Posted on July 21, 2016
Dancer Sofia Boutella’s Hollywood career has taken off, with roles in Star Trek Beyond and Kingsman: The Secret Service. In this 2012 interview, she tells Nicola Rayner about her dance training, dancing salsa in the film Street Dance 2 3D and working with Madonna
My friends were crazy with me, they said: ‘You’re having to choose between Madonna and Michael Jackson?’” Sofia Boutella (pictured in Streetdance 2 3D) sounds as though she still can’t believe it herself. A few years ago, she found herself in an extraordinary position with Madonna and Jackson both keen for her to dance on their tours.
On a six-month break between dancing on the first and second legs of Madonna’s 2008–9 Sticky and Sweet tour she auditioned to join Michael Jackson’s This Is It concerts, but a conflict in dates meant she couldn’t do both. Did she meet Michael? “No, but I spoke to him on the phone. He called me, he said, ‘You’re an amazing dancer. God bless you. I really want you on my show.’ And I said, ‘I will do my best.’ Then I was on the phone to his stage director, Kenny Ortega, and he told me: ‘When you’re done with Madonna, come and join us,’ and I said, ‘OK, I will.’ And then he passed.”
After Jackson’s death, Sofia was given the chance to “give back to him” when she was booked for the music video for his posthumous “Hollywood Tonight”. The short film follows Sofia as a dancer fresh off the bus in Los Angeles, with dreams of making it in Hollywood. Directed by Wayne Isham, the video features Jacksoninspired choreography and outfits – in it Sofia is a dead ringer for the King of Pop – but is also a touching tribute to Jackson, about whom Sofia clearly feels very strongly.
“He always inspired me,” she says, “and when he felt I could give him something I could not give it to him, when he gave to me my whole life, you know what I mean? So then the video came up and I got the chance to do it and I felt better about myself; I felt I did something for him.”
When I meet Sofia, she has flown to London to promote StreetDance 2 3D, which is released in the UK on March 30. Its predecessor, 2010’s StreetDance 3D, looked at the contrasting worlds of ballet and street, and was hugely successful. The sequel, directed by duo Max and Dania, written by Jane English and produced by Vertigo Films’ Allan Niblo and James Richardson, will fuse Latin and street dance.
Boutella plays Eva, a salsa and tango dancer, whom street dancer Ash (Falk Hentschel), with new friend Eddie (George Sampson), comes across in Paris as the pair roam Europe to gather its greatest dancers in order to beat “the world’s best dance crew”.
The film was shot on location throughout Europe, in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin, and features, in addition to Sampson, familiar faces from the first film – British dance troupe Flawless, reprising their role as rival dance crew “The Surge” and “Got To Dance” winner Akai Osei, who plays the youngest member of the new crew.
Ash and Eddie meet Sofia’s character, Eva, at a salsa club belonging to her uncle (Tom Conti). “Ash comes there because his friend tells him that if he wants to complete this dance team, he needs one more element that will change the face of this group – that will make a difference in order to win the competition,” explains Sofia.
“He takes him to this salsa bar, and he thinks, at first, that it’s a joke, and then he begins to understand where his friend is coming from. So it was really inspiring to have those two worlds meet and it was really interesting, for me, because I’d never done salsa and tango before.”
Learning salsa and tango to such a high standard in a matter of months sounds like a tall order, but Sofia enjoyed the challenge. “I really had the chance and the opportunity to research the Latin world and the people – how they talk, how they move their faces and, of course, learn the whole dance. It was easier for me because I was a dancer, of course, but I did have to learn this whole world.”
Did she go to Cuba to do this research? “No, but my partner, who taught me, was from Cuba, Maykel Fonts. It was great dancing with him. He’s an amazing dancer. You cannot take your eyes off him. We had two or three fights, as a joke, because he’s so tough, and I’m tough too, so we were always going at it, but in a good way. I love working with people who are strong like him.
