Jul 01, 2023

The Dance Delight in ‘Barbie’ Belongs to the Kens


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Critic’s Notebook

The most majestic dance in “Barbie” is an emotional release for the Kens, but in subtle ways movement touches, and enhances, everything in the movie.

By Gia Kourlas

There’s a gorgeous scene in “Barbie” that isn’t painted the usual pink. It isn’t dripping in plastic or sequins. It’s a dream ballet, stylish and clean, with steps so sleek it lets bodies — Kens, Kens and more Kens — sing.

Unofficially known as the Ken dance, it’s like entering a portal to another world, where moving bodies etch trails of rotating circles and diamonds onto a gleaming surface. It transports you back to the time of Busby Berkeley, when elegant dancers swirled in and out of kaleidoscopic formations.

But the jazzy gist of the “I’m Just Ken” dance isn’t just about staggering patterns or nostalgia for old Hollywood. Plopped into Greta Gerwig’s Barbie universe, the dance is more than a dance: It’s an emotional release. With five leading Kens in front and a sweeping chorus of dancers shuttling behind and around them, the choreography is a passionate expression of selfhood, a tonic that recalls the vitality and athletic grace of Gene Kelly.

It’s odd: In the first half of the film, Margot Robbie, as the lead, Stereotypical Barbie, operates from a body that is restrained — she’s clunky. This makes sense. She lacks joints! But as the film progresses, an everyday movement vocabulary takes over. Barbie glides into a modern, pedestrian body while the men, wooden at first, learn to move expansively. They let go.

The Ken number, created by the film’s London-based choreographer, Jennifer White, is partly inspired by the “Greased Lightnin’” number from the movie “Grease,” when John Travolta leads a song-and-dance in a garage that suddenly opens into a bright, glowing soundstage. “Greta came with an idea of having the sequence feel like you’re whisked into this dance,” White said. “That you don’t even realize that you’ve kind of transformed into this sort of ballet space.”

“The main thing,” White added, “was to have the Kens feel like they were allowed to break free of their masculine limitations.”

I love the idea that these emotional wrecks, these frustrated Kens, find their freedom through dance. Just before the dance there’s a battle — the Barbies have figured out a way to turn the Kens against one another — and a song, the power ballad “I’m Just Ken.” Here, Ryan Gosling, the Ken of Kens, wearing a floor-length creamy fur coat, a fringe vest and a bandanna, sings about feelings he just can’t explain. He knows that anywhere else he’d be a 10. But not on Barbie’s watch.

“What will it take for her to see the man behind the tan,” he belts out, “and fight for me?”

His head is thrown back in anguish, his fist clenched. Moments later, he faces his nemesis, one of four “Just the Kens,” played by Simu Liu, and they open their arms, exposing their chests with a lion’s roar as a cluster of animated stars sparkle between them. Suddenly, they’re transported to another realm: a large soundstage lit in icy blue and muted fuchsia, where their garish beachwear is replaced with tight black T-shirts and pants — a sea of Kens transplanted to “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Gosling and Liu circle each other like cats — claws out — and play a quick game of rock-paper-scissors before the camera pulls back and up to show the dancers gliding in diamond patterns and circles. They form an orchestra of bodies, leaping into grand jetés, fanning their arms with feeling, partnering one another in dips and spinning in overhead press lifts. Finally, they arrange themselves in two interlocking arrowhead formations — staying on the beat with a step touch and a finger snap — as Gosling sings, with triumph, “My name’s Ken.”

Their response? “And so am I!”

It’s bonkers, and it’s beautiful. It’s also a celebration of male dancing that evokes the athleticism fostered by Ted Shawn, whose mission in the early 20th century was to make dance “a legitimate medium for the creative male artist.” And there’s even a fast feet drill.

While there are many Kens in “Barbie,” there is only one Gosling. The all-encompassing choreography of his Ken — the way his acting and movement unite to form a strange and funny Kenography — comes down to how efficiently and precisely he is able to hold his body in space. Whether his movement is sharp, halfhearted or barely there, it pours out of him from a place of conscious and unconscious impulse.

Throughout “Barbie” there is a weaving of choreography and character, of movement and feeling. White (who worked on the film with Lisa Welham, the film’s associate choreographer) studied dance at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London and has worked with the contemporary choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. She comes up with movement through improvisation, working, as she said, from her “kitchen to the studio.”

“Especially for the Barbies," White said, “I would just try to find movements that were childlike in a way — like when Margot comes forward and swings her arm back and forth with a step-ball change. I’ve never done that before, but it felt so right. It’s so easy and totally free and buoyant and boundless.”

When Robbie’s Barbie is trying to escape from executives who want to put her back in her box, she runs through the offices with breathtaking strength as if gulping up freedom with each step. It echoes other films Gerwig has been involved in: the scene in Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” in which her Frances sprints down Manhattan streets, and the quicksilver way Saoirse Ronan’s Jo races through “Little Women,” which Gerwig directed.

In “Barbie,” physicality is important. Gerwig cast dancers to play the multiple Kens and Barbies, and they give the scenes a readiness, an urgency. “They had to have not only the dance ability, but be able to hold themselves and know how to act,” White said. “Quite specific things at crucial moments other than the dance that they had to do.”

In the other big dance number, the Barbie party scene, the choreography is shown at first mainly in close-ups — shot from within to create the sensation that the viewer is on the dance floor. Except for the moment when Robbie’s Barbie wonders aloud if anyone ever thinks about dying, it’s all clueless innocence.

“I really wanted to find movements that were fairly simple but kind of liberating and good fun,” White said. “One of Greta’s favorite moves was just swinging arms, like swimming backward. It felt so free and silly, but somehow when you’ve got 40 women doing it at the same time, it’s quite empowering.”

An arm swing makes sense: A Barbie doll’s arm can swing, but it can’t bend. Soon, though, the ordinary rules about Barbie’s range of motion start to dissolve. One of the film’s most obvious connections to dance, and dancers, is the most understated: When Robbie’s Barbie — whose ever-growing vulnerability melts through the plastic of her former self, allowing her to move with more plastique — has thoughts of death, she starts to change. Her morning wave to her Barbie friends becomes more of a wag; her feet, to her horror, fall flat. Her body, out of her control, is defying her. What dancer hasn’t experienced that?

It’s so clear that Gerwig, here and throughout her work, understands movement. She studied dance; she uses the body in big and subtle ways. As White put it: “She loves dance. I think she probably would have stayed in our rehearsals the whole time if she could.”

Gia Kourlas is the dance critic of The New York Times. More about Gia Kourlas