The Art of war

Sarah Smellie
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Fight choreographer Kirsti Mikoda turns battles into ballet

Mercutio (centre), played by Colin Furlong, receives instruction from Kirsti Mikoda (right) on how to use a knife as Romeo, played by Michael Rhodri Smith, looks on. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Most people involved in a theatre production hope audiences react by leaping to their feet.

Kirsti Mikoda’s favourite audience reaction, however, was a little different.

“I had an audience member stand up, turn around three times, and then faint,” she says, smiling.

Mikoda is a fight choreographer: she maps out fights in a sequence of steps, swings and swats, as if it were a dance. She directed the combat in Shakespeare by the Sea’s 2010 production of “Troilus and Cressida,” directed by Nicole Rousseau, and in 2011, she was fight captain for “Hamlet,” directed by Steve O’Connell.

Now she’s shaping the scuffles in an upcoming production of “Romeo and Juliet” set in Northern Italy at the end of the First World War. The play is directed by Dave Sullivan, and it opens Feb. 13 at the LSPU Hall.

“Obviously you want a fight to look cool,” Mikoda says. “But the main reason that you would bring choreography into a play is to (teach) your actors to be safe, and to provide them with a set of movements that they can do exactly the same every time so that they don’t have to think about making up extra moves while they’re on stage. You want it to be exactly like dance choreography, exactly the same every time, so that it’s safe and repeatable.”

Mikoda has been involved in theatre since she was in middle school. When she was 15, she started fencing competitively. Not long after, she choreographed her first altercation for the stage, in a production of “Antigone” in Vancouver, her hometown.

“The actors were doing some sword moves and, because I’m a know it all, I said, ‘You’re doing that lunge wrong,’” she says. “And they said, ‘Well can you show him how to do it?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, actually, I can.’”

She’s been turning battles into ballets ever since. She’s even taken choreography courses from the Academy of Fight Directors Canada.

Each style of engagement, from sword fighting to hand-to-hand combat, she says, comes with its own set of stances and moves, and its own set of techniques for making the strikes look real.

“Like anything, there’s a bit of leeway for personal style,” she says. “For example, some people like to do a punch where it comes up short. Some people like to do a punch that misses and goes into the centre area over the shoulder. Generally, you never want to do any kind of movement that crosses the eyes, crosses the face or crosses the throat.

While her background in fencing clearly informs her mannerisms — she speaks evenly and deliberately, and her gestures are sparing and precise — it can only inform her choreography so much.

For one thing, sword fighting on stage or in the movies has different aims than in real combat.

“When you’re sword fighting for real, any kind of attack is generally made to the mass of the body, depending on what style you’re doing,” she says. “But you’ll find in sword fighting choreography that a lot of it is actually sweeping to the side. That’s because it’s much easier to block and you don’t have to worry about actually putting the sword into the body.”

In film, she says, a popular technique is something she calls “clamshells,” where the swords are held upright and clashed quickly against one another. It looks flashy and it makes a lot of noise, but it wouldn’t get anyone very far in a real bout.

As an example, she points to the duel on the Cliffs of Insanity in the film, “The Princess Bride.”

The bout gets points for referencing actual fencing techniques, like Bonetti’s Defence and Thibault, a 17th-century Dutch fighting master who used logic and geometry to develop his strategy.

But the swords are often pointing upwards and the strikes are from the side. It’s a fantastically executed piece of choreography, she says, but it isn’t very realistic.

“When you talk about realism, a lot of times what people will also neglect are the realities of swinging a big sword around for long periods of time,” she says. “If you’re flinging a broadsword around, and you get maybe 10 swipes in with that thing, you’re exhausted. Those things weigh about 10 pounds. Getting tired means your precision is gone: you’re not doing precision moves, you’re just trying to get the thing off the ground. So, when I watch sword-fighting movies, one of the things that’s consistent about the ones I’ve liked is that they don’t forget that.”

The real fencer-approved sword fights are in movies are “Scaramouche” and “The Duellists,” she says.

But her favourite move to choreograph doesn’t involve a sword.

“I like face kicks,” she says. “I try and put one into every play, but sometimes I’m not allowed to for obvious reasons. They’re very visceral, and I haven’t seen a lot of them in theatre in this area. If you do it right, you can’t tell that you don’t actually hit.”

Her preferred style of choreography may not be quite what you’d expect from a fencer, either.

“I like to get really messy, I like chaotic fights,” she says. “I like fights that are dirty and underhanded and get an audience reaction that’s more like, ‘Ew.’”

Her reasons for preferring that style are artistically sound.

“My favourite fight that I choreographed was a five-minute choking scene in ‘Troilus and Cressida,’” she says. “Nothing happened, the guy just came up from behind and choked the other guy. It was beautiful, the actors did a fantastic job. They committed to it being really long and it made the entire audience uncomfortable, but it felt right for that moment. In a play about warriors and honour, he came along in a dirty, underhanded way and it said a lot about him.”

Mikoda says the art of a good fight is in what it reveals about the characters and what it adds to the narrative. In that sense, she says, choreographing fights is an involved creative and collaborative process. She works with the directors to make sure that the narrative of the battle is in line with the narrative of the play, and she spends a lot of time with the actors teaching them the steps of the fight and teaching them how to have the confidence to strike and how to react when struck.

“It shouldn’t just be about kicking and punching,” she says. “It should be about who the character is and how they would handle a fight. If they’re a wimp and they have to win the fight, the movements they would use are much different. How would they do that, how would they win a fight? Well, the choreographer gets to decide that.”

There is also an art, she says, in choosing how much violence to show in a play.

“There’s a reason that violent films are so popular,” she says. “I think they’re fun, and I think it’s easy for people to disconnect from them. And take the Roman Circus: people have always been interested in seeing that side of human nature. I think there’s a certain amount of catharsis in it. But at the same time, you don’t want to make it anything more than it is. Violence is violence, don’t glorify it. Just do what the play needs. If the play needs something big and flashy and crazy, then you get into it. If the play needs one slap to be extremely good, then that’s all you do.”

Mikoda is well aware that finding art in violence is a strange idea for most people and she’s used to getting startled reactions when she talks about what she does. But then again, sometimes that’s exactly what she’s after.

“I’ve had the audience scream once,” she says, laughing, “and in ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ there was a collective gasp — I think that was for a face kick.”

“It’s always nice to see people forget that they’re watching something manufactured,” she adds. “You don’t want them to know that you’ve taken 60 hours of rehearsal time just to get those three punches. You just want them to think, ‘Oh my God! He hit him!’”

Organizations: Academy of Fight Directors Canada.Each

Geographic location: Shakespeare, Northern Italy, Vancouver

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