“It was hard for me to let somebody lead me. He would be like, ‘Go to the right,’ and I’d say, ‘No, I want to go left. Can’t we do what I want?’ He would say, ‘You’ve got to follow the man.’ I was like, ‘OK, I don’t like that; I’m not used to following the dude – I do what I want. ’ But at the same time when I surrendered that was when I learned the most.”
Sofia studied salsa in LA for two months before she flew to London for rehearsals. In total she had just five months to master salsa and tango. She took private classes in LA, she explains, “because it had to be specific for the character, but I went out to clubs to dance to get used to how you dress and the heels. I didn’t have nails before – this is the longest I would have them,” she shows me her hands.
“But I would see all those girls – they would dance with their nails.” She extends an arm in Latin styling. “I’d never danced like that, so I put nails on me and I started to paint them and I got all this attitude and vibe with my hands – because all the girls would be like 17 or 18, but they look like women. I was like, oh my god, I have to become all this.”
How did she find the hip movement of salsa, after street dance? “It was really difficult, the hips. She would teach me, at first, the feet, and I said, ‘Fine, I got that, but what is happening here?’” She pats her hips. “‘Because I see it, but I can’t do it,’ and I didn’t understand it. It was by doing it over and over and over that I got it. . . It’s triggered by the foot to the knee to this to this [up the body] and I got it, but it took me forever.”
As for what she found the most difficult, she says: “The heels! I had to be in them from nine in the morning until eight at night and between takes I was using this ice spray on my feet to numb my toes, so that I wouldn’t feel the pain any more.”
Sofia also learned tango in the US for two months with LA teachers Sandor and Parissa. “It’s difficult,” she says of the dance, “but once you get it, you understand it’s not about the steps, but the connection with your partner.”
Sofia’s dance journey began with ballet and rhythmicgymnastics (“and of course that makes you flexible, so I’ve done contortion as well”). She was born in Algeria, but her family moved to Paris when she was ten. Now 29, she lives in LA. After her classical training, she decided to “free myself up and do different kinds of dance as well… jazz and hip hop and freestyle”. Her breakthrough came in 2006 when she was picked for a Nike campaign, by Jamie King, Madonna’s stage director, in which she shows off her athleticism and flexibility in a loose-limbed, androgynous style.
“I was really a tomboy,” she says. “I had a hard time letting out my femininity, so I wanted to dance really strong, as strong as I could… I didn’t want you to be able to see if I’m a boy or a girl. I wanted to blend… I wanted to be almost an androgynous person dancing, without any sex.”
She adds: “I remember when Jamie King took me for Nike, and took me for Madonna, I’d never danced as a woman before, but I feel like he always saw what I had inside of me, in my guts, and he helped me let it out, release it and I’m so thankful for that.”
He wasn’t the only one who saw Sofia’s potential. “Madonna came up to me one time when we were rehearsing and she said: ‘Sofia, have you ever danced in heels?’ And I said, ‘Not ever,’ and she hands me her heels and says: ‘There’s a first time for everything’… The heels were really challenging for me, because it was something I’d never done, and she knew it, but she still gave me the chance.”
It is telling that Sofia is drawn to shape-shifters like Madonna and Jackson. “What interests me the most is that they became their own person and they developed that personality… It’s not for me to become him or her or somebody else; it’s for me to become me, that’s what is really inspiring. I’m developing who I am and it will never stop and I hope it will evolve all the time.”
Like Madonna, Sofia doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. “I’d love to do another dance movie, maybe a tango one? Or I’d love to do a Fosse-style movie, and I’d love also to do a tap dance movie, like the ones Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire used to do, and I would love to dance like Cyd Charisse, in that style. . . but I really want to act, I don’t want to just dance. I really want to be an actor. This is what I really want to do.”
This interview first appeared in the February 2012 issue of Dance Today. Star Trek Beyond, in which Sofia plays the alien warrior Jaylah, is released in the UK on July 22. Dance has a long history of evoking aliens in science fiction, as Zoë Anderson discovers in Dance and Doctor Who.