You might not look to pop video clips for your contemporary dance kicks – but in fact, as Lise Smith points out, techniques, choreography, styles and ideas from contemporary dance have been a distinctive influence on the development and direction of music video.
ARTISTS WITH AN INTEREST IN PERFORMANCE HAVE PUSHED AT THE BOUNDARIES OF THE PROMO VIDEO ALMOST AS LONG AS THE FORM HAS BEEN WITH US.
Popular music and artful contemporary dance have rarely been easy bedfellows. Chart music might be uniquely capable of getting the masses moving every weekend in social spaces from ballrooms to warehouses, but contemporary choreographers working in the theatre tend not to look for musical accompaniment from popular sources. Classical and neoclassical compositions, avant-garde and electronic soundscapes, natural sounds and ambient noise have all soundtracked works by choreographers from Merce Cunningham to Mark Morris, but rarely has pop music (by which I mean any popular form rather than purely synth-based bubblegum) been given serious choreographic attention. Think of dance and pop together and (depending on your age and powers of recall) you’re more likely to think of either the choreographic oeuvre of Flick Colby and her various troupes on Top of the Pops, or of fresh-faced youngsters in lycra dancing a synchronised number behind a lip-synching singer on MTV. Neither example is likely to be mistaken for sophisticated contemporary dance.
Look beyond these overarching norms, however, and there are pockets of choreographic brilliance to be found on music television. Artists with an interest in performance have pushed at the boundaries of the promo video and its creative possibilities almost as long as the form has been with us, bringing contemporary dance and choreography to audience numbers undreamed of by theatre choreographers.
Before we dive deeper into some of these four-minute gems, let’s take a quick look at how music videos became the vital part of music promotion and consumption they are today.
Video Killed The Radio Star – the rise of music television
Short videos made to accompany single releases date at least back to 1957 and Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, a clip that in many ways set the template for what we still expect from a music video: close-ups of an attractive, youthful singer miming the lyrics, and a group of dancers in the background performing an upbeat, synchronised dance routine. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a growing number of artists turned to short-form videos to promote current releases rather than schlepping around a circuit of television studios; but it was the arrival of 24-hour music channel MTV, on 1 August 1981, that vastly increased the influence of the music video. Heavy rotation on the channel had the power to elevate a well-performing single to a global smash, and was instrumental in the success of artists who were early embracers of the format, including Madonna, Michael Jackson and Duran Duran.
IT TOOK A BRITISH ARTIST AT THE HEIGHT OF HER COMMERCIAL AND CREATIVE POWERS TO PUSH THE BASIC CONVENTIONS AND CREATE SOMETHING THAT DANCE AFICIONADOS COULD TRULY GET EXCITED ABOUT.
The Video Music Awards (or VMAs) were introduced in 1984 to honour the creatives behind the year’s best and most popular videos, and included a category for Best Choreography in recognition of the growing importance of dance within the format. That year’s award was won jointly by Jackson with former Alvin Ailey dancer Michael Peters for the landmark Thriller video, an epic in miniature that threw down the gauntlet to other artists with its cast of dozens, multiple locations and much-imitated zombie dance sequence.
Thriller upped the ante for video dance choreography, but although it set itself apart from the majority of clips with its imaginative narrative and sophisticated cinematography, it still rests comfortably within the conventions of the music video established by Elvis in 1957: close-ups of the singer miming, and an energetic synchronised backing routine. Switch the name of the singer, and we could be describing almost any music video from the last four decades. It took a British artist at the height of her commercial and creative powers to push those basic conventions of miming and up-tempo unison to the side and create a music video that theatre dance aficionados could truly get excited about.
Body Movin’ – musicians discover modern dance
By the mid-1980s, British musician Kate Bush had already made a series of notable videos featuring idiosyncratic mime, expressive dance and inexplicable references to Gaffa tape. Signed to EMI records aged just sixteen, Bush had spent the first two years of her contract refining her performance skills with choreographer Lindsay Kemp (who had previously worked with Bowie) and mime artist Adam Darius. Her 1978 debut single, Wuthering Heights, was accompanied by a memorable video featuring the singer sweeping across winding, windy moors in a crimson frock. The supple choreography, with nods to ballet, karate, and (at 1.34) a squishy variant on disco-dancing, is an eye-catching early indication of Bush’s interest in creating a totality of performance surpassing even Bowie’s. (The singer’s distinctive and self-consciously performative style wasn’t without its critics, and became the occasional subject of hilariously accurate parody.)
