Tag Archives: choreography

These Were June’s Best Music Videos

Every month has a few great music videos and June was no exception. This month also had a logjam when it came to the really good ones that sit just behind them. With summer starting, dance videos are ramping up. There were also a number of videos with LGBTQ+ themes.

This isn’t uncommon – musicians from Lil Nas X to Allison Ponthier could make arguments as the music video artist of the year so far, with wildly different videos and even whole artistic universes based on representation and acceptance. June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month, and I think this played into seeing an even bigger wave of LGBTQ+ videos.

It’s also worth mentioning that artists like Bo Burnham and Wolf Alice each dropped a ton of videos this month. You probably would’ve seen Burnham’s “White Woman’s Instagram” or Wolf Alice’s “Lipstick on the Glass” if this were a top-25 countdown. Burnham released a number of comedic videos and Wolf Alice continues laying down chapters in what amounts to a larger film of connected music videos. A list like this isn’t necessarily built to group those larger, multi-month projects, but they can still be worth following. We’ll keep an eye on them; we’ve gone in-depth with similar projects in the past.

Let’s get into it. This month’s music videos were selected by Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez.

CW: Photosensitivity Warning; Strobing Effects

10. God Save This Queen – Bimini
directed by Kassandra Powell

Bimini is a British drag queen and model who gained fame on “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK”. “God Save This Queen” marks their first single. I love how the punk editing and mentality are thrown together with high fashion concepts and a pointed sense of humor.

It’s a beautiful statement video that’s simultaneously fun and inviting. It’s brash and confrontational, while at the same time embarrassing anyone who might seek to confront it. That humor and inviting nature gives it a disarming charm. That’s certainly not a line Bimini should have to walk, but that they choose to and do it so well is what makes the video.

9. The King – Sarah Kinsley
directed by Lux

This is a solid performance video anchored by a superb, 75-second opening one-take and those explosively stagey elements that introduce the chorus. It’s a great fusion of set, costume, performance, and editing.

Lux is Hannah Lux Davis, who’s directed videos for Doja Cat, Bebe Rexha, David Guetta, Kacey Musgraves, and has become Ariana Grande’s go-to director. Sometimes in filmmaking a director makes it big and you love what they do with all those expanded budgets…but you also miss some of what they can do on a smaller scale. “The King” is a return to that smaller scale and proof of just how much Lux can do regardless of budget or resources.

8. Hot N Heavy – Jessie Ware
directed by I Could Never Be a Dancer

This is exquisitely done as a one-take. There could be hidden edits, but if so they’re not even slightly obvious. There’s a figure in movement at every moment, and rarely does something cover or swipe across the camera in a way that significantly interrupts it.

If there’s one thing that holds it back, we all thought there was a certain chemistry missing between the dancers. It’s hard to pin down what makes chemistry happen, but the video works on cleverness, effort, and skill. It’s missing just that heat and intensity that would put it over the top as one of the best dance videos of the year. That can obviously hold an MV for something called “Hot N Heavy” back.

It’s still a really good video, but sometimes those elements in dance that have more to do with acting get traded off just a bit to accomplish a tough goal like a one-take. I think it’s one reason why Jungle (who’s on the list further on) hide edits in their one-takes: it allows more focus on those extra aspects like acting that make a video become a singular monument to its song.

7. Butterflies – Skrillex, Starrah, Four Tet
directed by Ben Strebel

There’s something about this that speaks very specifically to the pandemic. There can be a dissonance to how we’ve fractured and reconnected as things potentially get back to some kind of normal. Social interaction that would’ve once been ordinary can now feel highly charged, pressured, abnormal. It doesn’t help that we’re in such an unsure space, with countries shutting back down as the Delta variant of COVID spreads. Are we about to see widespread socializing and connection return, or are we at the prologue to another year of isolation and distance?

There’s a fraught edge between those two spaces that “Butterflies” explores, and I think it speaks to a larger anxiety that accompanies the pandemic and, in turn, much of the nationalistic, socially fracturing politics that enabled its spread. Certain social spaces that were once familiar can now seem celebratory, surreal, and stressful all at once.

6. Sofia – Askjell, iris, Aurora

I have a pretty cynical attitude toward music videos that are made up of clips from fans. They often come off as narcissistic because they use community as an excuse to reinforce a band’s brand. It’s difficult to avoid making them feel exploitative. It’s one reason you don’t see us include many of them in our monthly rundowns.

