Last summer, CBC’s digital comedy arm debuted the mockumentary The Neddeaus of Duqesne Island, and this summer, ballet gets the mockumentary treatment with Off Kilter, a new eight-part scripted series from CBC Arts that’s online now and premiering Tuesday on YouTube. Sarah Murphy-Dyson plays Anna, a prima ballerina and single mom who’s winding down her career and finds herself in the “comeback” production of Milton Frank (series creator Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla), a ballet visionary who never quite ascended.
25 years after his last taste of success, he’s decided (sort of) to give it a go now, and the series explores the efforts to get the show up as personalities and business goals clash and personal issues interfere. I spoke with Murphy-Dyson about the series and her transition from dance to acting, which included a stop as a stunt double.
When the role of Anna came her way, it was a perfect pairing. “Alejandro called me over a year ago with this idea and a part he wanted me to look at. I met him in the early 90s in Banff. We were dancing together,” she recalls. “We had lost touch for years and found that we had both left dance to go into acting and then reconnected with this.”
“I’ve played a ballet teacher in An American Girl movie, but I didn’t get to dance in it, so this is a dream role where I get to do my two passions. I dance occasionally now, for fun, but to really get serious and get partnered with some of the best dancers in Canada, I really had to step up my game. I retired in 2006, from the ballet. Luckily my body remembered what it was suppose to do and did it. The series was a very fast shoot and filmed at The Extension Room. “We had six days. It was very quick. We were shooting nights because the dance studio had stuff going on during the day. It was an adventure.”
She says there will be familiar threads for people who’ve spent time in dance, but there’s no specific one-to-on with any character or plot. “Anybody who’s been in any form of the dance world, performance theater or even sports will see elements of people they recognize. It’s a mélange of years and years people all over the world, exaggerated, and things like that,” she explains. “It’s definitely true to tones that you experience or people’s paths that you cross.”
Murphy-Dyson made the decision to wholly switch gears from dancing to acting after spending time with Philip Seymour Hoffman when he filmed Capote. “Looking back now, I realize that all of my favorite [ballet] roles were character roles. I recognized that in hindsight. Some of my ballets were filmed and that definitely got my engine running,” she says.
“Capote was shot in Winnipeg. A few dancers and I took a personal day to be extras because the same crew [from our filmed productions] worked on that. I was wearing a vintage Chanel dress and was treated beautifully. We were in the theater when he did the first reading from In Cold Blood [and he never broke character].”
“I got picked with maybe three other people to go down and do a dressing room scene with him. I have a picture of it where we were knee to knee laughing. We talked and I was watching him improvise with Bob Balaban. He told me, ‘When you have to laugh, just go for it and just dive in and you’ll be laughing.'”
“Something went in my head and I said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and I told my director the next day that I was retiring and that would be my last season. I sent out resumes and it was just like that [snaps fingers] and it was Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was so complete, it wasn’t even a question. It was just, ‘This is it.'”
“I had already started taking theater classes, and it was definitely the direction I was heading. It [seemed] like a fairytale idea until I actively pushed through and I had that moment [of], ‘I’m going to make this happen, whatever that looks like.'”
Just as Murphy-Dyson was beginning her move into acting, a class in stage combat turned into a job where she was the stand in and stunt double for Kate Beckinsale in the 2009 thriller, Whiteout. “I was loving doing that kind of stuff because it was teaching me about being on set,” she shares. “I was with the film the whole time. I even got a role as a lab assistant. I didn’t have any lines, but it was very cool.”
She had to learn movement in all the winter gear, and unlearn her ballet training. “I completely changed how I walked and ran, so there was that, navigating clunky boots and a heavy, heavy coat, [and figuring out] camera directions [vs. stage directions].”
“It was either outside and really, really cold or in a studio where it was really, really hot. In the ballet, when you fall or go to the floor, you do it gracefully, that’s your whole job. With this, I had to make sure it didn’t look at all graceful. To really sell it, I had to let go of every ounce of training in my bones. That was the biggest challenge.”
Murphy-Dyson has worked on stage and in film and TV and she loves all of it. “I’ve had some amazing stage roles in George F. Walker plays. I always enjoy playing the odd character. I did this film that just screened at Tribeca called The Dark, and I play an alcoholic, very troubled woman. The more troubled, the more I like it. I love exploring the darker side of things,” she points out.
“I got to play a lawyer on Suits and that was a huge thing for me because I had struggled to put strong woman characters on film. As a ballet dancer, you follow orders and do what you’re told, and acting [tapped into] a confidence that I maybe didn’t have before.”
“Live theater was my first experience. There’s nothing like having a live audience and the immediacy of it. I love working on film and adapting and working to that smaller scale. As a ballet dancer, I was never a bunhead. I would leave it in the studio. With acting, I can’t get enough. I want to read about it, I want to talk about it, I want to study more. I’m much more of an acting nerd.”
Murphy-Dyson also works as a choreographer. “I’m developing choreography for a series of music videos for a band. I’m working on a live show where I dance and act, and there’s fight choreography and I sing. I recently choreographed Cabaret, which was the biggest thing I’ve ever done and I loved that,” she says.
“I started by saying, ‘no’ for two months, because it’s so iconic and I had never done anything that big. I know [Bob] Fosse but I hadn’t studied him. The director was very supportive and one day it landed for me that he wanted my experience and my background infused in the show. I feel like I found the right balance. There’s a lot of Fosse-esque movement and a lot of ballet secret Easter eggs that only ballet dancers might know about.”
“I’m most proud of that of almost anything I’ve done. I did watch it a lot. I loved it and I loved doing it. It was just fantastic. What clicked for me is that a lot of how I dance now is I improvise. I work with a few bands and they’ll have a show at a bar and I’ll put on my pointe shoes and dance with then. Once I realized I could take what I do in the moment like that and shape it for each person so that it feels good and looks the best on them, it was gold. It was a dream gig. One of my favorite things I’ve ever done in my career, and I almost said, ‘no.'”
She also has a burgeoning online home goods and jewelry site called Bare Legs. “It’s slightly on hold because I’ve been busy with so many things. I’ve recently discovered that I can draw ballet bodies and mostly legs and feet. I think because I know the technique so intimately, I can draw it the way it’s supposed to look,” she says.
“I have t-shirts and necklaces and headbands and pillows. It’s a side project right now but it’s something I want to pursue. It’s hard to find [pieces] with really good [ballet] technique, and it’s not accurate for what you’d see on stage. I’m working on filling that gap when [I can get back to it].”
Video and Photos Courtesy of CBC Arts. Photo Courtesy of Pierre Gautreau Photography.