FACT interviews the creative Force Behind LIZZO, John Legend and Janelle Monae’s top performances, Jemel McWilliams. A creative artistic director with over 10 years of experience, his creativity and skilled techniques have been displayed globally in performances by some of the music industry’s most prominent artists. Photographs by Wes Klein
What skills did you learn as a dancer that make you a creative choreographer?
One of the best parts about being a dancer before you venture into being a choreographer is that your experience on stage helps guide your decision making as a Choreographer. Most people think the role of a Choreographer is solely based on coming up with steps. There is so much more to this job than that. You are also responsible for managing a lot of different moving parts to the performance, one being the dancers, so having a dance background helps the Choreographer put themselves in the dancer’s shoes. There are times when Choreographers expect dancers to do the impossible, and as much as dancers are superheroes in my eyes, having been a professional dancer for 10 years I know there are limits to what is humanly possible, so I try to take that into consideration when giving direction to dancers.
What inspired you to become a choreographer?
I am a storyteller by nature and have always had a vivid imagination. When I hear music, I always see a full visual in my head. One day I decided to try and recreate what I saw in my head using movement; years later, I found myself doing it full time.
Have you always been a dancer and at what age did you begin dancing?
I began dancing at the age of 10 and danced at every opportunity I got (family functions, for random people on the bus, talent shows) whatever, wherever. I stopped dancing when I went to high school and didn’t start back again until I started teaching at an afterschool program in the Bronx after I graduated college. That was the start of my professional career.
You are known for creating narratives with your free- flowing moves. Before you develop a dance routine, what do you need to determine?
Before I begin choreographing, I ALWAYS have to connect with the music and visualize the story I feel like it’s telling. Everything has a story. It can be the smallest thing like the way an Artist takes a breath in between two words. For me, that breath is a part of the narrative and has value. Oftentimes if I can’t connect to a song, choreographing to it from a place of truth and honesty is a lot more challenging. I’ve never not been able to connect in some way, shape for form to a song I’ve been asked to choreograph and I am thankful for that.
Can you please describe the creative process that goes into developing a dance routine? Are you driven by the music first or a specific concept?
My creative process usually begins with me closing my eyes while listening to the song and just taking it in. I’m never looking for a concept or story, I’m just allowing myself to be an open creative vessel and letting the creativity flow through me. Oftentimes concepts and ideas come to me right away. Some take longer than others. After I “catch a vibe” I begin to just allow my body to move. I freestyle a lot of the first drafts of my choreography and then build from there. I always start with a vision and I see how it evolves.
How long would it usually take to choreograph a performance such as Janelle Monae’s ‘You Make Me Feel’ at the 2019 Grammy Awards?
I had two choreography prep days for the 2019 Grammy’s with Janelle as well as the 2020 Grammy’s with Lizzo. I’m usually tweaking and refining the choreography until the last rehearsal, but most times the window to actually choreograph is pretty small.
What is your proudest career moment thus far?
I have SOOOO many proud career moments. They are all so special to me. One of the proudest moments was a performance I put together for Janelle Monae for a major TV show, and we changed the song the night before the performance around 1am after we had just finished a tour show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was an insane undertaking. I think that’s why I enjoyed the challenge so much. I remember being up until 5am casting performers (dancers, actors, singers) and then telling everyone to meet me in midtown NYC at 8am and even though I had no idea if we could get into a rehearsal space that early. I just had to have faith that everything would work out. And it did! Whew… If I’m being honest, I shed a tear at the end of that performance. Maybe because it was really touching and part of me could not believe we pulled it off. Or maybe because I hadn’t really slept in a couple of days and I was beyond exhausted.
What is your fitness routine and how do you stay in shape, aside from dancing?
Once I moved to L.A. I noticed everyone loved hiking. I never understood what all the hype was about. Being from Washington, D.C. we never “hiked’. I never even thought of hiking as a past-
time. I went once within the first month of me being in L.A., and it’s become one of my favorite physical, mental and spiritual activities. Hiking can be so meditative, centering, and a great full body work-out. It is also great because I get to be out in the sun. I’m usually stuck in a dance studio for 12-14 hours a day, so getting out and getting some sun while maintaining my physical health is rewarding.
You have worked with some very high-profile artists such as Alicia Keys, Kelly Rowland and Tracee Ellis Ross. Did any of these artists impart any advice to you that you can share with the readers of FACT?
Most of the artists that I have ever worked with have taught me either explicitly or implicitly through their actions to be MYSELF and trust my gifts.
What advice would you give to aspiring choreographers?
Trust the process. I rose to my leadership position after many years of being a dancer, then 2nd Assistant Choreographer, 1st Assistant Choreographer, Associate Choreographer, Co-Choreographer and then Choreographer. I didn’t skip any of these steps in my journey, and I’m so thankful I didn’t. I learned priceless information that has shaped my perspective and approach to choreographing and artistic directing. ✤
GO: Follow @jemelmcwillliams on Instagram for more information.