Here, that’s different. It’s not the musician being celebrated, it’s a young artist who didn’t get enough of a chance to explore her art. It’s not primarily the musician whose brand we’re spreading, it’s the art of a girl who wanted to share what she did. At least something of what she believed and how she saw the world survives and touches others. At least some part of the person she wanted to grow up to be is realized.

5. Dating is in China – Modeselektor ft. Catnapp
directed by Maximilian Villwock

Modeselektor is a German group that took shape in the chaotic wake after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Featured artist Catnapp is an Argentinean artist based out of Berlin.

The video features Ukrainian gymnasts and was shot in Kiev. It’s strange and unexpected, reassuring throughout and unsettling in its last shot. It feels exceedingly directed, often iconic, but also something of a blank canvas we can begin to place our own emotional meanings upon.

One of my favorite aspects of it is an intentionally blurry quality to the images. This isn’t simply downsampled, it’s an included effect. It gives the video something of a discovered quality, like a decade-old video stuck in YouTube obscurity that’s suddenly been uncovered.

4. Rainin’ Fellas – Todrick
directed by Todrick Hall, John Asher

This is one of the most charming and celebratory dance videos of the year. There are so many pieces from costuming to choreography that fuse together in a way that’s simply fun. I love it when elements like kitsch are used this earnestly.

It’d be easy to dismiss this as an easygoing, uncomplicated video. To a large extent, that’s the effect it’s seeking. There’s also an element of deconstructing and then reconstructing so much of what we see in dance videos. A lot of big dance videos with so many moving parts only seek to be more extravagant than what came before. That can leave a lot of substance out. Here, there are notes of Broadway, movie musicals, a choreographic thread that can be traced back to Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson, and notes of contemporary art, kitsch, and pop art that have each been hugely important in LGBTQ+ acceptance.

3. Talk About It – Jungle
directed by J Lloyd, Charlie Di Placido

Jungle continues making the best dance music videos on the planet. They often center on long takes, or faux one-takes. It would seem like this is all done in one shot, but there are hidden edits (a whirl past a wall, a shirt sweeping over the camera for a moment). The effect is no less powerful, and it’s important for the concept here to feel unbroken.

For dance to play out the emotional push-and-pull of a support group is a difficult idea to pull off. There are so many incredible decisions here, centered on alternating moments of conflict and synchronization in the choreography. The viewer is involved in a lot of these like a character, fed by the continuous, point-of-view nature of the take.

2. Purple – Retriever
directed by Theo Le Sourd

“Retriever” is an exquisitely shot, well acted, lightly erotic montage that perfectly captures the sensation of heartache and rewinding memories. It has a gorgeous cinematic feel in front of a song that feels like a lost 80s pop ballad.

When a music video’s about exactly what the song’s about, it can feel a little too on-the-nose, but it’s that sensation of memory scrambled together that helps this work. Some things we have context for, some things become colored in new ways: an argument begins to influence a happy memory. There’s a desire to compartmentalize impressions we want to keep sacrosanct, so that some part of the relationship still feels as it was – even as the rest of our lives grow further from it. “Purple” finds what’s ultimately a very elusive sensation that often escapes description.

CW: Photosensitivity Warning; Strobing Effects

1. Null – eAeon ft. Jclef
directed by Years

There’s no denying that this is visually stressful, but what that stress achieves is something that can only be found in this medium. “Null” is an evocation of trauma and crisis that feels especially pointed. It captures a profound and inescapable anxiety that also humanizes and contextualizes behaviors that are avoided and overlooked in daily life. The main character is someone who’s often relegated as someone else’s problem, or as a situation for police to (mis)handle.

What’s so successful here is that it’s not disturbing, but rather it makes the disturbing identifiable. It creates an empathy for someone who might be angry, unpredictable, perhaps even dangerous, but who genuinely needs support and understanding because none of us would be able to handle a reality so eroded any differently.

More music videos we liked in June:

Cipi” by Noga Erez continues the artist’s line of biting socio-political commentaries, fused to her trademark wary performance style.

Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” by Joy Crookes is a colorful dance video with some stellar costume design.

Freedom” by Jon Batiste is a great dance video in a month overstuffed with them. It celebrates, New Orleans, Black culture, and has charisma to spare.

Calling U Back” by The Marias boasts some really special cinematography set to one of my favorite songs of the month.

All You Can Do” by Bess Atwell hearkens back to 70s montage styles and double-exposures to create an evocative and yearning MV.

“PTT (Paint the Town)” by Loona excels in all those things that make a mainstream K-pop video: it’s a clinic on choreography, costume design, set design, and editing.

