If you haven’t heard yet, the new animated short from Walt Disney Animation Studios, “Us Again”, is every dancer’s dream. Set in an energized city with music and dancing as its pulse, “Us Again” is a beautiful love story conveyed completely through dance, without dialogue. It tells the story of a longtime couple: Dot, the young-at-heart, supportive wife, and Art, the husband who’s slowed down with age. The couple, who used to dance together all the time in their youth, magically experience a night that reminds Art that age is simply a number, and you can experience music, dance, love, and happiness at any age. The choreography in “Us Again” was designed by World of Dance stars and choreographers Keone and Mari Madrid. The short, directed by Zach Parrish and produced by Bradford Simonsen, originally showed in theaters before Disney Animation’s Raya and the Last Dragon, and it is now streaming exclusively on Disney+.
We had a virtual sit-down with the amazing dancers to talk about their contribution to this remarkable short film.
Thank you so much for lending your amazing talent to such a beautiful story.
Keone: It was our honor, really.
Mari: Yes, [it was].
Would this be considered interpretive dance?
Keone: I think you could call it that, but we don’t have a particular name. I think we just recognize our foundation, which started in hip-hop and then branched out into contemporary, jazz, and musical things in tap, salsa… anything that we could get our hands on (laughs), which ultimately turned into a blend of Keone and Mari!
Is this something you always wanted to do, portray your dance choreography through animation?
Mari: I think it definitely was a thing that maybe floated around, especially with Disney animation, but we were like, “That’s never gonna happen. Maybe one day we’ll be able to be part of some project where there’s like, a dance number, and maybe we could do something with it, way down the line.” So when we went to that first meeting and Brad and Zach presented the idea to us, it was really overwhelming because it was like, “Oh my gosh! This isn’t a little bit of dance, this is dance throughout, telling a story.” And for us, that’s what we do and how we see dance.
When they reached out to you, what aspect of the storyline did you fall in love with that made you say this is the one?
Keone: Well, we were gonna say “this is the one” no matter what they brought to us! (Laughs) But telling the story through this older couple, we resonate[d] with that so much, as we are so inspired by our grandparents. Being a married couple, we aspire to be together as older folks, dancing still, and not allowing our bodies to be a barrier to movement. We’ve done pieces in the past where we played an older couple — and that went viral — so it was right up our alley, and I think that part of it was really exciting. It just felt very us in the style of the story and the meaning, the intention. Also the representation of dance, the representation of interracial couples, all those things mean so much to us in our work that it was really just a perfect blend of a project.
Did you add any of your own input to shape the story and its message?
Mari: Someone asked us that earlier and I was like, "No, not really,” but then Zach was like, “Actually…” (laughs) I think maybe, without even realizing it? But really when we came in, there was definitely an intention and a message that Zach had shaped, and he was very clear about where he wanted it to land emotionally, and what he wanted to interpret. So, really it was just [about] navigating our contribution to that.
Keone: Yeah, in our first meeting, they had an idea. The plot was a little bit different, but at the end of the day, like Mari said, the theme was there, I [just] think they were still learning about what the possibilities were. Like, “What’s your process?” “What do you guys think is going to work?” And I think all of those answers may have swayed this way or that, but our answer was always, “We could do anything. Whatever you guys see, don’t hold back and we won’t hold back. Let’s just have as much context as possible before we get to the studio, so that we can deliver the best work that we can for you.”
How realistic or close to the original would you say the final animation came?
Keone: Honestly, I watched it and was like, “They do it better than us! How did he get up on that bench that quickly?” (Laughs) That was really the point though, that we wanted Zach to [embrace]. Like, yes, please take our movement and I know you’re going to honor it, but it was very important that Art and Dot end up as their own people, because obviously they have different body types. Their limbs are, you know… Art’s neck is way longer than mine, how is that gonna rock when he grooves? So make it work for them. There’s a saying that animators are actors with a pencil… It’s really the animators in combination with our choreography that brought the characters to life, and it was really just our job to deliver an incredibly complex tutorial for the animators. They did it wonderfully, down to the tiniest finger movement, to how Dot touches Art at the end. All of those things matter so much.
I noticed the lamppost scene was a nod to the great Singin’ in the Rain, but were there any other movies that you watched or borrowed inspiration from when creating the choreography?
Mari: I don’t think specifically when we were creating the choreography; it’s definitely the spirit of [them] though in general, in our choreography… We grew up watching [films from the] Golden Age [of] Hollywood, and there’s something really magical about how dance and film worked together during that time. So I think the spirit of that also lives in our choreography, and then having characters like Art and Dot, it just made sense to have that present.
You mentioned earlier that you played an older couple before. What nuances did you add to the choreography or movement to showcase the differences in age as they got older?
We sort of think of it as a diagram — you have young Art and Dot, you have old Art and Dot, and they sort of meet in the middle with their style of dance, which is through our movement. But as an older couple, [the changes] have a lot to do with posture. Also, [there are] these micromovements that almost feel wiser to some degree… it’s got to be a smarter choice. They’ve lost the physical capabilities to do that huge lift, to do all the grabby, bendy things, so sometimes you just have to be smarter and wiser about the choices, yet you can still do those tricks to wow the audience. It’s like the effects of a close-up — you have to focus a little bit more, especially in that [closing] dance.
Were there any significant challenges that you faced in the animation process that would normally not be an issue?
Mari: No, I think maybe our only challenge was having a baby throughout the whole process. Having our first child.
Keone: Yeah, [Mari] was 5 months pregnant at the first meeting, and when we had our reference shoots, our daughter was 4 or 5 months old. We were choreographing the piece with her sometimes strapped to us in the videos that we would send to Zach. So that was probably the most challenging thing, but still wonderful …
Do you think being a married couple made it easier to tell this story?
Mari: I think so, as there’s a comfortability with it — playing a married couple and being one. Also being a married couple watching our grandparents and older couples… There’s just something about that kind of love that has sat and aged, with understanding, no fluffers on it. It’s like, you know it so well. We really wanted to try to capture those nuances, like when your spouse is just being [difficult], and you’re just like, “Fine, we can talk later.” Or that moment when you’ve been missing each other, then when you reconnect and find each other again, how the bond somehow grows even stronger. We really tried to capture those things as best we could in the choreography.
Captured it, they did. Experience the beautiful love story of “Us Again,” now streaming on Disney+.