Legendary choreographer, director, producer and a million other things Vincent Paterson (with writer Amy Tofte) has unleashed his inspiring new book, Icons and Instincts. Globally acclaimed for being the choreographer for artists including Michael Jackson, Madonna, Björk, Lucille Ball, Liza Minnelli, Shirley MacLaine, Elton John, Barbra Streisand and a parade of at least 100 others, Paterson celebrates his behind-the-scenes escapades and anecdotes. His hope is that his stories are entertaining and inspiring and in his own words “a reminder of how we each choreograph the steps to our individual dances in life.” He also wishes that his recollections “might offer insight into what it means to be a working artist in a volatile industry.”
Paterson has choreographed, directed and produced for film, theater, Broadway, concert tours, operas, television, music videos and commercials. His works include Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal and Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour, as well as Berlin’s first original production of Cabaret. He is now happy to share his renowned experiences with the world.
Hello, Vincent. You are a director and a choreographer, which came first?
I directed first when I was in college, then an actor, then after being a dancer for many years, I became a choreographer and then back to directing again.
What made you want to become a dancer?
It was kind of accidental. I was working in Tucson for a while, I was walking back and forth past the dance studio every day. I was a theater person, not a dancer at all. I kept hearing this music come out of the studio and I stepped inside and asked if I can maybe take a class. It was a ballet studio and the woman that ran it said, “We don’t really have adult classes, but you could take a class with these young teenagers.“ That’s how I started. Changed my whole life.
So how did you come to work with Michael Jackson and Madonna and all those super famous people that you worked with? How did you get that reputation?
I did a lot of dancing once I moved back down to Los Angeles. I traveled the world with Shirley MacLaine. I was Barbara Mandrell’s partner on her TV show for two years. I auditioned for “Beat It”. Michael Peters, who choreographed it, was a mentor of mine. I auditioned for it and got it.
That was my beginning of knowing Michael Jackson. The second thing I did with him, I assisted Michael Peters and was a dancing zombie on “Thriller”. After that, I started almost creating everything for Michael Jackson. I began with “Smooth Criminal”, which I conceived and created and choreographed. I did his first solo tour and went on to do maybe four or five other short films or videos with him. I choreographed them as well as directed them. I did his Super Bowl performance, Grammy Awards and many, many other things. Through Michael Jackson, I had met a commercial director, Joe Pytka, who directed “The Way You Make Me Feel”–one of Michael Jackson’s pieces that I choreographed–and Joe was directing a very controversial commercial, as it turned out, for Madonna for Pepsi. He called me and asked if I would come down and help. He said Madonna didn’t want to sing and dance, but he wanted me to be there anyway. She walked past with her entourage and Joe attempted to introduce me as a choreographer and she said, “I don’t need a f****** choreographer”. That was my intro to Madonna. I then went on to do the video for “Express Yourself” and then “Vogue”. I directed and choreographed the Blonde Ambition tour. And many other things I did for her, like the Marie Antoinette version of “Vogue” for MTV, the film Evita. Once it all began, it just kind of steamrolled. It continues to this day, and I’m very grateful for that.
I think the biggest challenge as a choreographer may have been Whitney Houston. As sweet as she was, she was really uncomfortable with moving. So that was a little tough. Donna Summer was the same way. She was happy to learn, but she just wasn’t that comfortable with moving. Those were the two trickiest, I think. What I tried to do, Eileen, is I try to look at a person’s body and see how they move and then try to create movement that I think makes their body look good. As a choreographer, that’s the way I always worked. Even Bjork, when I choreographed Dancing in the Dark, I watched her a little bit and used movements that I thought worked well for her body and it did. I called her a Teletubby because she was just so sweet and kind of moved that way. So that’s the way I try to work. I tried to work my body into the way their body moves, and if it feels good on mine, I know it’ll feel good on theirs.
I’ve interviewed a million people on the planet, but I never really interviewed choreographer, so this is really exciting to me. I always ask musicians, “How do you come up with lyrics and what inspires instrumentals?” so I want to kind of ask you the same thing. What inspires you to come up with movements? How do you think of them?
I followed something that Michael Jackson once told me at the very beginning, when I first started choreographing for him. He gave me “Smooth Criminal” and he said, “I want you to take this music, don’t impose anything on this music. Let the music tell you what it wants to be. Listen to it again and again and again and let it tell you what it wants to be.” And that’s kind of how I choreographed my whole life. I don’t impose an idea on a piece of music. When I hear a piece of music, I think, “Wow, I really like this” and then I listen to it intensively for what could be 100 times or more. Then, images start to come to my head. They start off abstract and then I go into a studio and ideas come.Like circles or squares I see in my head when I get into a studio. I start to put that feeling on my body and move along with it.