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Go Watch This: “Gibberish” by MAX & Hoodie Allen

by Gabriel Valdez

In celebration of the YouTube Music Awards, the internet video giant released 13 commissioned music videos, their artists ranging from FKA twigs to Ed Sheeran. Some of these are better than others and, of course, we’ll count them through in our Best of March round-up at the end of the month (see the Best of February here).

Here’s the complete list of what was just released – it’s a strong group of music videos – but among the best of these is a bit of magic put out by MAX and Hoodie Allen. It’s called “Gibberish” and it uses clever choreography, special effects, and plain, old visual trickery to create a video that travels forwards and backwards in time all at once.

The metaphor it creates for how people in a relationship communicate past each other is pretty exceptional, but it’s always a complement to the music and dancing itself – it prioritizes style and a “how’d they do that?” factor over making you think too hard. In other words, it’s good to get you through the middle-of-the-week grind. Check it out above.

Fight Scene Friday — “The Grandmaster”

by Gabriel Valdez

Ziyi Zhang. Much shade is thrown her way. “She’s a dancer by training,” goes one criticism, which conveniently ignores the by-now years of martial arts training she’s undergone with masters most of us could only dream of tutoring under.

Another criticism reminds us she’s no Michelle Yeoh, as if there can only be one female movie martial artist at a time. And, for that matter, if we’re talking purely practical martial arts skill, Jackie Chan’s no Michelle Yeoh either.

I often hear: she couldn’t actually win that fight. Well, this is probably true for half of movie martial artists. I’m not going to judge which ones could and which ones couldn’t, and that includes Zhang, but if that’s your schtick I’m pretty sure at least half the people who fly in kung fu movies can’t really do that either.

The simple reality is that Zhang is one of the best movie martial artists working today, and she fuses dance with martial arts to realize a balletic choreographic style that is relatively new in much the same way Jackie Chan’s fusion of stuntwork and martial arts once was. Being such a unique talent allows directors to frame their stories around her.

One such film was The Grandmaster, which I ranked as the second best film of 2013. The Grandmaster tells the tale of Ip Man, the Chines historical figure and cultural hero who would later go on to train martial arts cinema’s formative light: Bruce Lee.

Most recountings of Ip Man are mythologized to an egregious extent, but that’s what every culture (including ours) tends to do with historical figures. There are a few things that are intriguing about The Grandmaster‘s retelling, however:

First off, this is director Wong Kar-wai’s only real entry into martial arts cinema. He tends to make movies about love, alternating frame stories, and crime melodrama. His movies are utterly beautiful, almost like moving paintings, as you can see from the scene above.

Secondly, while The Grandmaster as a title seems to refer to Ip Man, the narrative leads you to believe that the grandmaster being spoken about is Ziyi Zhang’s character, Gong Er. She has even defeated Ip Man in a contest of kung fu. She is a woman, however, and so cannot inherit the traditions or certifications of a Chinese martial arts school. Because of China’s attitude toward women, the style her family practiced dies with her, while Ip Man’s style is free to live on through him. In this way, The Grandmaster is an absolutely searing refutation of gender politics in China, and a portrayal of all that’s been lost through China’s focus on patriarchy, privileging men while devaluing women, and focusing on the birth of sons over daughters.

In the scene above, midway through the film, Gong Er confronts Ma San, who has murdered her father and stolen the school’s certifications – and therefore the right to continue teaching the style – for himself.

What’s unique about the choreography is the use of slow motion to focus on the precision of hand movements. Most schools of kung fu focus on rhythm through a precision of hand movements, arm placements, and accompanying steps. The position of a hand can dictate the entire attitude of a movement. By slowing the choreography down, we’re able to see the intentions of key strikes, where they hit and miss. It translates the intention behind each move and how each character shifts attitude in order to counter the other’s. It’s derided by some American critics for being too focused on aesthetic, but the truth is the fight is communicated in terms of each character’s internal strategy better than most full-speed fights.

It stands not just on its scenery and art design, not just on the unique aspects Zhang brings to choreography, but as a fight that plainly communicates how moves are strung together according to this particular martial arts philosophy.

And it’s just one of several such scenes that make The Grandmaster one of the most unique and important martial arts movies ever made.

The Best Stuntwork of 2014

Need for Speed open

by Gabriel Valdez

Let’s talk about stunts, the forgotten category long left hanging in the wind by an Academy that has failed to award an element of filmmaking as old as film itself. And then they wonder why people think the Oscars are boring.

