meet jaquel knight, the choreographer who gave the world 'single ladies'
Beyonce’s longtime collaborator on working with every superstar going, and what to do when they can’t actually dance.
In 2009 JaQuel Knight choreographed a video of three women dancing in leotards. Across three minutes, and a handful of now iconic moves, his life was completely reordered. The video was Single Ladies, the woman in the middle was Beyonce. In the years since, the North Carolina country boy with no professional dance training has become one of the most sought after choreographers in the music industry. He has continued to work with Bey across her recent transformative performances — Lemonade, the Super Bowl, that Grammy presentation — and collaborated with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Cher, Tinashe and Jennifer Lopez. i-D caught up with the dancer-choreographer-director to discuss his passion for the craft, how to deal with artists who just can't dance and all things Beyoncé.
Your first worked with Beyoncé on the Single Ladies video. How did it feel to have a piece of your work become so iconic and universally known?
Seeing Single Ladies as the piece it is now, where it lives in history and culture, it's an unexplainable feeling. I don't really know how to put it into words. It's amazing. How can this little country boy have such an impact on the world? People really gravitated towards it and I'm so thankful for that. The choreography is imbued with my childhood memories: from my family, to the marching band, to being a young guy going to the teen club. All of this plays a part Single Ladies it's so good to see people connect with it in the way that they have."
Where do you start on a project like that, what's the first place you look or inspiration?
I start with the record. I love to get in my truck and blast the record as loud as I can on repeat, and drive up and down LA. I am inspired by the emotions I feel when I first listen to a record, and what the artist is going through. I think about what they are trying to say, what statement are they making? What are they trying to prove to the world? Then we get in the dance space and we just make it happen. We can tweak things, but it all starts with the music. Everything starts with the music.
You've worked with pretty much every big female artist in the game, from Beyoncé, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera to newer artists like Zara Larsson and Tinashe. How do you go about communicating their different brands and identities through dance?
I always start from scratch and think about who each person is as an artist. I think people love working with me because I'm a people person. I can have fun, go out for a drink, I like to let the vibe carry the moment and get lost in the music at the club! Everyone can relate to that, regardless of what kind of music you do: Whether you're a new artist like Zara Larsson or a pro like Beyoncé, we all like to have fun and dance, and we all love music. I start at this point with each artist, and from there we start to develop our own way of communicating.
For example, Zara isn't your biggest dancer but she can sing her butt off and she has so much attitude so we just take all of those little traits and make that the choreography. Even Beyoncé isn't your greatest dancer actually! But she wants to get it right so we sit there and we work hard.
In recent year's Beyonce has melded her performances with her politics, and put social issues at the centre of her work. How has that influenced your work?
Beyoncé is a huge feminist, she's all about girl power, so we really take that and put it into choreography that makes females feel strong and powerful. It's one of the most important aspects of doing choreography for her, creating something that is empowering for females.
Do you think it's possible to express things through dance that isn't possible in other artistic practices?
Dance is way more physical than singing or writing, it absolutely helps you to express your true feelings. There is something about being able to get into a space and dance, or dancing with a group of people who feel the same vibe and energy as you, nothing compares to that feeling. Equally, moving on the stage in front of thousands of people, that feeling is indescribable. It's amazing because people really connect with movement. It's like being an actor, you are putting it on for people, and they really connect. To see people cry or be happy, that is what you want to do as a dancer and as a performer. It's really awesome.
How does it personally feel to have so much of your creative life tied to another person?
It's amazing. Not just with Beyoncé, but also with J-Lo, Christina Aguilera, Zara, Tinashe — it's pretty amazing to be connected to these artists. When you get in that room with them, they give you their all. They give you their heart and soul, they give you their true self. That takes a lot for an artist to do. They deal with so much in their day-to-day lives from paparazzi to blogs to rumours and TMZ, it's a lot to handle, so to get into that space and get to be one-on-one with them truly and honestly, I am so humbled by that. I get so much insight into their lives and they trust me with that information, and then from there you start to build relationships and become friends with these people. You become one, and it's humbling.
I have to ask, what if someone just can't dance?
I've actually worked with quite a few artists who just can't quite get it. I'm really good at making people feel like they can be great dancers. I tell them to not come at it from a dancer's perspective, instead I ask, how do you go through your day? How do you walk? How do you go to pick up a bag of chips? How do you act when you've got your favourite meal in front of you? How do you boogie then? Everyone can connect and relate to those things and grow from there, and that's how I help them. It still blows my mind how amazing they can end up.
Text Georgie Bretherton