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Annie Enneking choreographs big battles on Twin Cities stages

Enneking choreographs an intense scene for 'Extremities.'

Enneking choreographs an intense scene for 'Extremities.' Jared Zeigler

Picture this: Young Scout and Jem Finch are tussling with a mysterious assailant. It’s dark, with flashes of lightning. By the end, one of the combatants has a knife in his belly. Now imagine making that fight look convincing in front of a thousand people seated in tiers around a thrust stage — and to make it happen again and again, almost every day, for weeks.

“That means these actors can never not be touching,” remembers Annie Enneking about that nighttime scene in the Guthrie’s To Kill a Mockingbird. “It’s about shoving and moving. I love super-connected fights, because you don’t need to worry about who can see the moment. Every single moment can be revealed.”

Enneking is a fight choreographer, one of the busiest in the Twin Cities. When a script calls for confrontation, she works with directors and actors to create violent movement “that is repeatable and safe, but does not look that way.”

Whether it’s a domestic dispute or a deadly duel, Enneking is on hand to help. She emphasizes that onstage combat is all about narrative. “You always want the movement to be connected to the story,” she says. “Even if it’s just a slap, there’s the beginning of the story, the middle of the story, and the end of the story.”

After studying dance in college, Enneking became fascinated with stage combat when she worked as a fight captain — the person who supervises a fight day-to-day, after a fight choreographer has created the movement — in a production of The Hobbit at the Children’s Theatre Company.

“We had to study broadsword,” she remembers, “and as soon as I held that in my hand, I just felt a ringing through my arm and I understood it.”

Now a director will bring Enneking in during the rehearsal process to develop the specific actions the cast will follow when it’s time for characters to come to blows. The rehearsal process starts in slow motion, then gradually accelerates. “Usually if everything looks really good in slow motion,” Enneking says, “it’s going to look really good when it’s up to show speed.”

Enneking and the actors she works with are always aware of audience members’ perspectives: what they can see and what they can’t see. One of her most challenging, but rewarding, recent projects was Dark & Stormy Productions’ Extremities, a show that required the cast to enact an attempted rape in a small space.

“It was very intimate, really horrible violence,” she remembers about that show. “I just wanted it to feel really squishy and connected, and we were able to create that together because we had time and we all understood the gravity of the situation.”

Sometimes, on the other hand, less can be more. “Why do we always have to see the whole thing?” Enneking asks. “What if I shove you behind the couch and I’m punching the hell out of you, but the audience doesn’t get to see that?”

It’s no coincidence that Enneking’s field is called fight choreography: As a dancer and actor, she appreciates stage movement on many levels. “It’s everything I love about theatricality and commitment and passion,” she says, “all in this one thing.”