Meet Polly Bennett, our February Teafluencer. Polly is a movement director, choreographer and practitioner working across the broadest applications of movement. From creating choreography for professional theatre and movement coaching for feature films and television like The Crown and Bohemian Rhapsody, to establishing movement languages for amateur performance, choirs and live performance, Polly is an energetic and versatile collaborator at the top of her game. Read on to learn more about her life before becoming a movement coach and how her passions and experiences helped her become a master of movement.
Harney: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, where do you find the passion for movement and choreography?
Polly: You could say that I have been doing this job since I was a child but professionally I have been working as a Movement Director for seven years. I was born and raised in Little Chalfont in Buckinghamshire - a leafy countryside town in NW London. My mum was a school-teacher, famed for her storytelling and performances at the PTA pantomimes, and my dad was a much-admired trumpet player who played at the London Palladium and with Shirley Bassey among others so I had little chance of avoiding the theatre growing up! I spent a lot of time in rehearsal rooms, whether it was my mum’s amateur production rehearsals or watching my dad audition singers and actors for professional jobs.
As I had a natural energy, my mum asked me if I wanted to try dance lessons. I tried and I adored it, taking up ballet, tap and jazz. I was a good dancer – I picked things up quickly and had stamina – but I was never prima ballerina material. In an audition when I was 8 years old or so, I got asked to skip across the diagonal of the room. I soared through the air – the floor was sprung and I’d never experienced that before. Out of breath and giddy from flying, I subsequently got told that I skipped with “too much character.” That confused me so much; I loved the feeling but it was deemed wrong, and publicly! Experiences like that teamed with the shameful feeling I had when I wore an elastic band around my hips in class got me thinking. My brain switched from the idea of performing myself to enabling other people to do it – or at least feel like they could fly too.
Gradually I started to ask my dance teacher whether there was a different way they could teach something and suggested different ways of doing something onstage that I thought might feel better. I choreographed my high school musicals from the age of 13, directing senior students and large numbers of people: I was good at it. I was accepted into the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and quickly became the person in the company who would lead physical warm-ups and then gradually became the person that would choreograph sections of movement for their productions. I ended up doing a History of Art MA at Edinburgh University and became obsessed with German Expressionistic artists like Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele – basically anything with emotive bodies for me to analyse. Alongside my studies at University I directed fashion shows, helping models walk in difficult or constricted clothing, then choreographed the annual musicals and plays. Then people started asking me to help them on “movement” not choreography which for some reason made complete sense despite never having heard that of that distinction.
Photo by Johann Persson
I have a very eclectic work background but now more than ever I realise that everything I have done in my life has led to becoming a Movement Director. I worked as a personal assistant, then for a theatre PR agency and did strange and wonderful things like write older women’s dating profiles online or tweeted on behalf of celebrities (long story!) I began working for a television production company which made adverts and as a side hustle, I started running a charity, The Mono Box, with my best mate, actress Joan Iyiola (which is still going now 5 years on even though we both are incredibly busy in our respective fields.) This fusion of jobs – seeing cameramen setting up shots, seeing how directors work and also developing a company that aimed to empower and develop emerging actors through practice meant that I ended up being more valuable on the set of adverts helping the performers rather than dealing with the budgets and spreadsheets. Very naturally I swerved back into the world of theatre.
Harney: What exactly is a Movement Director?
Polly: The term emerged in post-war Britain although the practice pre-dates this, but my dinner party answer is that a movement director works with movement and the human body. It’s a physical job that enables actors’ creativity and helps them build a connection with their colleagues. A choreographer typically works with dancers rather than actors and creates material and brings it into a rehearsal room for people to learn. A movement director’s work expands across a greater range of possibilities which may include choreography but is more reliant on the actor’s individuality. So sometimes movement can be something that you see onstage like a party scene or stylised scene change where furniture and bodies move energetically on stage, and sometimes it is invisible - so movement that is invisible and buried in the actor’s character choices. This could be about interpersonal relationships about making a couple’s intimacy vivid and realistic or working with an actor to play a disability, pregnancy or age to serve the narrative of a play. A movement director is someone who brings the physical aspect of a play to the fore by being close to the body: the nature of my work is to care, empower and liberate actors and help them become the fullest version of themselves and their character to help create the world of the story in question. I would say that I work as both a choreographer and movement director, but my title is dependent on the job.