I learned a lot from Hermes Pan and what he did with Fred Astaire when I was first beginning to choreograph, to understand you don’t have to choreograph to five, six, seven, eight. I could follow a string line or a flute line and be inspired that way. Having worked in the theater, grown up in the theater, basically, a lot of the choreography I’ve always created has had a narrative theme or substance to it. I like dancers being characters in a way, expressing a story with movement.
So, with everything that you’ve done, a book was inevitable. What made you decide to write this book?
It actually was my co-writer who urged me. There was a documentary about me called The Man Behind the Throne. That’s kind of how I lived my career, mostly. In the early career, I was behind the scenes and didn’t get much credit for what I did, although my stuff was highly visible by billions of people around the world. I thought, “Let me move forward with this career. And let me see what if it works for me.” I just kept following my heart and found that by doing that, doors were opening for me. One person would see the work and give me a call and I’d work with them and move on to something else. That’s the way it kind of came about. It’s a beautiful career. I directed a play for my co-author who is also a playwright. She had gone to see this documentary that was done about me and came back and said, “That was incredible”. She said, “Have you ever written anything?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve written a lot of journals.” When I worked around the world a lot, I never got to take somebody with me. I would pick up an assistant wherever I was working. So I gave her some of my journals. Between the work that was in the journals and the interviews that she did with me, that’s kind of how we put the book together.
I wanted to create a book that had a reason to exist. To give people the insight behind the process of how some of these major entertainers actually work when they’re in the rehearsal studio. I thought that would be interesting for people. For young artists, it was an important book because it talks about being prepared, and that’s a really important lesson. You never know when opportunity’s going to afford itself to you and you want to be ready. Take some classes, take some acting classes, take some voice classes. If this is really the career that you love, be prepared. The third reason was people look at my situation, and when you read the book, I think you’ll understand this better. They look at the successes that I’ve had and they think, “Oh, my gosh, you’ve had it so easy.” Well, yes, on one hand. We hear so many more nos than we do yesses, so we have to be strong and listen to that instinct that tells us that we’re on the right path.
Have you had your ultimate stage fantasy yet?
I think creating the blonde ambition tour for Madonna and changing the base of Pop tours. I think that was so fulfilling for me. To be able to bring theatrical talent to the pop arena, and now look and see that that’s the course that everybody has taken. In terms of that, I’m very happy. The Pope actually said, “With the Blonde Ambition tour, Satan has been rereleased into the world,” and I thought, “Oh, my God, I did that.” So I guess you can call that an ultimate stage fantasy.
So, is there anybody that you haven’t worked with that you wish you did or that you still want to?
In the music world, I’ve always wanted to work with Lady Gaga. I think that she is a really incredible talent on many, many levels. I just sent a book for her to read and I hope she enjoys it. She is someone that I thought that we would collaborate beautifully together. In the acting world, a great actress that I’ve never had an opportunity to work with and whom I absolutely adore is Meryl Streep. I got to work with Glenn Close and she was brilliant. I’m a kid who came from very poor area down south of Philadelphia; there was no culture around there. But I always knew I was destined for something else. I didn’t know how and I worked my butt off because we were very, very poor. I was able to get some scholarships to go on to college. And that changed my life. And that’s another important part of the book, that we don’t all have things handed to us and we really have to work hard to get what we want.
Is there any question on the planet that you would want me to ask you?
One thing that I’m really concerned about, and I write a whole chapter about it, is about the lack of equality for choreographers. I’m not really choreographing anymore, but I’m fighting, fighting, fighting for choreographers to get first of all credit for their work and equality with pension health and welfare. Some form of ownership because we kind of work for hire, so we own nothing. And the consequence of that is hundreds and millions of people have seen my work, but they don’t really know it’s my work. If I was to try to put my work up at a concert, I could be sued. I own absolutely nothing. We’ve been advocating, and there is a new group now called the Choreographer’s Guild that has some very powerful players, and it’s very exciting. We have bylaws, we have a board and executive board, executive directors, and now we’re pushing, pushing, pushing for membership of choreographers on the West Coast that deal with the electronic industry film and video, but also live theatrical. So, those things are very important to me. I also want to campaign the Academy to give an award to choreographers. I have an agent here and the two of us have been talking to the CEO of the Academy and two women on executive boards to find out how we can get more choreographers in as members first so that eventually choreographers will have a voice. I’ve read letters from 1962 questioning the board on why they don’t have awards for choreographers. That’s 60 years ago. This has to change. The thing that’s disturbing to me is, I am a member–Mike Nichols supported me and got me in when I did The Birdcage for him. This is what I mean about credit. Even though I had the main title credit on that film, a gentleman named Mark Harris wrote a biography of Mike Nichols and in it he says one of the greatest improvisations that Robin Williams did was the eclectic celebration of the dance, “Fosse, Fosse, Fosse, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Madonna, Madonna”. Well, that was mine. I created all of that from nothing. And because you were just so overlooked because lack of education, people don’t know what we do. They didn’t step any further to find out if Robin had actually done that or where it came from, so he just took it upon himself to say Robin did it.