Exhausted by a 1979 live tour combining complex choreography with multiple costume changes, Bush decided to focus her creative energies on video, leading to a series of clips featuring the singer portraying a singing foetus, roller-skating with Grahamesque contractions, and sinister blinking. Even given Bush’s track record for unusual video choices, however, 1985’s Running Up That Hill was strikingly different from anything else played on music television at the time.
Unlike earlier videos, here there is a conspicuous absence of either close-ups or lip-synching. Nor is Bush backed by peppy dancers performing in unison; instead, Bush and dancer Michael Hervieu engage in a supple contact duet choreographed by Diane Grey full of soft rolls and falls to the floor. The dance has the appearance of a stage performance: it takes place in a single, square-shaped space and runs through the song as if the dancers are performing in real time. There is even a spotlight at one point, further underlining the theatrical feel of the video.
Grey’s dynamic choices are unusual for a pop video, even today. Where contemporaneous choreographers such as Toni Basil and Arlene Philips tended to stick to a palette of upbeat, energetic jazz-inflected dance moves, Bush and Hervieu ooze over one another with a much softer, released quality. And where other videos tended to use their dancers in an upright position with a focus on “steps”, Grey’s choreography set her dancers rolling around the floor and across each other with a much greater use of whole body movement. Where Bush’s earlier videos tend to be admired for their eccentric individuality, Running Up That Hill successfully combines a genuinely unique spirit with a beautifully inviting warmth.
Bush’s innovative approach actually resulted in the video not being played on MTV at the time of the single’s release, owing to the channel’s strong preference for lip-synched lyrics. Nevertheless, the video opened new possibilities for artists interested in doing something more creative with the form. In a more recent example, American singer P!nk’s 2012 video for Try also features a contact duet; this time the style is more vigorously confrontational, physicalising the theme of a relationship in conflict. The dance material, in part inspired by the early twentieth-century Apache Dance, was created by choreographic duo Golden Boyz with P!nk’s regular trapeze collaborator Sebastien Stella.
Like Bush, P!nk is an artist with an interest in physical performance, as attested by her memorable pair of Grammy performances. The explosively energetic, Euro-crashy choreography for Try shows an admirable fearlessness: not only is gymnastics-trained P!nk willing to push herself to the physical extremes demanded by the choreography itself, but she does so in pursuit of a sublimely savage aesthetic rather than a conventionally pretty one.
Bush and P!nk undertook dance training, but other musicians have embraced dance in their videos without stepping into a dance studio themselves. When Manchester’s New Order recruited maverick French choreographer Philippe Decouflé to direct and choreograph the clip for 1987’s True Faith, the band (perhaps wisely) left the dancing to the professionals.
There is an intensely satisfying interplay between image and music here, one that goes beyond the precise synchronisation between slaps and snares that demands the viewer’s immediate attention at the beginning of the video. Decouflé’s strongly visual style (the choreographer is known for conjuring up spectacular onstage worlds with theatrical trickery) is the perfect foil to the carefully art-directed image New Order had cultivated as a leading part of Manchester’s iconic Factory Records.
The tongue-in-cheek action – dancers in inflatable costumes, aliens gesticulating in rhythmic sign language, endless bouncing on trampolines – gently undercuts the drama of the track itself while responding to its strong percussive drive. Like fellow Mancunians The Smiths, New Order are sometimes mistaken for arch miserablists; Decouflé’s surreally witty video lightly punctures that gloomy image. The clip brought the band their first US top 40 hit, and won the 1988 BRIT Award for Best Video. For his part, Decouflé went on to direct She Drives Me Crazy for Fine Young Cannibals, and the burlesque-inspired Partition for Beyoncé as well as extensive work in theatre and live events.
Direct to video – music television goes online
IF OK GO! MANAGED TO ACCIDENTALLY INVENT THE VIRAL MUSIC VIDEO, RADIOHEAD’S THOM YORKE WENT ONE BETTER AND TURNED HIMSELF INTO A MEME
With the launch of regional and specialist MTV music channels and video-based TV programmes such as Channel 4’s The Chart Show, music television remained an important way for artists to promote current singles throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. Budgets grew steadily, film techniques and visual effects improved noticeably, and a raft of directors, including offbeat favourites Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, made industry debuts with videos for artists including Fatboy Slim and Daft Punk.
In 2005, a team of Californian PayPal employees, inspired by Janet Jackson’s half-time performance at the 2004 Super Bowl, decided to create an online platform for easy video sharing, and named it YouTube. The site rapidly became the dominant source of video viewing in the US, with 100 million video views per day in 2006, and monthly views in the tens of billions today. With its emphasis on short-form video (YouTube initially allowed uploads of up to ten minutes in length) the platform was ideal for music video uploads; more importantly, with its easy link-sharing and embedding, the site encouraged fans not only to watch but to share videos with friends via blogs and other social media. It is barely surprising, then, that musicians have started to see increased chart success as a result of heavily shared videos on YouTube and similar channels.
