I can’t forget that impact that I first got when I watched Michael Jackson’s short film “Thriller”. There was enough impact to change the world. I felt “Something is going to happen. Something that I have never seen before.” In the same era, Madonna, the absolute queen who conquered the world with a pair of high heels, debuted into stardom. One after another never before seen music revolutions were constantly occurring in the world which led to people having a lot of iconic moves engraved into their minds. It was Vincent Paterson, that I was able to interview, who was responsible for many of the iconic Michael Jackson and Madonna’s enthusiastic movements as he created behind the scenes as a director and choreographer. As if they met Vincent like fate, the world started to go to an unpredictable future. Vincent, when you worked with Michael Jackson and Madonna, there must have been some kind of magic going on in their performances to move my heart the way it did. I haven’t been able to have my heart be moved as much since then. What kind of spell did you cast on us?
—You joined “Thriller” as an assistant choreographer. What do you think are the reasons why it is loved all over the world, even now?
“First of all, it’s a crazy, fantasy zombie dance. It was a unique dance that anyone can feel like dancing to and it was easy enough for people to remember the moves. So, it is still loved all around the world. Also, the fact that it wasn’t just a music video but also a short film where we can enjoy the story was another reason. Michael loved films and ‘Thriller’ was inspired by the film ‘An American Werewolf in London’. Because a music video channel called MTV was born at that time, people around the world were surprised to see ‘Thriller’. They thought ‘What is this? What is happening?’ when they saw the unpredictable story and the overwhelming performance.”
–Your style of choreography is very iconic and never stops attracting viewers. For example, I liked the Zero Gravity movement from “Smooth Criminal”. How on Earth do you create them?
“Sometimes, it just comes out of my crazy brain (laughs). Let me tell you the story of when Michael gave me a cassette that had ‘Smooth Criminal’ in it. He said ‘Listen to the music and let the music tell you what it wants to be.’ I put a headset on and listened to it many, many, many times. I began to see movement in shapes, such as a rectangle, a circle, or a spiral, and then I started to move to the music. That’s how the choreography was born. On the other hand, for Zero Gravity, I got inspired from a dance performance piece I had seen years before. The dancers came out with skis on and started leaning. This visual came into my head when I was creating the choreography for Smooth Criminal and I knew Michael would love it. Sometimes, I get inspirations from a play, a novel, or art, like the example I just cited. And other times, choreography comes out of my brain just by listening to the music. There are various ways to create choreography but the important thing is how I can be honest to the music.”
–The dance where Madonna grabbed her crotch in “Express Yourself” was especially surprising (laughs).
“This is how that happened. When we were filming ’Express Yourself’, Madonna asked me ‘What should I do with my hand on this last part?’ I answered ‘Why don’t you grab your balls because you have bigger balls than most men?’ (laughs). I taught her many ways to appear stronger, be more beautiful, and act more sophisticated. I even taught her how to smoke a cigarette and how to crawl on the floor. Interestingly, superstars don’t always know how to make themselves move a certain way for the public. Even Michael needed guidance. That’s why smart performers hire a choreographer. When we filmed ‘Black or White’, the director had an idea of having Michael stand in front of gray walls. Michael didn’t really like the idea. So, he asked me ‘Vincent, what do you think?’ and I said ‘Let’s express the inclusion of race, which is the theme of this song, by using dances from around the world.’ And I created the choreography which included Balinese, Cossack, and African dances. Michael’s dance vocabulary was mostly what he knew from his Motown days, including tap. When he began making his short films, he opened himself up to learning a variety of styles. From this education, as well as his working out with street dancers in LA, he evolved his own style.”
–You directed Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour, one of your many renowned pieces of work. That was the first time Madonna or any other woman in the media dared to be overtly sexual on stage. At that time, Madonna’s sexual performances were the newest popular topic to talk about. Was it a message trying to convey “Women, be strong!”?
“Perhaps that was part of it. Madonna likes to shock people. She likes to keep people on their toes, never knowing what her next incarnation will be. During the Blond Ambition Tour, she wanted to say that men and women should be equal. In this tour, I tried to stage “Like A Virgin” on a big bed. I said to her, ‘I want you to lie on the bed. And wouldn’t it be interesting if two men were there as part of the headboard of the bed?’ Then, she said ‘I also have come up with a great idea!’ and brought out cone bras. Jean-Paul Gaultier had made for her, but she never used them for anything yet. I thought that I would have the male dancers wear them, too. In this show, I had women wear men’s clothing and sometimes dressed men with a feminine tip. That’s because sometimes women have men’s feelings or attributes and vice versa. The Blond Ambition Tour was making a statement that sometimes there is a thin line that separates male and female attributes, making the classification of sex ambiguous. Also, it was important for us not to force people to watch the scene by shouting ‘Look at this!’ but to make people smile in spite of themselves by using humor especially when expressing sexuality. Madonna bloomed as a woman who incorporated sexuality into her artistry. At that point in time, women weren’t as open as men in expressing their sexuality in public and still taken seriously as artists. But Madonna could and did.”
–It is said that you put theater, fashion, and art to the direction for this tour and after the world realized this is how a pop concert should be, it changed the pop concert formula. How did you come up with those ideas?