There will be a separate article for best choreography of the year, but I want to focus on stunt work for the time being. This is an article awarding the most singular achievements in stunt coordination this year.

Stunts can include everything from someone sent flying out of a building to being lit on fire, from precision driving to retraining an actor how to move like a different species. Stunt teams do some of the most difficult work on film, often to little or no credit.

I’ll be avoiding CG stunts. A performance can be aided by CG, motion captured, even take place in a set created through visual effects, but a stunt still has to be a performance. I won’t list anything here that’s entirely created through visual effects.

3. FURY

Hayley Saywell, stunt department coordinator
Ben Cooke, stunt coordinator

Fury, aside from being one of the most egregious awards show oversights, pulled off a rare trick. For a mid-movie tank battle, it employed a real German Tiger tank. It was the first time since 1946 that one was used on a film set. Mock-ups were used to develop the battle choreography. On lend from the Bovington Tank Museum for exactly one day of shooting opposite the American M4A2 Sherman tank that played the film’s namesake, the crew had to practice the sequence to the point where they knew what every member was doing every second of each shot. They had to recreate in their mock-up the exact control scheme and sense of response a Tiger tank has so that there were no surprises in the choreography once they were shooting.

It’s the rare mechanical stunt whose complexity won’t be realized by most viewers. On top of all that preparation, the sequence required the crew pave unseen paths in a muddy field, keep to a tight schedule, and keep an eye on mechanical issues.

Fury is filled with other stunts as well, but this tank battle – the above clip only represents a brief moment in the entire sequence – is the showpiece that demonstrates one of the best displays of coordinating a battle scene in recent memory.

(Read the review)

2. NEED FOR SPEED

Pamela Croydon, precision driving team coordinator
Lance Gilbert, stunt coordinator

That clip is all practical. None of the stunts in it are CG. Look, Need for Speed is a very average movie, but the sheer amount of stunt driving crammed into it is pretty audacious.

In an age when Fast and Furious is making money hand over fist with ridiculously CG driving sequences, Need for Speed focused on making everything practical. To do so, it employed no less than 38 stunt and precision drivers. It shows in the end result. Whatever else one says about this film, what you’re really paying to see – the chase and race sequences – are second to none.

(Read the review)

1. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Charles Croughwell, Marny Eng, Terry Notary, stunt coordinators

This doesn’t look like it involves much stuntwork. It’s just a bunch of CG, right? Not exactly. When you watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and realize that each of those CG apes spilling out of the woods is being played by an actor: climbing rigging, leaping, and bounding across sets in coordination with each other (often using prosthetic extensions to do so), it becomes one of the most overwhelming stunt accomplishments in recent history.

Motion capture has to have an actor performing the role in order to work. To coordinate dozens upon dozens of actors playing apes requires extensive movement training, complex staging, climbing coordinated between dozens at a time, and a brand new and unique fight choreography based on another species. The list of accomplishments here is stunning. It begins to blur the lines between stunt work, acting, movement training, motion capture, and fight choreography, and it does so to brilliant and moving effect.

(Read the review)

In the lead-up to the Oscars, we’ve named several Best of 2014 Awards, with a special focus on some categories the Oscars don’t include:

The Best 3-D of 2014

The Best Diversity of 2014

The Best Original Score of 2014

The Best Soundtrack of 2014

The Most Thankless Role of 2014

Bits & Pieces — Dance Choreography, “Footloose” (1984) and “Footloose” (2011)

Kevin Bacon Footloose

Dance Choreography,
Footloose (1984) and Footloose (2011)
Choreographer (1984): Lynne Taylor-Corbett
Choreographer (2011): Jamal Sims

Footloose, in whatever version you watch it, is a fairly basic story. A young boy named Ren McCormack, fish-out-of-water if there ever was one, moves from the city to live with relatives in the country. The town he finds himself in, however, has banned dancing. What at first seems a religious intolerance is later revealed to be a fear of pain – the town lost several high-schoolers years before as they drove home drunk from a dance. A dance ban wasn’t the only reaction, but a curfew and ban on loud music were also instituted. In true 80s fasion, it’s up to Ren to bring dance and joy back into the town.

Most of the town isn’t on board with this idea. After he’s been given enough trouble by townies, police, and the local boys who (correctly) think he’s trying to hone in on one of their girls, Ren drives to an abandoned warehouse and releases his anger in an extended solo dance. The 1984 scene is famous, in large part because it helped launch Kevin Bacon’s career. The 2011 version was successful, but had no Kevin Bacon.

