In the season one finale of HBO’s lavish The Gilded Age, Gladys Russell finally has the coming out ball of her dreams. Or maybe her mother’s (Carrie Coon) dreams. As was the custom of the time, she and seven friends dance a quadrille or what is best described as a very formal square dance. Dressed as Marie Antoinette and her ladies in waiting, Gladys and friends are accompanied by four strapping lads wearing horse heads. It’s a bizarre, unreal site for modern eyes, but according to choreographer John Carrafa, it’s not one without basis in history.
“We researched the Vanderbilt ball which had a hobbyhorse quadrille in it. We read about all the outrageous things they would do,” Carrafa explained. “It was Michael Engler who suggested we use horse heads. [At the Vanderbilt’s ball], they used hobby horses held like kids with horse head on a stick.”
Leveraging the idea of Marie Antoinette and an elaborate quadrille lent itself nicely to one of the themes of the show: the disparity between the classes. Antoinette, herself, and friends were famous for having dressed up as peasants and mingle with the “commoners.” So, Carrafa’s dance sequence needed to align with that blissful sense of the arrogance and ignorance of extreme wealth.
The dance itself, though, was a unique creation of Carrafa’s. People of the era would have all known a variation of a quadrille, the electric slide of the Gilded Age. So, through extensive research, he cobbled together variations of traditional quadrilles giving elaborately kinetic dance steps for the men and women. The resulting sequence brilliantly establishes a wild and fun showpiece for Gladys Russell as well as underscores the series’s themes of the haves and the have nots.
John Carrafa came to The Gilded Age after previously working with series creator/writer Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler on The Chaperone, a 2018 film about actress/dancer Louise Brooks. After a warm experience on that film, Carrafa welcomed the opportunity to work with actors who weren’t professionally trained as dancers — the handful of actors not trained as dancers among a cast of Broadway legends.
With actors like Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector, Carrafa embraced engaging in their process and creating a character jointly.
“I always work closely with the costume designer because what we do is very similar,” Carrafa said. “It’s almost like I’m giving them a costume. I’m providing a shell for them, a way for them to express themselves.”
Gladys’s extravagant coming out ball sequence also features several sequences of characters waltzing the night away. Carrafa’s choreography of those sequences was far more involved and complicated than simply teaching the actors a traditional waltz.
In reality, the character’s dance abilities were all carefully constructed based on their personal backstories.
“With every single character, we have that discussion about their relationship to dancing. Maybe they hated it, they did it because they didn’t like it, or maybe they really didn’t have much experience in it like Marion’s [Louisa Jacobson] character. Maybe Mr. Raikes [Thomas Cocquerel] is a little cruder because of where he’s coming from. That’s the fun for the actors — to find out what’s different about their character doing this than anybody else. So that was a big discussion we’d have with everybody. Often, I would tell them, ‘I don’t know if you’d be good at this.’ I also do put in moments of imperfection, so it looks and feels like reality.”
The Gilded Age streams exclusively on HBO and HBO Max.