How The 'Climax' Choreographer Created the Film's Wild, Dance-Filled LSD Trip
Rihanna's music video choreographer Nina McNeely recounts the "challenge" of convening 21 street dancers from all walks — electro dancers, voguers, krumpers and waackers — to dance a six-minute single take and act out a nightmarish trip.
Nina McNeely wanted her dancers to act wilder and more drugged up. It was 1 p.m. in a dimly lit event space in Hollywood, where the choreographer was teaching a master class in street dance to a group of young dancers in crop tops and ankle-cuff sweatpants, as well as a few dance neophytes. As Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker" boomed out of the speakers above them, McNeely, her long, black hair loose, her fringe sweater flying, pointed out that during one particular move — a more crazed version of jazz hands, wherein dancers shimmy to the ground with fluttering hands while sliding their legs further apart from each other — the dancers needed to act more delirious. She scuttled her body down to the ground, showing how it was done: "You're on acid!" she yelled over the music as a reminder.
McNeely knows more than a little bit about how to coach dancers to appear as if they are on acid. In 2018, she was hired on the Gaspar Noé film Climax, about a dance troupe in France in the mid-'90s that becomes paranoid and divided when someone spikes the sangria at a post-rehearsal party with LSD. Dancers react differently to the drug, some becoming flirty, others paranoid, angry or violent; at a party throbbing with house beats, most of the drugged-out troupe continues to dance or expressively move their bodies in other ways. Though McNeely has worked with plenty of headliners in the music industry — Rihanna, Björk, Skrillex, Banks and Nick Jonas, among others — Climax, released in select cities Friday, is her first-ever feature project, and it required her to organize not only the six-minute, single-take dance number that opens the film, but also many nightmarish sequences that follow.
The result has won McNeely's choreography acclaim since the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and earned the infamously provocative helmer Noé his best reviews since 1998's Seule Contre Tous (I Stand Alone), according to Rotten Tomatoes. Though McNeely isn't a name-brand choreographer in Hollywood yet, it's possible that Climax — shot in a swift two weeks, with 21 street dancers McNeely didn't know, several of whom didn't speak English — may start to change that.
Sofia Boutella (Hotel Artemis, The Mummy), the film's only professional actress, originally connected McNeely with Noé. The Irréversible director had sent an Instagram message to Boutella, a former professional dancer who once worked with Madonna and Rihanna, to see if she was interested in Climax. When Boutella asked what choreographer he was working with, she learned he didn't have one. Boutella, a friend of McNeely's via a mutual dancing friend, sent him McNeely's reel, and a few months later Noé asked the choreographer to Skype. "I nearly had a heart attack," McNeely says. After rearranging her house obsessively for the video call, she eventually got the gig.
Pre-production moved rapidly after that: Not long after she first heard about Climax, McNeely flew out to Paris to start work. The day after she arrived, she met with Noé to determine the music they would use in the film — primarily '90s dance hits with some other music mixed in, like Cerrone's "Supernature," Soft Cell's "Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go" and "Rollin' and Scratchin'" by Daft Punk — and interviewed and hired an assistant. The next two days, she practiced with the majority of the film's dancers, but not all of them; dancers filtered in every day (Noé flew in contortionists from Cuba and the Congo), with some coming in the morning that the film's opening six-minute, single-take dance scene was scheduled to be shot.
"I don't know how [it worked]," McNeely says of the opening dance sequence, for which Noé did 16 or 17 takes. "It all just happened so fast and it was so much on instinct. I like working like that, but in this case, I really had no choice."
In addition to the time crunch, corralling the 21 dancers starring in the film proved to be challenging. Though originally the dancers were supposed to come from all over the world, including some from L.A. — where McNeely is based — budgetary concerns dictated that the majority come from Paris. McNeely doesn't speak French, so she made sure to hire an assistant who did. The assistant was a contemporary dancer and voguer who knew the French scene: "That made it really easy, because in really tense situations she could scream at them in French," McNeely says.
The dancers that Noé chose, with input from McNeely, came from varied traditions of street dance: They were electro dancers, voguers, krumpers and waackers, distinct styles that are often trained in clubs, on YouTube and among friends, not in studios. Though the actors included one dance group (the Electro Street Dancers), most worked alone and weren't accustomed to coordinating with one another, or dance class instruction: McNeely said she initially tried to introduce dancers by way of a count, but ended up screaming their names to get them in the shot instead. The choreographer gave up on aiming for synchronized movement, which produced a "hot mess," she says; instead, she tried walking patterns and structured improvisation.
With all dancers between 18 and 23, rehearsals were also rowdy. "[They] would always steal the mic and start like a vogue ball when it was supposed to be in rehearsal," McNeely says. "Gaspar loved that."
Then there was an acting issue: None of her young dancers had ever done hallucinogens, they said, and so they didn't know how to behave. "We were like, 'Really?'" McNeely says. (She chalks this reported inexperience to the fact that Generation Z is extraordinarily health-conscious and dancers of that age have large social-media followings and fan bases.) Choreographer and director tried a few workarounds, like trusting the actors to pretend they were on acid (which just made all of them act sluggish) and providing alcohol refreshment (they got tired). Finally, a solution was reached: Coffee on offer, plenty of dance parties in between takes and rehearsals, and video presentations of real people on drugs, as well as Japanese butoh dance, to show them the darkness they hoped the film would portray.
Because Noé was operating the camera himself and weaving among the dancers, McNeely says she did a "shit ton" of blocking, making sure the dancers knew where each needed to be within the shot, and occasionally followed the director as he filmed to shout directions. Around the third act of the film, Boutella's character experiences a terrible trip that sends her hurtling across the rehearsal building, clawing her body and laughing maniacally. Though dancer and choreographer worked on a few moves before traveling to Paris, "what we quickly realized is that it really works if we just put on music and scream stuff at her to try," McNeely says. The team did seven takes, with Boutella following only basic directions, like getting to certain areas of a room (the wall, the couch, the curtain) in order.
Though Noé has inevitably raised the hackles of some viewers with his latest, which involves a storyline involving a child in peril and an abortion, McNeely says she never felt uncomfortable or had to compromise with what she was choreographing. "I think that where it's shocking is you're shocked because maybe if you did acid, you would do that same thing, too; it's more of the loss of control that is the scary part of the film," she says.
Back in McNeely's masterclass in Hollywood, some dancers spent time between sets still working out how their druggiest move, the on-acid jazz-hands move, would look. Others attempted a robot-like shoulder rotation. After McNeely, The Electro Street Boys, who were in town for Climax's opening days in theaters, got on stage and instructed the dancers in simple electro moves that comprised the rest of the routine: rotating one's forearm while the upper arm remains still; twirling one's wrists together in the air while jumping on one leg, keeping the knee high, then the other. McNeely, keeping an eye on the class, shouted at the Electro crew when she sensed they were going too fast or not making sense.
Not long after, McNeely jumped back onstage to run through the entire routine. She moved swiftly through the steps, over and over, demanding her class keep up as the pace quickened. With "Windowlicker" on repeat over the speakers, McNeely insisted on counts ("6, 7, 8!"), though the Electro team before her hadn't counted at all. Before she split the class up to demonstrate what they learned to an audience of their peers, she threatened, "Ask your questions now or forever hold your peace!" Only one dancer did; the rest were revisiting tough moves. McNeely, noting the clock, didn't wait for others: She released the first group onto the stage, and as the familiar music played once more, it jolted into action.