6 January 2021 11:01

Intimacy and beyond – interview with Coral Messam

Movement director Coral Messam creates worlds through bodies on stage and screen. As her work with Steve McQueen is voted Best Film of 2020, she tells David Jays about euphoria, consent – and missing out on ballet.

Coral Messam in black outfit standing in a studio
Coral Messam

What was the last dance movie to grab the best film prizes? La La Land, Black Swan or Chicago? Now Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock has been voted best film of 2020 by an international panel for Sight & Sound magazine – and credit must also go to movement director Coral Messam, with her rare ability to build a world through moving bodies.

The film is part of McQueen’s absorbing Small Axe series about the Black British experience in the 1970s and 80s. All but plotless, Lovers Rock follows a long night’s journey through a west London house party in 1980. Everyone is there to dance, and dance is everything.

After the infectious slash and bounce of Kung-Fu Fighting, the film pivots to Silly Games – a delirious classic of the romantic reggae genre that gives the film its title. Messam remembers these songs from her own childhood, but admits it was disconcerting to teach them to the young cast. ‘We’ve never had to break those dances down,’ she says, ‘we don’t learn them in dance school – which is a shame, because the level of intimacy is beyond.’

She set hips rolling in a figure of eight, reminded dancers not to twerk (‘it’s not twerking, it’s a whine’). ‘Those slow whines are meditative,’ Messam considers. ‘Something happens in the body when you are that intimate with somebody, when you’re hardly moving.’ She saw the cast ‘transform, become intimate and tender with each other. It’s a massive revolution for them, they don’t dance like that anymore.’ The camera scooches close to nestling foreheads, simmering hips, wandering hands. You’d swear the screen was swaying.

Deep into the night, the men let rip, and the room can barely contain this cantilevered scrum of skanking limbs. ‘Friends have said, “we didn’t skank like that in our day”, but the cast made it their own.’ Messam always begins with a warm-up – ‘I call it a vibe-up’. ‘We let the music take our bodies,’ she says. ‘Your knees come high, you bring your hand up in the air, it’s almost euphoria. With every rewind, it transcended – it became like prayer or worship.’ McQueen just kept filming. ‘They were in a different element. We were creating art.’

‘I could get quite emotional about working with Steve,’ Messam confides. She’d wanted to meet the Oscar-winning director for ages, since seeing his film Hunger. Then a friend suggested Messam for Lovers Rock. ‘I called my agent: sort this out, this has to happen!’ To her surprise, McQueen ‘didn’t ask me about my credentials. He asked about my childhood. We talked about music – it was like talking to my brother. I felt like he approached me with pure humanity.’ McQueen brought sheer relish to rehearsals too. ‘He didn’t have any inhibitions – I was playing a soul track and he got up and danced with us. There was no hierarchy. It was one of the best experiences of my life.’

Growing up in Wolverhampton, Messam ‘was always surrounded by music. Sundays particularly – my dad would put on reggae, Jim Reeves.’ Music led to dance – blocking the telly during Top of the Pops, or spending Saturday afternoons in her brother’s bedroom with its mirror-doored wardrobe. ‘It became my dance studio, dancing in my leotard to his hi-tech sound system. Blissful.’

Even so, dance felt like a hobby, with her sights set on fashion (her mum was a seamstress). ‘In the late 1980s, especially for a young Black girl from a small town, people who were creative were a minority.’ Her dance tutor was encouraging – up to a point. ‘Mum and dad didn’t want me coming home late. But my tutor said, she’s got something, so would drop me home from dance class in her car.’ When Messam was 12, the tutor recommended a Royal Ballet workshop in Wolverhampton. ‘The Royal Ballet teacher came up to me and said, “you need to talk to your parents and teacher and see if you can get into ballet school.” It was a very Billy Elliott situation!’

But, unlike Billy, Messam’s tutor squashed the dream. ‘She said, “Oh, don’t even worry about that.”’ To this day, she doesn’t know why her teacher slammed the door on ballet. Was she piqued by thwarted ambition, or protecting the child from disappointment? Did race play a part (ballet has a longstanding problem with diversity)? For Messam, it still niggles: ‘When I look back, she closed down an opportunity. I’m very grateful for the path I’m on, I’ve been able to do so many different things – but that conversation has always stuck in my mind.’

Earlier this year, the actor Noma Dumezweni, Dance Gazette’s guest editor, recalled working with dancers including Messam on a play called Feast. ‘They got the choreography within five minutes. We actors took ages, because I was going, “Why am I doing this?” It drove me crazy.’ Messam recognises this divide. ‘As dancers, we’re in our bodies, I think we absorb things in a much more kinaesthetic way – dancers think about the psychological as well as the physical. For me it’s a holistic thing. Performance is about embodying a character in its full entirety.’

That holistic approach informs her movement direction on shows like Small Island and The Amen Corner at the National Theatre. Exploring everything from formal choreography to the way characters walk or stand, how does she create a physical world? ‘Every project is different,’ she says. As ever, her vibe-up eases people into movement. ‘We’re in it together, although we have different strengths and weaknesses. My vibe-ups are like a club atmosphere, where you’re not thinking about what you look like. I try to connect the ensemble, allow them to have fun, get to know and enjoy their bodies.’

Making the studio ‘a safe space where you can let yourself go’ has led to a parallel career as an intimacy coordinator in film and tv. ‘Movement directors will say that you have this sixth sense,’ she says. ‘It’s being intuitive – knowing when to step in, when to stop.’ Covid protocols have heightened the need for care. When the series Britannia began filming after lockdown, ‘I wanted to know, how would it work in the new terrain?’ The answer includes much testing and no kissing. Messam admits that, when acting jobs are scarce, people might be reluctant to voice discomfort, but she wants them to speak up. ‘‘I have to make sure people are working safely but are also psychologically confident, because then you get the best work, right? People who feel respected and that they’ve been taken care of.’

If Lovers Rock was film of the year, Messam also worked on what many consider its best tv drama. I May Destroy You, a compulsive story around consent, was created by Michaela Coel, who saw Messam’s dance piece Run It Back in 2018. ‘She gave the show a massive shoutout, and said, I’m writing a tv-series and would love you to be part of it.’ I May Destroy You is steeped in discomfort and faltering control, from the bedroom to the dance floor, and the way Messam’s bodies occupy the world feels intensely individual and vulnerable. Like McQueen, Messam says, Coel is ‘another phenomenal soul. She’s a true trailblazer.’

So too is Coral Messam, changing the world one body at a time. ‘I’m at the stage in my life where I feel I have to work on projects that speak to me or ignite something in me,’ she says. ‘At the end of the day, I’m here to create.’

Visit Coral Messam and watch Lover’s Rock on BBC iPlayer.
David Jays is editor of Dance Gazette.