Pas-de-deux in perpetuity: Travolta & Thurman in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ at TCM Fest 2024

Dance · Film

At the conclusion of the witty dance duet between Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), on the dance floor of a kooky retro coffee-shop-style restaurant, the full auditorium of TCM Fest 2024‘s opening night gala at the TCL Chinese Theatre broke into spontaneous applause.

The occasion was the screening of Pulp Fiction (1994), in its 30th anniversary, neatly coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the popular cable-television channel that memorializes and celebrates the great output of High Hollywood — as well as international cinema, and just about every film genre in human recall. During the annual festival, fans gather to watch big-screen projection in darkened chambers (for the record, movie theaters), with others. No one present at the festival dared mention that in 1994, when host Robert Osborne, as the channel’s figurehead, launched Turner Classic Movies, the contemporaneous Pulp Fiction was quite the opposite of TCM fodder. But now, it fits!

Pulp Fiction auteur-director Quentin Tarantino in this his breakout movie (his first, Reservoir Dogs, was more of a connoisseur’s item) displays his irrepressible verve for popular culture in a dance/film capture that is iconic — it still looks cool. Who knew this wildly idiosyncratic flirtation-ritual taking the form of a “twist” contest overseen by a fake Ed Sullivan would have such impact? Probably Tarantino did. A filmmaker of wide-ranging fascinations, his love of popular dance would lead to his hire of Toni Basil to choreograph sequences in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a tale we told, in 2019, in the New York Times. But decades prior, Tarantino followed his instinct that audiences would love seeing the great movie-dancer of Saturday Night Fever shake it once again to a tune by Chuck Berry. Travolta, playing a two-bit gangster, swings his slightly greasy pony-tailed hair, while Thurman, a tall slender goddess dressed in a white couture over-blouse gives out Theda Bara vamp eyes. Both are solemn-faced as they rhythmically pulse toward and away from each other like a pair of longtime ballroom competitors, only one in barefoot (Thurman) the other in his socks (Travolta). Fragments of, of course, the twist, but also the hully-gully, the swim, the jerk, and a kind of Spanish body frisson by Thurman, shot by a silken camera, add to the effect.

thurman, travolta, tcm fest 2014

Oddly enough, a then-burgeoning, now-renowned film choreographer, Joann Jansen, was on set when the number was shot. Jansen, an accomplished New York modern dancer, declines credit for its creation.

“I was teaching at Cal Arts, but I hadn’t moved to California yet,” said Jansen in a telephone interview. “But I was on set. Lawrence Bender [Pulp Fiction’s producer] brought me in. He wanted to introduce me to Quentin.”

Apparently music was playing and cast was in costume. “We were playing around, dancing to some music. Quentin looked at me, and looked at them and told them, ‘“Do this.'” Still, Jansen resolutely insists, “John and Uma choreographed it. Everyone was playing, in their characters. Quentin just let them play. They were improvising; they were riffing on each other.”

“I think it worked because when John is in that space, it works. I choreographed him in Michael (1996), and, if he really likes what he is doing, he will just go. He has a vivid imagination and he loves dance–he just loves it.”

“Once when we were on the set of White Man’s Burden, he came out of his van and he was in a funky mood—and I just started dancing with him. The A.D. comes up and says, “You can’t play around with him he needs to get on the set. I told him, ‘I’m a producer, and I’m doing this.’

“John has to be free, that is the family he grew up in. He was the adored child, he is very free creatively,” said Jansen. As for Thurman, “She’s a free spirit, she’ll do whatever. She and John have a dance in Be Cool (2006) and they did that, that were so sure they could create.”

Tarantino did not miss the opportunity to use Jansen’s on-set presence — however briefly. “Quentin put me in the movie when Uma goes to the ladies’ room before she dances with John.” And there she is, circled in red, above.

photo credits, Presley Ann, Rodin Eckenroth, for TCM

Dance critic Debra Levine is founder/editor/publisher of arts●meme.

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