Sally Clark caught up with Ashley Wallen, the choreographer behind The Greatest Showman.
WHEN Ashley Wallen, a commercial jazz dancer, left Australia to “give London a go” at age 24, he only planned to go for six months to “see what happened”.
Fifteen years on he has the most incredible body of choreographic work to his credit, including the Golden Globe winning movie The Greatest Showman; shows and film clips for artists such as Kylie Minogue, Sugababes and Alesha Dixon; the West End/ Broadway/Australian productions of Ghost – the Musical; and the reputation for being the man behind the moves of T-Mobile’s famous Liverpool Station flash mob.
Wallen grew up on the Gold Coast and started dancing around age twelve. “I used to dance around the house non-stop,” he recalls. “My mum said, ‘We should put him into some classes’.”
Wallen’s mother came good on her promise. His teacher/mentor was Robert Sturrock (Industry Dance – then based on the GC) so Wallen gained a fantastic grounding in technical/commercial jazz dance as well as a solid training in partner work.
At age 17 Wallen was cast in Kylie Minogue’s “Intimate and Live” tour (1998), which took him to the UK. Following that tour he returned to Australia and worked as a freelance commercial dancer, notching up performance credits in Fame – the Musical, Sisterella, Footloose, Moulin Rouge and Scooby Doo.
It was during this period that a friend from Fame mentioned Wallen to an up-and-coming commercials/video director, Michael Gracey, who was based in Melbourne at that time and looking for a choreographer for a commercial project. They made a Sugababes video together, which was Wallen’s “first big job as a choreographer”. At 24, Wallen moved to the UK. “My first job in London was a TV commercial with Elton John,” he recalls. Other celebrities he danced with over this time included Robbie Williams, Seal, Emma Bunting and Victoria Beckham.
As his reputation as a choreographer grew, he found himself in demand for televisionwork, including X Factor, BBC’s Dance X and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Superstar, as well as commercials. His next big break was an advertisement for T-mobile. Wallen was the choreographer for the now famous T-mobile launch, staged in Liverpool Railway Station in January, 2011, part of a world-wide phenomenon – the flash mob. Wallen went on to choreograph the flash-mob scene in the film Friends with Benefits, where a crowd of hundreds in NY’s Times Square joins the trend.
2011 gave him his first chance to bring his work to the musical theatre stage when Ghost – the Musical premiered on the West End. A Broadway season followed in 2012 and then the show came to Australia in 2016.
Now Wallen’s LA-based US agent, BLOC, promotes him as the guy who creates “MGM inspired commercials”. This is definitely true of the 2009 campaign for Lipton Ice Tea, which features Hugh Jackman and afforded him and Gracey more opportunities to marry their skills as director and choreographer, creating their brand of theatrical-movie-inspired-dance.
The success of the collaboration between Jackman, Gracey and Wallen was again apparent seven years later, when The Greatest Showman was finally green-lit by 20th Century Fox. “Michael and I had shot a big dance commercial with Hugh in 2009 – which Hugh loved – and which lead to us both working on Greatest Showman... I think [Gracey] would have been very instrumental in getting me on Showman,” Wallen reflects. Once again, Gracey directed and Wallen choreographed, and the results in the production sequences of The Greatest Showman indicate that both men have a passion for detail, creating a rich tapestry of movement and theatricality akin to old MGM movie musicals.
Wallen and Gracey have now been working together for 15-odd years and it’s a partnership where each inspires the other. “He (Gracey) has such a love for dance and really understands it and he is so involved in the choreography.” There have been suggestions that The Greatest Showman could be taken to Broadway, with Jackman in the lead role, which would be a chance for Wallen to return to the live stage. “I love doing theatre and live shows but I think my favourite medium is TV/film,” he muses. “You get to play with the cameras, which can add so much more to your choreography.”
And, whilst there are no concrete plans for this to happen he confides, “It would be amazing if The Greatest Showman was on Broadway,” and then jokingly adds, “Just being greedy now!”
His current project is proof – as his collaborations with Gracey have been – that the relationships you make when starting out can blossom into amazing opportunities down the track. He and Minogue have been busy doing promotional work around the release of her new album, "Golden", working up a show for her to take on tour later in the year.
Wallen’s achievements are amazing but it seems that all the opportunities to workwith stars haven’t changed this humble Aussie boy much. Asked if his younger self could have envisaged his career trajectory he answers, “I can’t believe that from my dancing days on the Gold Coast I would’ve ended up doing what I am doing today.”
Pictured top: A scene from The Greatest Showman. PHOTO: NIKO TAVERNISE © 2018 FOX. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
This story was first published in the June/July issue of Dance Australia. Buy Dance Australia at your favourite magazine retailer or purchase an online copy via the Dance Australia app or subscribe here.