I explain movement as more felt creative work and the nature of it is constantly evolving. The field is now growing and jobs like Bohemian Rhapsody has given it a certain visibility which is great for the future of movement work and the future of actors!
Harney: What was your first movement job and how has your career developed over time?
Polly: My first proper movement job was working on the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, which then took me to work in Sochi on the Winter Olympic Ceremonies there. The Olympics took a chance on me – I was the youngest member of the choreography team but I learned how to hold my own. After London 2012, I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company for a year in Stratford-upon-Avon assisting Struan Leslie the Head of Movement there. My tasks there were to support the physical work of the company: taking that literally, I started doing Pilates classes for the office staff and the teams who built the sets. I delivered yoga and release classes for the actors as well as shadowed other professionals in the rehearsal rooms making the plays fly off the page and exploding Shakespeare’s text.
Polly: I’ve been deeply inspired by the work of movement people before me from my tutor on my MA in Movement I ended up doing, Ayse Tashkiran. She is a real beacon of support for upcoming practitioners. Similarly, Jane Gibson, the choreographer of Shakespeare in Love and movement director for theatre company Cheek by Jowl, gave me the advice starting out to “really dedicate yourself to the work: choose one thing and be really good at it.” She said that whilst eating a piece of lemon drizzle cake and for that I will always be grateful.
Because of that, my other inspirations have essentially been everyone I’ve ever met, worked with and watched. I love watching people and imagining why they move as they do. From watching Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and old dance movies as a kid I get inspired by people knowing their own bodies. I obsess over Tina Turner’s energetic stage performances, Stevie Nicks’s fluidity when she sings, Grace Jones’ use of fashion and Celine Dion’s combination of power and funny bones; I’ve learned a lot by just watching and absorbing ideas through osmosis.
I am inspired by proud women: there is an amazing spoken word poem by Vanessa Kissule called TAKE UP SPACE. I have it printed in my notebook and read it whenever I am exhausted or losing confidence. I also often use it for a starting point for choreography. It’s a love letter to women I know who are so brilliant, intelligent and uninhibited – being surrounded by them as an example means I have never felt like I had any limits on who or what I should be as a woman. I would describe my best friends Joan, Alfie, Sarah and Claira as my spine: reminding me of my creativity, personal power and to have a bloody laugh. They are an inspiration for being kind and generous when facing obstacles and I am inspired by their collective tenacity. I am definitely inspired by my Dad and Grandad who are both working-class musicians – I’ve definitely inherited their work ethic and aspire to their humility.
Harney: You have been involved with productions like Bohemian Rhapsody and The Crown and events like the Sochi Olympics. Is there a medium you prefer to work in - theatre, film, television or events?
Polly: My work in theatre is my first love: it has enabled me to collaborate with some great directors who recognise that they cannot deliver the physical aspect of a production without an extra specialist. My most rewarding relationships have been with directors who give me time and space to work with the actors and allow me to help access the “invisible” parts of human existence through physical work. I am working with a lot of female theatre directors at the moment which is really exciting for both myself and the industry at large.
For me right now, I couldn’t do one medium without doing the other(s). I wouldn’t be working in film now if I hadn’t grafted a career in the theatre industry and taken the exciting, and sometimes peculiar opportunities that have come my way. The opinion of movement work has turned from one of intrigue to one of excitement and its value has been observed broadly across the creative industries. My job is now to communicate the joy of movement and the variety of work that has come my way is important to my practice because I am constantly working out how to do deliver my ideas for a different people. Whether it has been choreographing waiters in Michelin star restaurants to deliver food with an edge of performance, coaching businessmen and politicians to deliver speeches, teaching football coaches how to build teams, running pilates classes to inmates and teaching street dance to ballerinas, developing physical programmes for women in Saudi Arabia or choreographing couple’s wedding dances I constantly put myself in a position to work out the best way to communicate movement. My intention is to work out the next best way to communicate movement and take physical work away from judgment or criticism, self-consciousness and shame for whoever I work with. I never want people to think that what they do is wrong (perhaps because of my skipping experience!) An actor’s instrument is their body and I help them learn how to play it best. In a world where we are becoming more and more disconnected with our bodies – phones, laptops, politics…. I truly believe moving could bring us back together.
