How a San Diego dancer helped Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ movie find its groove

San Diego-trained dancer Flannery Gregg, second from left, was the associate choreographer on filmmaker Greta Gerwig's new version of "Little Women." The film's choreographer was Monica Bill Barnes (far left), who is a graduate of UC San Diego. Gregg and Barns both studied with San Diego's Jean Isaacs.
( Wilson Barnes)

Scripps Ranch High grad Flannery Gregg was associate choreographer on ‘Little Women,’ helping shape the film’s dynamic dance scenes


Whether you are a longtime friend of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March or a newcomer to their literary lives in “Little Women,” there is so much to love about director/writer Greta Gerwig’s new film version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, you may find yourself wishing you could just live in it. Forever.

There is the swoon-worthy cast, which includes Saoirse Ronan as the tempestuous, ink-stained Jo and Florence Pugh as the headstrong, surprisingly insightful Amy. There is the daring way Gerwig sliced and diced the novel’s timeline, which makes her version of Alcott’s 1868 novel — the seventh film adaptation since `1917 — feel as fresh as a basket of Beth’s posies.

And best of all, there is the way “Little Women” moves.

Whether Jo is tackling Amy for a most grievous sisterly infraction or the sisters are tumbling over each other to get ready for a party, Gerwig keeps the sisters in constant, surging motion. That energy explodes in the film’s dance scenes, which happen in sweaty, crowded beer halls, proper Paris ballrooms and even on a snow-covered porch. For the swirling dance sequences, Gerwig and her cast got a big choreographic hand from San Diego’s Flannery Gregg.

The Scripps Ranch High School grad and longtime dance fiend worked with choreographer (and UC San Diego graduate) Monica Bill Barnes on the film’s gloriously exuberant dance scenes. The films’ dances were rooted in the traditions of the 1800s, but the energy is thoroughly modern and totally irresistible, much like the many streetwise pieces Barnes has choreographed for the long-running Trolley Dances series from Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater.

“We knew we needed to learn dances from the period, but we needed it to feel like everyone was at a party,” said the 30-year-old Gregg, who was the film’s associate choreographer and appears with Ronan in the beer-hall dance early in the film. “We wanted it to have a feel like, ‘I’m 16 and I’m wearing this huge dress and I’m dancing, and it’s thrilling.’”

Born in San Diego to parents who loved movie musicals, Gregg was so fascinated by “West Side Story” and other classics at such a young age that her mother, Barbara, signed her up for tap class when she was 3 years old. It did not go as expected.

“She said I cried and cried. I could not handle it. I guess I just wanted to dance on my own,” Gregg said from New York, where she is rehearsal director for Monica Bill Barnes & Company. “I would use the coffee table for a stage, wear a very specific black dress with red lace and dance to Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’”

Six years and many coffee-table performances later, Barbara Gregg signed her daughter up for jazz-dance classes at the Scripps Dance Centre, and everything changed. Flannery became obsessed with dance. From jazz and ballet to hip-hop and tap, if the dance school offered it, she took it. And in the process, the girl who was a fan of movie musicals found some real-life magic.

“Until I started really diving into dance, I was pretty shy. But when I started dancing, I immediately felt at home in my body. Suddenly, there was a clarity and confidence in the way I expressed myself.” said Gregg, who also studied with Isaacs. “The confidence from dance trickled into other areas of life, and I am super grateful for that.”

After graduating from Scripps Ranch High School in 2007, Gregg went to UCLA, where she majored in world arts and culture with a focus on dance. In 2011 she moved to New York, where she interned with Barnes and worked as a nanny and a Pilates instructor to pay the bills. She assisted choreographer Sam Pinkleton on the Broadway production of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” and she worked with Barnes on “FOUND: A New Musical” and “Dying for It.”

Gregg was with Barnes when the choreographer began work on “Little Women.” They hunkered down in Barnes’ studio to choreograph official dance numbers like the beer-hall blow-out and the very proper Paris ball. They also created the film’s stunning porch dance, where Jo and Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet) shrug off the stuffy partner dances everyone else is doing inside to careen around the outdoor porch in a free-form routine that looks totally spontaneous but is actually the result of Barnes’ and Gregg’s choreography and many hours of dancing in the snow.

“Monica and I mapped it out in the studio, and then we rehearsed it on the porch. It felt like we were bringing this great duet to life,” Gregg said. “Saoirse and Timothée were totally fantastic. It was so exciting to give them just one movement idea and then see them take it their own ways. They both move with such wonderful velocity. It was a long, cold, amazing night.”

And while she was working on the movements that helped the March sisters find their groove, Gregg re-discovered the joy she had lost track of as she juggled day jobs and tried to find her place in the New York dance world. She found herself in “Little Women,” and that was big.

“Doing the movie was so great. I was reminded that, yes, I still like performing. And yes, I love teaching. I was dancing full out with all of these actors and having a real ball,” Gregg said. “And the year after the movie, Monica and I continued to work together, and now I’m the rehearsal director with her dance company. I have performed more than I ever have since the movie. I feel like I’m starting again, and it feels really good.”