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A Choreographic Critique of "The O.A.'s" Five Movements

Spoilers ahead, obviously - I’m assuming everyone reading this has seen the series and wants to talk about the Five Movements.

So - I should start by saying that I truly enjoyed the idea of the Five Movements. This business of choreographed, symbolic actions is clearly a motif that co-creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij take seriously and want to explore.

A somewhat similar sequence of symbolic physical movements appears in The Sound of My Voice, another Marling/Batmanglij project. In that case, a precise, elaborate choreography of hand gestures is used as a test of commitment,a ritual greeting and a demonstration of unity between members of a clandestine time travel cult. The Sound of My Voice “handshake” is ultimately revealed as being crucial to the entire storyline.


The Five Movements are even more integral to The O.A.’s story. Each sequence of actions is hard-won and assiduously practiced; two of them in combination have healing powers and all five, performed perfectly and with pure feeling, may actually be able to open a portal between dimensions. It’s a cool idea - so why do so many critics have serious issues with the way it was executed?

IMO a large part of the problem lies in the choreography of the movements themselves, or more specifically, their symbolism. No faulting the actors, who perform them flawlessly and with great conviction, nor even the choreographer, but the basic premise requires everyone (including the audience) to completely invest in the emotion of the Movements. That is a big ask when their symbolism remains cryptic. Because no-one - not even the characters - knows what any of the gestures actually mean, we can only respond to what we see of the physical actions and to whatever cues are provided by the music, and so the Movements inevitably read as interpretive dance; thus, it becomes increasingly difficult to suspend disbelief as the dramatic stakes rise.

This is especially true because of the 11th hour reveal that the Original Angel’s story may have been invented out of whole cloth. If the Movements actually do have mystical powers then it’s much easier to accept their ultimate use, but if they don’t - or, I think, if this point is left ambiguous - then that creates a serious storytelling problem.

If we, the audience, are not completely invested in the Movements by the time the school shooter shows up, then the emotional climax of the series can be read either as a transcendent scene in which the protagonists thwart a terrible tragedy and open a dimensional portal through collective mysticism, or as “flash-mob dance confuses gunman in school cafeteria”.

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