Following a steady three decades of increasing budgets and technical complexity in music videos, Midwestern indie rockers OK Go! hit YouTube gold with a low-tech, low-budget clip for their seventh single Here It Goes Again. The clip, an inventive treadmill workout choreographed by the singer’s sister and shot in one take after a week of rehearsals, demonstrates how an unusual idea executed relatively simply can be as effective and attention-grabbing as the high production values and trained casts of other videos.
There’s something very refreshing about this video: the performers are clearly not trained dancers; they’re young but not terribly glamorous; the video is shot without professional lighting in what looks suspiciously like somebody’s back room at home. But for all the refreshing homeliness of the video, the choreography itself is ingenious and endlessly watchable. The treadmills are both help and hazard – they glide the band on their way, but there’s an excitingly constant risk of somebody taking a tumble. And although the concept is simple, there’s plenty going on in the clip: choreographer Trish Sie, who won a Grammy Award for her work on the video, manages to find an entertaining variety of things for four men to do on exercise machines.
The band have gone on to incorporate choreography into their subsequent releases, dancing with upturned bins and dogs in White Knuckles; with a marching band for This Too Shall Pass, and a cast of thousands emulating a dot matrix display for I Won’t Let You Down. It’s the treadmills that always seem to be the best remembered, however, attracting a viral audience of millions with a concept seemingly tailor-made for YouTube.
If OK Go! managed to accidentally invent the viral music video, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke went one better and turned himself into a meme. For the 2011 video to Lotus Flower, Yorke sought out the services of Wayne McGregor, one of Britain’s few widely-known contemporary choreographers, to create an intense solo of twisting joints and liquid limbs. In contrast to the visual overload of some of our other clips, Lotus Flower is almost austerely sparse: shot in monochrome on a minimal set, the film focuses squarely on Yorke and his five-minute solo dance.
As a choreographer, McGregor is known for his articulate, physically demanding choreography that often sends parts of his performers’ bodies off in different directions, as if dislocated. Yorke, lacking the training of McGregor’s own company dancers, was unlikely to wrap his legs around his own ears, but the McGregor style is still evident in the syncopated dislocations of the arms and torso. The result suits Yorke’s body so well that some internet commenters believed the singer had improvised the dance rather than worked with a choreographer.
There is certainly a naturalness to the way Yorke performs the alternately fluid and spasmodic hip and torso movements, yet the clip is surreally transfixing – so much so that user-made mashups of “Dancing Thom” became much-shared on YouTube and microblogging platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter in the week of the video’s release.
A NUMBER OF POP ARTISTS RECOGNISE THAT CONTEMPORARY DANCE, WITH ITS IDEALS OF EXPERIMENTATION, ORIGINALITY AND INDIVIDUALITY, CAN BRING INNOVATION AND DISTINCTIVENESS TO THEIR OWN WORK
McGregor is not the only big-name choreographer to have created dances for music video in the internet age. Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui choreographed the movement for the mesmerising Valtari by Icelandic band Sigur Ros in 2012, while his compatriot Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker was taken by surprise to find her work turning up in Beyoncé’s 2011 video Countdown, which featured sequences lifted without permission from De Keersmaeker’s film pieces Achterland and Rosas Danst Rosas. A not-terribly-impressed De Keersmaeker declared herself “not mad”, but added: “it’s a bit rude”. Beyoncé, in any case, has form on tastefully-inspired homages (or straight-up plagiarism, depending on your point of view): the similarities between jazz choreographer Bob Fosse’s Mexican Breakfast and the choreography for Single Ladies, for example, was much-remarked at the time of the latter’s release.
Beyoncé’s superstar status drew attention to the choreographic inspirations for her clips, but she’s certainly not the only artist to borrow fragments of theatre choreography for promo clips. What these homages/appropriations/cheerful pinchings demonstrate is the growing influence of modern dance within the music video format. Just as the music video form attracted higher-profile directors and more experimental approaches throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s clear that a number of pop artists are interested in using sophisticated and inventive choreography in video clips to connect with their audiences. Why? Because they recognise that contemporary dance, with its ideals of experimentation, originality and individuality, can bring innovation and distinctiveness to their own work. Long may these artists continue to dance to the music, and to dance to their own beat.
Lise Smith is a freelance dance manager, teacher and writer, contributing regularly to a range of arts, travel and technology publications.