“I was trained as an actor and a director. I was involved in theatrical productions from when I was in college. When Madonna asked me to direct the Blond Ambition Tour, she said she wanted to create something totally different from concerts that had been done before. We decided to create a show that was more than just singing and dancing. Our stage had large, elaborate sets, many costume changes and expressed various characters. Madonna appeared as a girl with curlers in her hair, a repentant sinner, and a mysterious mermaid. For me, ‘change’ and ‘contrast’ is important when creating work. In short, it means creating a completely different emotion right next to a proceeding one. For example, laughter after sadness or happiness after anger. By creating this roller coaster of emotions, we can keep moving people’s hearts or giving surprises. I wanted to make the Blond Ambition Tour not just a pop concert to watch but a theatrical event that impresses people. It’s no exaggeration to say that this tour was the beginning of theatrical type rock/pop concerts, which are now the norm. Humbly, it was a historical moment that changed the definition of concerts.”
–What do you think Michael Jackson and Madonna brought to their era?
“I think they were playing important roles as influencers who made changes in society’s movements, not only in America but on a world scale. For example, Madonna and I took the dance moves of Voguing, that was known only in gay clubs in New York, and used it for her song ‘Vogue’. At first, she didn’t think that “Vogue” would become that big of a success. She had placed the song in the middle of the concert, but I said ‘No! No! No! Vogue comes at the end of the show. This is going to be huge! This is going to blow their minds!’ When it comes to Michael, he often invited street dancers to the studios and danced with them. Michael learned a dance called the Back Slide from them, evolved it, and completed his own dance move called the Moonwalk. When he executed the Moonwalk in the TV special Motown 25, people were blown away thinking ‘What in the world is that?’ The credit of bringing movement from various cultures, which few people knew about, and making them world-class movements goes to Michael Jackson and Madonna. Also, they always said to me ‘Let’s make something that is totally new that the world has never seen before.’ We brought a lot of ideas out and played around with them. Especially, because Madonna was well versed in the visual arts and Michael in films and musicals, they created innovative modern rock and modern pop music by combining their strengths of classical elements to their works. For example, the monochrome music video of ‘Vogue’ was inspired by the black and white pictures by an American photographer named Horst from the 40s, and ‘Thriller’ was inspired by ‘An American Werewolf in London’. Through Michael Jackson and Madonna’s works, people not only renewed their understanding of how wonderful classical works were, but also were able to get new values and broaden their field of perspective by touching the most essential feature of art beyond the frame of pop music. That was exactly what we wanted to do.”
–I think that Michael Jackson and Madonna are one of a kind in the history of humankind.
“I agree. They had unique talents. In addition, they gave their best effort to make the best use of their potential. For example, when Michael didn’t know how to do a certain dance step, he would stand in front of the mirror and repeat the same movement thousands of times until he knew how to perform it perfectly. If you were close enough to see the amount of energy, concentration, and their incredible attitude that they put into their work, you would understand why Michael was able to become ‘Michael Jackson’ and why Madonna was able to become ‘Madonna’. They believed in and accepted their unique talents, and they wanted to bring out the best that they would be able to become. Also, they were blessed with wonderful creators such as directors and choreographers who brought out their talents to the best of their ability. All of their success had the perfect bond of creators where not one element could be excluded. But timing was the most important thing for their success. Thanks to the birth of MTV, their work was given an opportunity to be seen by billions of people at the same time. Remember, there was no Internet or social media back then. People all around the world were starving and were thirsty to see their icons, thinking ‘I want to see more! Give me more!’ That’s why fans listened to the records on repeat and watched the videos over and over. It warmed our hearts and made spectacular memories that we can never forget. Today, we are flooded with never ending information and people’s tastes are so diverse. The feeling of having your heart moved doesn’t last for a long time. It is interesting to think if Michael Jackson and Madonna could still become as famous as they were back then, if they debuted today. So, one important element that led them to become as successful as they were was the perfect timing of everything– talent, human resources, and the era they were born in. There could have been people who had almost the same talent and made almost the same effort but couldn’t become superstars. Probably, a little spell was cast on Michael Jackson and Madonna. And so, they were meant to be the unsurpassable ‘Only Ones in the World’.”
–I heard that you might plan to hold some workshops for Michael’s dances in the future.
“I was given a chance that nobody else can experience and was blessed with working with many talented artists and wonderful masterpieces. I hope that the happy circle of giving these irreplaceable gifts, such as the love and grace that I felt, to others keeps on going like an endless merry go round. Particularly, memories with Michael were special. He was a person who was like a child who never said mean words. What he taught me was to love people, to be considerate to people and to do good for the world. I’m hoping to hold workshops for Michael’s dances all over the world. I still want to share the magic that he shared with the world and me. Don’t you feel the same way?”
Vincent Paterson ◎ He started his career as an actor and a director for a theatrical company and started learning dance when he was 24. He played the gang leader in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, and was an assistant choreographer for “Thriller”. He got an exceptional promotion as a choreographer for “Smooth Criminal”, causing his life thereon to change drastically. Later, he was involved in a number of M.J.’s legends. For example, he choreographed for “Black and White”, directed the Bad World Tour in 1987, and directed a Super Bowl Halftime Show in 1993. He is also known as a choreographer for Madonna. He directed and choreographed the Blond Ambition Tour, which made her an instant superstar. It is said that Madonna couldn’t be the person she is today if it wasn’t for him. What’s more, he also directed a Cirque du Soleil show and many other projects. He is active in various areas beyond the boundaries of industries.
“Love people, be considerate to people.
Do good for the world.
That is what Michael taught me.”
“In Smooth Criminal,
inspiration for that lean
came from skiing.”
“Michael and Madonna
have always said to me
that they want to create something that’s completely new
that the world has never seen.”
Thank you for reading!