routines. Woodlee credits the crew he works with, from art department to camera operators, with helping him accomplish his dual role successfully.
"One great thing about the show is that I don’t know what’s coming down the pike," said Woodlee. "Ryan (Murphy, series writer/producer/creator) will come to me and say ‘Oh, by the way, we’ll be doing this’ and he won’t take no for an answer. Take the mattress number. The dancers had to jump up and down on mattresses, which wasn’t working. (Production Designer) Mark Hutman came up with a system of designing a trampoline concealed in mattress material. The art department is great and the crew is incredible. The camera and crane operators count in eight counts to move equipment properly with the number. Everyone really does their homework."
To choreograph a successful dance number, Woodlee feels there are two key elements: understanding the story, and developing a comfort zone.
"I think the number one thing is the story telling," said Woodlee. "Sometimes when you see actors that are thrown into a dance number and the story doesn’t make sense to them; it doesn’t translate on the screen. It’s just some meaningless steps. Secondly, you’ve got to make the actors feel comfortable and feel good knowing that millions of people are going to see them dance. It’s never ‘this is what you do,’ it’s ‘you look good doing this.’"
Each episode of “Glee” includes competing show choirs and the sexier routines of the school’s cheerleading squad The Cheerios. Through these different entities, Woodless is able to incorporate a variety of dance styles into each episode as well as working with larger groups of dancers, a skill he honed during his youth.
"I can move a lot of people," said Woodlee. "My mom was one of the original Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. They would choreograph some of the United Way half time shows, which were composed of hundreds of kids. We’d be in a parking lot, and she would give us all these time codes and color codes and we would all be line leaders, and that’s how I learned the pattern work and the way that you break it down."
While "Glee" has a cast consisting of professional dancers and actors who can sing and dance, Woodlee enjoys working with actors who lack a dance background. One recent foray in working with such actors came when he choreographing the 100th episode of "How I Met Your Mother."
"’How I met Your Mother’ was so much fun," said Woodlee. "They had never done a musical. I had sixty five dancers and four actors, and we showed up at 4 in the morning, and I had from 4 am to 7am to put a number together. It was quick!"
After a successful season of "Glee" that cumulated in a Golden Globe win for Best Comedy, Woodlee feels a great amount of satisfaction from the challenge of taking a talented cast and building their story line week after week.
"The tricky thing about choreography is that on the page it just reads ‘they walk in the room and dance,’" said Woodlee. "It doesn’t really translate into what you’re supposed to do. But Ryan and the writers have intertwined the characters so much that a lot of times, it’s just easy, because you switch this one track, the people’s story makes sense in the group and it’s sort of magical. As far as making them look the way they do, well, it’s a very talented ensemble. I think they all really sit inside their characters, and we all just make it happen."