14 March 2023 • 8 Mins Read

Interviewing Choreographer Ellen Kane

The success of Matilda The Musical is both widespread and well-documented. It has been to 91 cities around the world and won 99 awards. 

The combination of a brilliant story, witty songs, talented child actors and spellbinding choreography have ensured longstanding popularity and it is a firm favourite for many schools as an end of year play for high school students.

The musical has now translated to the big screen and I spoke with Ellen Kane, co-choreographer for the stage musical and lead choreographer for the screen adaptation, about her experiences and her upcoming appearance at our Performing Arts event, Set the Stage. I didn’t expect to learn so much from her about the industry and her life but first, let’s start with the film.

The choreography was the first big, beautiful slap in the face, even before the film was released, thanks to snippets being shared on TikTok around the world. The energy almost vibrates out of your screen and into your veins when you see the children dancing progressively towards you with a look of angst, singing about revolution.

Ellen - The clips to the film have gone viral, and Missy Elliot was reposting it as well as JoJo Siwa. It’s crazy how the response has been. It’s so unexpected. Long may it reign!

Study Experiences – Do you think publicity wise this is the biggest thing you’ve ever experienced?

E – I would say so. For a lot of my career I’ve worked in theatre. I’ve worked on huge shows that have received a lot of accolades and attention but they don’t go ‘viral’. It’s such a different reach with the vehicle of film and social media. It could have gone either way. You put yourself and your work out there but they could have responded negatively.

But in a world dominated by social media it’s refreshing to speak to someone who doesn’t feel a need for it in their lives. Ellen doesn’t have any social media accounts and although she’s flattered by the huge response, she says that the true success of her work is felt long before the film is even released.

E – I try to protect myself from that energy in the world but of course I’m really grateful for it. To think that humans around the globe are able to access that work and see my choreography. I just don’t want to get caught up in the whirlwind that social media can create. We’re living in a transient world and you’ve got to find your successes from within. I knew that that project was a success; from the team I brought onboard with me to the work that I created, from the scheduling of all those children and finding them, we taught them and encouraged them. To me it was already a success.

Just as much as want praise for our work, we leave ourselves open to criticism and even sometimes hurtful comments often from complete strangers but they can be upsetting all the same. Seemingly the only real criticism has been from individuals assuming this is a remake of the 1996 Matilda movie but as I have seen myself, these comments are quickly rebuked by theatre goers and fans of the musical who explain it is an adaptation of the stage musical.

SE – Did the movie give you more flexibility or present any limitations?

E – In terms of scale, cast size and time it gave great flexibility. We were able to achieve huge things that you can’t do in a theatrical setting. I found it incredibly liberating. Re-imagining the story in a more literal sense gave me huge scope to open up the songs and journey with them.

What’s even more impressive is that the movie was made during the pandemic. Whilst the theatre doors were tightly shut, Ellen was working hard with hundreds of talented children to create this marvellous film.

I wanted to go back a bit to Ellen’s younger years because I wondered whether choreography was something she’d always wanted to do.

E – I grew up in Hackney and when I was growing up there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for dance. Very much like Billy Elliot, on a Friday night you could go and do this dance club for 50 pence! A friend of mine used to always go and I joined her for a year or so but quickly ended up choregraphing the dances. I enjoyed making them up rather than performing. I was about 10 years old at this point and then I didn’t really have anything else to do with dance until part way through secondary school. Sounds awful now but I saw it as a fun option for GCSE that was almost like P.E and it felt like a break from the academic subjects.

But, I had an amazing couple of teachers. They were so forward thinking and brought in college companies to perform for us.

SE – That makes such a difference to a child’s experience with a subject. That’s why we put Set the Stage together because it enables students to meet with companies like Frantic Assembly and have inspirational conversations and experiences. Is that something you connected with when Set the Stage was introduced to you?

E – Yes, it’s so valuable. I ended up going on a foundation course for dance because of these companies coming in. I watched them in our gym and I just knew I wanted to do that. I then went on to find out what I needed to do to apply and learn. My dad insisted I still do my A levels at night which I agreed to do.

The teachers were incredible inspiring human beings. From there I gained enough training and skills to apply for a more formal education in dance at colleges such as London Studio Centre where I got a scholarship.

SE – Were there any specific dance styles you loved more than others?

E – Not really because I’ve just always loved dance and music. But by the time I went to college I loved contemporary dance and even though the college wasn’t known for that, there was a teacher there called Sue Booker who is a friend of mine now and she was an incredible support and an amazing teacher to me. She really gave me a great start and as a performer I ended up getting into Richard Alston Dance Company which was an established contemporary dance company. Looking back this was quite an achievement; to think I only really began to dance properly at 16 years old. It’s testament of course to my dedication but also to the people I’ve been blessed to be taught and inspired by.

SE – That’s lovely. Have you had many people saying you’ve inspired them?

E – Yes I have and I have been so lucky. I’ve worked on some of the most incredible musicals. All of the boys across the globe that have ever been Billy Elliot I would say that I was responsible for setting up their training programs. I taught a lot of them as Peter Darling’s associate and supervised the shows. I have huge fondness for them all. Some of them are principals in the Royal Ballet and I’ve got an incredible love for them. All the children that have been in Matilda and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory.

SE - There must be thousands.

E - There’s literally thousands. And all the adults as well obviously. I am tough and I push hard because I can see what things can be. And I ask from others what I know I would give myself. But for those who are willing and want to find the best in themselves I have built incredible connections.

SE – So did you see Set the Stage as an opportunity to further inspire and advise students by telling them your story?

E – I think more and more now that you can see something and wonder how it came together. You don’t recognize the journey from page to stage or to screen. I got there in a very real way. I went to a state school in Hackney, I wasn’t necessarily a high achiever at school but I worked incredibly hard. I met amazing people and continued to grow. It’s important that children know that nothing is impossible. Things might not be quite as you imagine but anything is possible.

SE – There’s no guarantee of how to go about things or one route to success. As long as you keep pushing and working you will reach your destination. It’s important for us at Study Experiences because a lot of what we do is focused on curriculum and education but we are also invested in the career side of it and how children feel about their future. We want them to feel inspired and be able to seek advice about their career path.

E – We live in a challenging world. I genuinely believe that hard work pays a huge percentage in where we get to. I am one of the minority. I am a woman in this field which is very rare and I came from a lower working class background where opportunity wasn’t available - but I did it.

If the gift and the desire is there, you’ll find a crack and that crack will open up into a path which then opens up into a road and it just keeps developing.

You can read part 2 of this interview HERE

Find out more about the amazing range of workshops with Arts industry professionals at our SET THE STAGE SEMINAR EVENT 

- Ellen Kane, interviewed by Paris Leach for Study Experiences