Ailsa Berk (choreographer)


One of the things that makes the modern Cybermen so distinct from their predecessors is the unified, mecahnical movement choreographed by Ailsa Berk.

[Published in  The Essential Doctor Who  #1 Cybermen (Panini UK Ltd, March 2014), pp. 86-89. Posted here by kind permission of Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury.]

When choreographer and movement directorAilsa Berk shares her Cyberman secrets with us, she's taking time out from the Australian Symphonic Spectacular tour, showcasing the music of Doctor Who. It's her job to help an army of monsters terrorise the crowds. The live show is a reminder of just how many different alien creatures Ailsa has made so distinctive through the way they move.

Ailsa's background was originally in dance and drama. "I worked with contemporary dance companies in England and Holland, both performing and choreographing," she says. That led to her first TV credit, on a 1978 series for  Yorkshire Television. "Under the Same Sun was a collection of folk tales from around the world," she explains, "which involved performing a variety of parts and movement." It was certainly varied: Ailsa's credits in the series included a spider, the mother of the wind and a character called Amazing Ears.

Then in 1982, Ailsa was – she says – "the right height, right size and around at the right time" to be one of a number of mime and movement artists cast as monsters in the third Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi. When the evil Jabba the Hutt reveals his prized possession – Han Solo frozen in carbonite, hanging on the wall – to one side stands Amanaman, an eight-foot tall creature with spindly arms. That's Ailsa.

"Return of the Jedi was an amazing experience," she says. But playing a monster, spending long hours in a heavy and hot rubber costume, can't have been much fun. "The Amanaman costume had its challenges," she admits. "We were without vision when the cameras rolled as the eye holes were covered, so we relied on our own sense of timing from seeing the blocking and rehearsal. The long arms were on rods operated by a puppeteer below the stage, coordinating by monitor. It was interesting."

For all the discomforts and difficulties, Ailsa relished the experience. "It was invaluable for my next job," she says. She'd already been cast in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Ailsa's character is central to the story – she played Kala, the chimpanzee mother who adopts baby Tarzan. The role called for research into real animal movement and behaviour, but the performance also needed to convince an audience of the strong emotional bond between Tarzan and his new mum. Ailsa had to make Kala sympathetic as well as credible.

Again she downplays her part in that. "I've always loved the challenge of performing and researching for different creatures," she says, "and working with teams of very talented people creating the costumes and prosthetics. As a creature performer one is part of a team working to create that creature. That's what I enjoy."

Over the next two decades Ailsa brought to life a great variety of strange creatures: Aslan and the Dragon in the BBC's Chronicles of Narnia, half a Viking in the film Erik the Viking and a range of animals in adverts. Her credits include a rabbit, penguin, panda, pig, dog, orangutan, fox, bear and praying mantis. She has even played bacteria.

Then in 2004 she was asked to the BBC's offices in White City, west London, to discuss a possible new job. Producer Phil Collinson needed someone to bring to life the Autons and Slitheen in the first production block of the revamped Doctor Who.

"From the start, Doctor Who has been a wonderful series to be involved with," she says, "with such a diversity of creatures and never knowing what the next script will entail. That is the challenge: a new creature, a new costume, to make it all come together with the performers."

Ailsa explains that a lot of her ideas come directly from the script. "One can have movement ideas prior to having the costume. You then modify and change the movement to make it all become one."

It soon became clear that Ailsa could help make alien creatures both credible and uncanny. After her success with the Autons and Slitheen, she was asked to stay on. She was responsible for the movement of tree people (The End of the World), Victorian zombies (The Unquiet Dead) and has remained on the series ever since. In the show's second year, she was put in charge of the Cybermen.

The metal giants had of course been in the series years before, so did Ailsa watch old episodes, looking for things to use – or things to avoid? "I did," she says, "but really the Cybermen we created came from discussions with director Graeme Harper about finding the best way to make the most of the costume and to make the Cybers strong, ruthless, mechanically efficient and without emotion."

But when Ailsa started work on the 'Cybers', she'd not yet seen the costumes. "I am not involved with the costume development," she says. "It's always a surprise to see the finished suit and prosthetics."

Her own experience playing creatures had taught her that the costumes were likely to have restricted vision, so she bore that in mind as she auditioned performers. "I had a workshop day with them, which included exercises of working with limited vision, breathing, group coordination, space awareness and so on." Performers needed good spacial awareness and to work well as a unit so they could memorise movements in rehearsal and then perform them without being able to see. It sounds tricky, but Ailsa quickly established a group of "around 21" recruits to the new Cybermen army.

Do Cybermen have to be played by men? "Yes," she says. "But we have Silurians, Handbots, Peg Dolls and so on performed by the girls. Each creature has its own specifications both in build and height.

"For the Silence we have performers who are slim-built and around six feet seven inches tall. Cybers are around five feet ten inches to six feet tall and the Sontarans are shorter at about five feet two. That's good – it gives a great visual diversity to the different creatures."

Height isn't the only deciding factor. Ailsa's original Cyber-unit was whittled down a bit at the costume fittings because some of the men didn't fit. As she told Doctor Who Confidential in 2006, "The costumes are so specific in size, even the width of the [performer's] thighs made a difference to whether some of the guys got through that stage."

Isn't that rather frustrating? Ailsa doesn't seem to think so; it's just the nature of the job. Instead, she reveals that those who made it through have gone on to play many more creatures in the series. "Oods, Scarecrows, Judoon, Whisper Men... the list goes on," says Ailsa. "They're all now very experienced and can quickly take on board any new creature."

That includes upgrading the Cybermen. Nightmare in Silver (2013) introduced new, more flexible costumes, but again Ailsa says she was guided by the script in how they should move. "The new Cybers have a different style of movement: smoother, more efficient but retaining the strength and ruthlessness."

After all these monsters, does Ailsa miss her days in dance when her work was less... peculiar? "Yes, it was great to choreograph the showgirl dance sequence [in 2007's Daleks in Manhattan], and I have just choreographed a waltz and period piece on two other programmes. That's a nice contrast." But, she admits with a smile, "It's creatures I really enjoy."


Ailsa Berk's at-a-glance guide to Cyber-movement in the 21st century.

2006-2011 Cybermen
  • Cybermen stand tall and straight
  • The head is held straight forward. 
  • Chest held high. 
  • Arms slightly away from body and curved, with fists clenched – ready for action.
  • Feet parallel and shoulder-width apart.

Cybermen march in unison, in a slight 'V' formation, so each Cyberman can see the shoulders of the one in front (which is useful given the restricted visibility of the masks).
  • Arms held locked; they do not swing. 
  • Knee raised to an angle of 45 degrees and brought down firmly. 
  • Cybermen move forward with their left foot first.
2013 Cybermen
  • New, sharp arm movement in opposition as they march, suggesting speed
  • No clenched fists
  • No 45 degree knee-lift in march
  • Special effects blur and 'bullet time' also used to suggest speed.