Kenny Wormald Footloose

In the remake, director Craig Brewer asks choreographer Jamal Sims to replace the jazz choreography and gymnastics of the 1984 version with aggression. In the original, Ren’s act of dancing is a release, an escapist fantasy that allows Ren to take control of his reality once more. Bacon and his dance double Michael Telmont perform multiple jump kicks, slide down the hand rails of a flight of stairs, and swing on a chain from the rafters like Errol Flynn. Though Ren’s fighting personal demons, he’s clearly beating them. The choreography communicates re-assertion, a reclaiming of mental territory. The song is even triumphal, a high-speed 80s ballad with lyrics like “Never ever hide your heart,” and “It’s time to fight.”

When Kenny Wormald and his dance double perform the 2011 version, there is no less athleticism, but the gymnastics are replaced with a hip hop/contemporary choreography edited to The White Stripes’ relentlessly syncopated, storm-in-a-teapot “Catch Hell Blues,” which opens “Well if they catch me around/ You’re playing rock the boat/ I’m gonna catch hell.” The message is wholly different. Brewer and Sims repeatedly have Wormald spin out and lose control, or overstep edges and come crashing down. When he swings from the rafters, he doesn’t elegantly flip and land like Bacon. He’s yanked back and forth until he tumbles to the ground.

The remake’s dance solo isn’t a form of re-assertion through escapism; it’s a form of losing even more control through frustration. There is release, but the release here isn’t the key to a 1980s movie moment that gives you the confidence to win. The release here is that of ceasing to care if you lose. It’s a key difference in the two films and the two eras in which they were made.

The 1980s in the United States were defined by Reaganism and fire sales of the American dream. Realistic or not, everyone believed they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. American movies were dominated by people succeeding in this American dream – even action movies like the Rocky sequels and Die Hard were about average joes overcoming insurmountable odds thanks to their sheer, American, wisecracking toughness. Director Herbert Ross would go on to direct Michael J. Fox in The Secret of My Succe$s, a solid comedy that nonetheless posits that if everyone was out for themselves, they’d end up with the girl of their dreams and be CEO of their own company.

Kenny Wormald warehouse

Brewer’s story is darker. He came to his dream project, Footloose, after an allegorical drama about abuse, addiction, and recovery in the underrated and misunderstood Black Snake Moan. Wormald’s Ren is scarred by his mother’s death, a new character detail Bacon’s Ren never had to suffer. Wormald’s Ren is less self-sufficient, and what were amusing plot obstacles from local villains for Bacon are now turned into out-and-out bullying and social ostracizing for Wormald. There’s even a scene in the 2011 version in which the love interest, Ariel (Julianne Hough) is so afraid her townie boyfriend will dump her, she is pressured into having sex with him. Brewer’s is a story that acknowledges a reality to which the original Footloose didn’t have access.

It’s also a film made directly after the subprime mortgage crisis that launched the United States into a borderline financial depression. Ren isn’t just more frustrated, he lives in a world that’s been screwed over. Where the original Ren comes to control and dominate his environment through the warehouse solo, the remake’s Ren comes to learn he is trapped by his surroundings. He bounces off them. He makes no difference.

The rules Kevin Bacon’s Ren sets out to break in 1984 symbolized censorship and old-fashioned thinking standing in the way of social progress. Kenny Wormald’s Ren sets out to break those same rules because he sees his world for the first time as one split between those who follow the rules, and those in charge who don’t have to. The 1984 film was about the dawn of progress, a promising future, and new ways of thinking. The 2011 film is about struggling to stay above water and living restricted, fearful, cautious lives because of trauma.

In 1984, the reverend, Ariel’s father, who socially enforces these rules is simply doing what he understands to be God’s work. The reverend in 2011 acts from a more wounded place, from his own fear. He is certain that any deviation from the rules will curse him to repeat a moment of terror and loss that happened years before. Sound like a familiar tune?

Neither Footloose is a triumph of cinema. They’re both fun but fairly average movies wearing their allegories firmly on their sleeves. They aren’t complex, but they do both exist to communicate important themes. It’s easy to talk about the momentous films that challenge and confront our pre-existing notions and beliefs. It’s just as easy to overlook the intelligent and challenging moments in films that are otherwise unspectacular. The differing choreographic approaches between the original Footloose and its remake won’t likely change the face of cinema, but they’re important to notice and discuss because, after all, someone who sees them today is going to change the face of cinema tomorrow.

Footloose KW