Lady Gaga Choreographer Richy Jackson on How TikTok Is Changing Everything

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Lady Gaga might have been wearing a mask when she took to the stage at the VMAs late last month, but it was easy to see how excited she was to be back. Over the course of the telecast, she accepted five awards and performed a high-energy medley of songs from Chromatica, the album she released in May. Due to the pandemic, Gaga’s performance, which featured an assist from Ariana Grande for their single, “Rain on Me,” was filmed on a soundstage in advance, under strict protocols to prevent COVID-19.

And despite everything, for Gaga choreographer Richy Jackson, it felt like a return to form. Instead of using CGI to enhance the performance, they created a real set for Gaga’s moment onstage. “That was the one thing that felt normal out of all the abnormalities of trying to create a show in COVID,” Jackson said in a recent interview. “It definitely wasn’t a normal journey to get to a live performance. It was hard leading up to performing with all the restrictions we had to deal with, being tested constantly and sequestered.”

But Jackson has been working with Gaga for more than a decade, and between Super Bowl halftime shows, Grammy performances, and world tours, they felt pretty prepared to meet a challenge. Their relationship goes all the way back to the beginning, and he even appeared in the music video for her 2008 debut single, “Just Dance.” In 2011, he became her lead choreographer and visual director, and he has been integral to some of her most memorable and culture-shaping moments, from the “Telephone” video with Beyoncé to her moves in A Star Is Born. It’s hard not to see some of his and Gaga’s influence on TikTok, where stylized and eye-catching dances regularly go viral.

After the VMAs, Vanity Fair spoke to Jackson about what it was like to be a part of a post-COVID awards show and where he thinks show business is going.

Vanity Fair: How has everything that’s happened in the last six months changed your job as a choreographer?

Richy Jackson: I never thought I’d be holding auditions over Zoom. I never thought I’d be shooting music videos for other artists over Zoom. I didn’t even know that was possible! Even the classes that I’ve taught, I never imagined doing them online from my apartment. In a sense I’ve had to just adjust and adapt to that too. It’s just a human-to-human energy disconnection. I remember saying to myself, I can’t wait to get back onto a music video set or a commercial set. Would I choose a Zoom commercial shoot over an actual in-person shoot? I would always rather just go to the location. See people, talk, feel their energy, and get the job done.

What did the planning for the VMAs look like for your team?

Myself, Gaga, and Michael Bearden, her musical director, all get into a room, and she starts to talk about what she’s feeling and how she would like to see the show go, or the performance. We sit with her and chime in, and try to understand her vision, then start to figure out how we, with our respective departments, can then bring that vision to life. That’s where it starts from.

This time it was just about what we can do now with the COVID-19 restrictions that we had to face, plus the technology. A lot of the performers used the XR technology that night, but we decided to go against the grain and create an actual set. For me, choreographically, I was so happy to see a set, and to see that we could use it in a way to tell the story of the performance. I was relieved.

By Kevin Winter/Getty Images. 

How did dealing with those restrictions affect your choreography?

Over the years I’ve just learned and understood how we need to move for each venue. I’m so used to just saying, Okay, what do we have to deal with? What is our venue, or what are our restrictions, or what can we or can’t we do? No matter what we would have given the same performance whether we had an audience in the room or not. I’m the kind of person that we have to push through no matter what because the reality is that people still want to see a good show.

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