Harney: What do you love most about your career? What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced and what are some of your favorite pieces of work or career accomplishments?
Polly: I have only just come up for air after working pretty solidly for about 5 years with no break and I finally am making the time to be proud of everything I’ve done at a relatively young age in a relatively short amount of time. It’s often hard for people in these behind the scenes roles to be proud of themselves; certainly in my field there are no awards for movement directors, there are no accolades and because it’s not always clear what a movement director’s role has been on a project because the work is so expansive it’s hard for people to understand and give space and credit to. As a result, the search for the next job to keep afloat detracts from thinking about what has been achieved and it’s easy to roll from one thing to the next, sacrificing personal reflection and time to be in the world and think about what you are doing. I am learning to be proud of myself for myself and take up space rather than under-talk my achievements or deflect compliments.
I love that my job enables me to meet and connect with some many different people. I love that one day I can be with a group of elderly dancers running a tea-dance and the next I can be on a Hollywood film set. The diversity movement enables is what I love the most. I get to move! I get to use my body! I get to help people discover moving. Every day I count my blessings that I can wear elasticated clothing, throw my hair in a bun and dance!
Aside from my company which I am deeply proud of because Joan and I have kept it going against all odds, I have had many highlights. Working with a group of friends on a play called Pomona was incredible – the show was built on friendship and hard work and I loved working to make it the very best it could be; opening a show on Broadway (Travesties with Tom Hollander) was a real thrill, and a play called People, Places and Things which went to the West End and off-Broadway from the National Theatre was a show drew attention to me and my role as movement director. I am deeply proud of the work I do with young people to bring them into the theatre – letting them know that those spaces are for them – but of course, working with Rami Malek on Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the things I am most proud of. Getting the job was a coup – I was the underdog in the interview process, but Rami and I immediately got along and spoke each other’s language. It could have been intimidating as my first major film project, but it actually felt like the perfect culmination of all the things I had done before and a huge, much-appreciated challenge that I am delighted to have been given. I was ready for it.
Rami had no experience of dance or movement but that’s the joy of the job – to find the way for actors to access movement in a creative and inspiring way. Getting Rami to embrace his body was a joy – seeing his confidence grow and the odd moment when he’d pull a move as we were eating dinner or walking down the street was the greatest thrill. He was becoming Freddie and although I was nervous at first, I could see it coming. I always had faith that we would get there.
The prep period was as much about creating a relationship with Rami as it was laying the foundations for Freddie. I had to get to know Rami, how he learned, how he retained information, what his skill-set was, what he found difficult and what approaches he enjoyed. I had to be flexible as a teacher especially as we were working in short and intense bursts in both London and New York, according to Rami’s schedule. My approach was to lay the foundations of Freddie’s movement heritage in Rami’s body so that he had a vocabulary to use when we got to specific concerts or storytelling moments in the film; the invisible work is sometimes the most important.
When we were together we worked on ballet to stretch out Rami’s legs and stabilise his posture, we did yoga to increase Rami’s spinal flexibility; I created choreography involving turns and large poses to get Rami used to listening to music, I’d ask Rami to travel across the room with various stimuli to develop his coordination and agility; we would action lyrics to enjoy and familiarise ourselves with the story of the songs and we would go to large spaces – parks, empty streets and large dance studios – to catwalk, posture and run to increase Rami’s confidence and get used to being looked at for being fabulous!
The production wanted the Live Aid sequence to be an exact replica of the famous performance but wanted to film it from the perspective that it had never been seen from. I studied the footage to break down every scuff of the foot, step over the microphone lead, switch of the microphone from the right hand to left, every off-beat gesture and on-beat arm punch and work out the movements that weren’t shown in the recording based on what foot he was leading with when the camera picked up on him. I then had to teach it to Rami in an inventive way to make sure it wasn’t overwhelming for him or felt unachievable, but also so it didn’t look set or learned on playback. I also did this for the other boys in the band too so there’s not a lot I now don’t know about that sequence!
