Jennifer Weber has made a career as the force of hard-hitting, intense contemporary hip-hop—both in the concert dance world, with projects like The Hip Hop Nutcracker, and the theatre world with musicals like Off-Broadway’s KPOP and London’s &Juliet. Now, Weber brings her edge to Disney, and while it may sound, at first, like an unusual match—Weber’s film debut is actually a perfect fit with Zombies 2. Weber brings and empathy and edginess to characters who live in the margins: Zombies and Werewolves.
“I watched the first film and fell in love with the message of acceptance that drives the narrative,” she says. “I had always wanted to choreograph a film, and getting to work on such a big scale was an amazing opportunity.”
In her movement, Weber can capitalize on the wildness typically associated with these fantastical creatures, while grounding them in the reality of this very real world Disney created in the first film. Though Weber didn’t consider herself supernaturally inclined, that aspect does allow her to create an epicness in her dance numbers.
Watch the sneak peek of the opening number to the Disney Channel Original Movie before it premieres February 14 and then get inside the inspiration behind the movement in the Q&A with Weber below:
How is choreographing for the story of a movie different from the stage?
Jennifer Weber: On stage, the relative scale of bodies to the audience is always the same, but on film you can get much closer and much further away from the movement. To create choreography for film, you have to look at the lyrics of a number line by line and plan what the audience ultimately sees for each moment. Since the choreography won’t be seen continuously, it is important to juxtapose moments that are strong in a wide shot with images that are designed to be seen in close-up. All that has to be planned in relationship to the storytelling and the flow of the song. In rehearsal, we film every number shot by shot, so we are prepared before getting on the set. The choreography of the camera and the choreography of the dance are conceived at the same time. In some ways, this is more complicated, but in other ways you have more control over the visual narrative.
Tell me about the way the dance moves the story in this specific number.
“We Got This” is the opening number of the film. There is a lot of story we needed to get across to catch up with all of our lead characters. The dance focuses on an obstacle course where we see Addison leading an integrated team of humans and zombies. The choreography for her team mixes hip hop with cheer—showing how much the zombies have become a part of her cheer squad. They are competing against a human-only team who utilize a more traditional cheer vocabulary. Back in Zombietown, Zed is planning a grand romantic gesture to ask Addison to the “Prawn” (Seabrook High’s version of prom) and we see his Zombie crew rallying behind him in support. Zed leads the zombies in a joyous, locking inspired choreography that builds in size and energy, emphasizing the support he has from his friends.
Working with young dancers, what did you want to capitalize on, in terms of utilizing your talent?
I love working with young dancers because they have an undeniable, fresh energy. They also have no fear so you can give them something crazy to try and they will smash it out over and over.
“We Got This” has a mix of cheer and your signature hip hop. Is the rest of the movie much the same?
There is a lot more dancing as the film progresses. We meet a new group of werewolf characters whose movement style is inspired by house and breaking. This brings an entirely new flavor to the film. Dance becomes instrumental in solving the challenges the movie sets up. The choreography gets bigger and bigger.
What makes hip-hop the right genre for these characters in the first place?
Hip hop is an umbrella term that encompasses so many specific dance styles. Hip hop is more than just steps, it is a culture and I think of hip hop as a cultural dance. It makes sense that these different groups—the humans, the zombies and the werewolves—would each have their own specific movement to represent their characters’ diverse cultures.
How did you develop each of these movement vocabularies?
I spent a lot of time imagining how these different characters would move. The Zombies felt more organized, more like a dance crew embracing their power as a unit, whereas the Werewolves felt more like a group that would celebrate their individuality. The cheerleaders have a very authentic, contemporary cheer style. The Zombie movement is inspired by a mix of locking, and commercial hip hop, but we developed a lot of original Zombie swag in the detail of hands, body shapes and playful musicality. For the Werewolves, I took a lot of inspiration from house footwork and floorwork to give them a free yet grounded vibe.
Obviously, music is always a huge factor in choreography. How did this music impact your interpretation through dance?
Of course music plays a huge part in choreography. I like to think of bodies as amplifiers of sound and when I listen to the music, I pick what sounds I want to make louder by what is physically accented. The music is the script, and then I bring that script to life. There are a lot of different musical genres in the film so I was able to create a variety of types of scenes.
I feel like the big “march through the streets” scene is such a staple of movie musicals. Why do you think that is?
I think its the equivalent to the downstage line in theatre. Its a “we are taking over” “we own this space” and “we are coming at you” all rolled into one.
What was your collaboration like with your cheer choreographer?
Authenticity is really important to me and since I was never a cheerleader, I got to collaborate with Patrick Mislan and Megan MacLennan, who are talented cheer coaches and choreographers. We also had a large group of professional cheerleaders in the film to execute the big tosses and pyramids. We first talked through the energetic flow of the visuals and where the focus and camera would be. Some of the moments have dance in front of cheer, and in other moments, the movements are fully integrated. Patrick and Megan were amazing collaborators and I will say seeing this level of cheerleading in person is so much scarier than it looks. The throws are so high. It is amazing what humans can do.
Tune in to Zombies 2, premiering February 14 on Disney Channel. Check your local listings.