In the late 70s, Madonna Ciccone was a young dancer just arrived in New York, living on popcorn and self-belief between classes at the legendary Martha Graham’s dance school, and clubbing the night away at Danceteria.
Thirty-five years on, and the queen of pop’s life might be unrecognisable, but her instincts aren’t so different. Dance, from serious art to club trends, is still at the heart of Madonna’s live shows – her latest, Rebel Heart, arrives in the UK in December. Over the years she has incorporated everything from flamenco to Basque folk dance, tango, pole dance and parkour.
She’s known for reinventing her music, recruiting fashionable producers to update her sound, but she does the same – arguably more successfully – with dance, seeking out street and club trends and bringing them into mainstream pop culture. It started with 1990’s Vogue, but more recently there’s been krump (in her videos Sorry and Hung Up), Chicago footwork (Sticky & Sweet tour) and the arm-twisting, extra-bendy Brooklyn dance style bonebreaking (MDNA tour). You don’t get that from Katy Perry.
“The thing that separates her from everyone else is that she started off as a dancer. She has that dance itch,” says choreographer Richmond Talauega, who with his brother Anthony (AKA Rich+Tone) has worked extensively with Madonna. “She has taste, and she has that eye that knows what’s good out there.”
The Rebel Heart tour features samurai outfits and taiko drums, nuns in hotpants, Frida Kahlo, flappers and a nightly spanking of special guests. Creative director Jamie King is the choreographer responsible for Madonna’s Human Nature and Hung Up videos among others, and lead choreographer Megan Lawson comes from witty, 80s-influenced dance crew Fanny Pak, but there are a dozen other choreographers contributing numbers in different styles. It takes time to find the right team – “She’ll fire a lot of people that come through,” says Tone Talauega – but one who made it is French choreographer Sébastien Ramirez, who normally works in theatre, making arty contemporary hip-hop with partner Honji Wang (they recently performed at Sadler’s Wells in London).
Ramirez got the job after accompanying Wang to the dancer auditions in Paris. Wang might be the only dancer to get through the gruelling audition process – 5,000 auditioned for the current tour, in Paris, New York and Los Angeles – and then turn down a job, because it would demand she put her own company on hold for a year. But Madonna liked what she saw of their work, and hired Ramirez to make two numbers for the show.
What was it like working for her? “She’s very impressive,” says Ramirez. “She’s into all the details. She knows who you are and what you do. She’s really looking into your eyes and trying to get you. She’s analysing a lot.”
“She’s a very impressive authority,” says Wang. “When you see her arriving there’s an energy around her. But as well, I see this fragility in her. She’s so natural and accessible. She’s just one of us, working hard on the artistic vision.
“What surprised me is that the creation process was not actually that different [to ours]. Except the speed.” Madonna has the budget to spend three months developing a show, where other pop stars might spend three weeks, but still, Ramirez was blown away by the pace of creation. “It’s a different machinery,” he says. “They’re swapping ideas every five minutes. They don’t hesitate to say: OK, keep this, throw this. It’s brutal. They change ideas constantly.”
The choreography for each number starts with Madonna explaining the emotion of the song, and what she wants to get across. “She’s really sensitive on telling stories with movement,” says Tone Talauega. “That’s one of the main reasons she differs so much from other artists. It’s not just putting dance moves to a nice beat.”
Despite the calibre of talent she hires, you won’t be surprised to hear who is ultimately in charge. “A lot of artists will just leave it up to the choreographers to come up with everything, but not M, she leads every meeting,” says Tone. The choreographers who work with her have to be able to put their own egos to one side. “It’s very collaborative, but at the end of the day, she says yay or nay.”
If you make the grade, working with Madonna is a big gig for a choreographer, and comes with serious money for someone such as Ramirez who is used to working in the contemporary dance world (he’s too classy to disclose how much, but “the gap is crazy,” he says). Unlike a songwriter, who gets royalties every time a song is performed, choreographers work for a flat fee. “Yeah, that’s the thing that sucks about our line of work!” laughs Rich Talauega. “On a Broadway or Vegas show you get a bit of a percentage, but not when it comes to the pop world.” Your work belongs to Madonna. “You have to sign it over to them,” says Ramirez. “You’re not allowed to record, take pictures, nothing. What they give you is the credit.”
Madonna might be the boss, but she also has to knuckle down and learn the steps like anyone else. Everybody talks about her incredible work ethic, the grind of rehearsals, starting from 9 or 10am in the morning, and sometimes running to 2am. (“But you get very good conditions,” says Ramirez. “A masseur, good food … ” Wang agrees: “You are in a golden cage.”) “She has very high expectations of herself,” says Wang. “It has to look as good as the dancer next to her,” she says. Even though, at 57, she’s twice their age, I say. Wang lowers her voice: “I mean, you cannot tell! She’s so fit!”
On tour, Madonna hangs out with the dancers. “She treats us like family,” says Andrew ‘Drew Dollaz’ Boyce, a flex dancer from Brooklyn who performed on the MDNA tour. “She invites us to her house and we have movie nights and stuff like that.” And when she goes out partying afterwards, she’ll take her dancers too, although she’s not averse to putting them to work. At a Grammys party a few years ago, the singer sat on a throne in the centre of the dancefloor and pointed to dancers in turn who had to perform on command. “If we’re out with her and she wants us to dance, we’re going to dance,” says Boyce.
Choreographing for an arena show is a particular talent. This time round, Ramirez had to navigate a spiral staircase, giant billowing silks and a stage tilted at a 45-degree angle. “You need to know how to make amazing shapes that will carry to the back of the room,” says Tone Talauega. His brother thinks there’s something more important: “The element of surprise is really key for live events. You buy a ticket to see the artist, but it’s up to the artist to create that element of surprise that will make the fans always come back.”
For Ramirez, it’s like taking all the climaxes of an hour-long theatre show and cramming them into a three-minute song. “I compare it to blockbuster movies,” he says. “Every minute needs to be action.” But Tone Talauega insists Madonna doesn’t want her choreography to be like fast food. She might pounce on trends, but what she really wants “is to be timeless,” he says. “It’s what we’re all striving for.”
Source : TheGuardian