Over the two weeks we filmed each song separately but on the last day of filming Live Aid, Rami and the boys were able to run the whole set right through without error or stopping. The atmosphere was electric. The word proud doesn’t even come close to what I felt that day.
Harney: What is some advice you have for someone interested in becoming a movement director or choreographer?
Polly: Movement direction is a relatively new field and therefore sounds shiny and exciting: definitely the publicity of Bohemian Rhapsody has promoted it as a job. Of course, as you can probably tell, I love what I do, but it hasn’t come easy. I’ve grafted and battled to get in rehearsal rooms. I’ve worked a lot of jobs to subsidise working in theatre and overlapped projects to a quite inhuman level. I’ve worked late nights and early mornings to make time to run my company, read scripts and prepare for the day’s work. My journey has involved schlepping around the country on theatre tours and spending time in dark rooms late at night making material, missing weddings, family parties and just casual evenings at the pub with friends, all in the name of making it happen. Now I am not trying to martyr myself, but I am keen to point out that getting to where I have got in a new industry has taken a lot of graft. So really my advice would be to be curious about movement and really look to what the nuts and bolts of what makes people move because it’s a sacrifice to get the work. The industry is shifting to give space to movement practice and to keep it alive it needs people that are keen to develop it further: you won’t be able to follow my route exactly so explore your own because what you bring to the movement world will be your own version of brilliance. Oh, and always have a tennis ball in your bag – you’ll need it.
Harney: What do you like to do in your free time?
Polly: I have been so busy lately juggling different projects that my free time has become even more precious. Perhaps because of the diversity of my job I have a varied group of friends who I love getting all in one place to see them all mix together: my friends from university - lawyers, publishers and analysts – mixing with actors I’ve worked with and directors I’ve collaborated with is one of my biggest joys. One of my closest friends Claira runs Rumour Mill, a cabaret and burlesque night in a vodka distillery in Hackney which I go to every month with as many people as possible. I go to the Prince Charles cinema to watch old movies, go to Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club to dance with the most fierce, fizzy drag queens in town and go to pubs for roast dinners on Sundays. When I am in need of some quiet time I have deep tissue massages and get a pedicure – my feet always appreciate some down time! I live in Walthamstow in East London I am minutes away from the beautiful Wetlands and marshes. A hidden gem of trees and reservoirs in London, a walk here to clear my head with a dog borrowed from a friend who lives nearby does the trick. I also try and get out of London to see my brother, sister-in-law and their kids, Jack and Grace whenever I can and visiting my parents on their farm in Somerset where they’ve semi-retired allows me to breathe and revert to being a child again. Collecting the eggs from the chickens, eating them with toasted soldiers and doing my Dad’s music quiz he runs at the pub is a guaranteed leveler.
Harney: Are you a tea lover? If so, how does tea influence your work? What do you love most about tea?
Polly: As an English person, making tea is pretty habitual. Having a cup of tea in a break is a license that no one can talk to you about work – you are having a cup of tea and that’s final! I carry a selection of herbal teas in my bag to remind myself to make time. During the filming of Bohemian Rhapsody actor Joe Mazzello, Emma Hammond, Rami’s assistant, and I got into the habit of going for cream teas at various swanky hotels in London as a treat on our days off. There is nothing better than an Earl Grey and putting too much clotted cream on a scone.
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea (or anything you’ve been wanting to try)?
Polly: Since working on The Crown and Bohemian Rhapsody I have become very fond of teacups and teapots. Both The Queen and Freddie Mercury seem to have exceptional taste in teacups so I have been inspired to go to charity shops and source my own to make own fancy tea-time at home. I’ve also been eyeing up the collection on the Harney shop. The Historic Royal Palaces collection will definitely compliment this endeavour!
I swear by Peppermint tea as it’s smell always makes me sit down and take a moment to myself. Japanese Sencha in the morning and having an English Breakfast tea whenever I return to London from abroad is the taste of home.
Polly, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us! To learn more about Polly, her passions or her career, head to pollybennettmovement.com or follow her on Instagram. All photography has been provided by Polly.