Two to Tango Directors and Choreographers

Two to Tango: The Collaborative Process of Directors & Choreographers

October 6, 2021 A Special Projects Committee virtual event.

On October 6, more than a hundred DGA members tuned in to learn more about the working relationship between Directors and Choreographers when the Special Projects Committee presented the online event, Two to Tango: The Collaborative Process of Directors & Choreographers.

In a conversation moderated by Director Kenny Ortega (High School Musical) and illustrated by clips from their work, Director Tamra Davis and Choreographer Jamal Sims from the Netflix original film, 13: The Musical; Director Chris Robinson and Choreographer Fatima Robinson from the television series, American Soul; and Director Christopher Werner and Choreographer John Carrafa  from the DGA Award-nominated “SLAPP Suits” episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, engaged in an entertaining and informative exploration of the dance off-camera that leads to success on-camera when facing the challenges of crafting musical numbers for film, television and commercials.

Following a welcome from DGA Special Projects Committee Chair Jeremy Kagan, Ortega opened the event with a recap of a recent conversation with DGA Past President Thomas Schlamme he was a part of. “We all agreed that we had never heard of any university studies, film studies, private studies, or even a handbook that existed where there was shared information about the very important collaboration between Director and Choreographer. Tonight’s very talented and experienced guests on our panel are here to shed some light on how we can build a stronger collaborative experience.”

Davis spoke about her confidence in Sims’ ability to work with minors. “The movie's called 13: The Musical, and we really hired 13-year-olds. I really wanted to work with somebody who I knew could work with children and Jamal has such an incredible reputation. I knew he could handle a challenge like this.” Sims added how Davis’ ability to be specific about what she was looking for made the process so much smoother. “Sometimes you get some Directors that are like, 'I don't know. Just do something.' Some Directors are like, 'I want it to feel like The Wiz... They'll give you some references, which is helpful because you can get into their head, understand what story they're trying to tell... at the end of the day, I always want to service the Director and make sure they get what they want out of the piece we're trying to do.”

Director Chris Robinson spoke about integrating Fatima Robinson’s skills to supplement his own. “There's a certain point where you talk about where the camera will be, we talk about story and then there's just this magic that happens. You can storyboard it. You can say. ‘I want a high shot here. Here's where I want the crane to pick you up on this beat...’ and we do all that work but there's something that happens that as Director, unless you're a choreographer, you don't have that skill set. That skill set is something that's physical and spiritual.” Choreographer Fatima Robinson, recalling their collaboration on American Soul, admitted, “It's always great working with a Director who understands story and how the dance can work inside of the story. Being able to bring the Soul Train story to life was just fun every day on set. The music kind of tells you where to go and move and then the Director's notes for the story helps you with what you want to convey.”

Werner recalled how Carrafa’s directorial knowledge enhanced what they were able to in the limited time they had to create a musical number on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. “My biggest thing was knowing that he [Carrafa] was a Director. It was so helpful, knowing that he understood camera, and obviously his credits were so impressive. So, I feel really early on the most important thing was establishing a trust.” Carrafa agreed, stating, “As a Choreographer, you get such joy putting yourself as part of someone else's team and finding how you can be a support system. We found a language pretty quickly and found pretty quickly we both knew what we were doing, and we're both really good at what we do, and we could trust each other.”

After thanking all the participants, Ortega wrapped up the event with a memory from his early days on the other side of the collaboration when he was working as a choreographer and had the privilege of working with Directors that invited him into their process. “My associations with those Directors gifted me the tools that I have to work with today as a Director. Because they included me in their creative process, I was able to reach my goals as a Choreographer and to serve their musical ambitions at the highest level.”

Video from this event coming soon to the gallery below.

Tamra DavisDirector Tamra Davis
Davis began her directorial career making music videos and has to date made over 150. Her other directorial credits include the feature films, Guncrazy, Billy Madison, CB4, Half Baked and Crossroads; the documentary, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child; the pilots for the series Good Sam and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series; and episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Ugly Betty, My Name Is Earl, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, You’re The Worst, Empire, Dead to Me and The Politician. She is currently in production of a feature adaptation of 13: The Musical. Davis joined the DGA in 1995.
Choreographer Jamal Sims
Sims’s resume includes choreography on feature films including Craig Brewer’s Footloose; Jon M. Chu’s Step Up and Step Up 2 The Streets; Peter Chelsom’s Hannah Montana: The Movie; and Adam Shankman’s Hairspray; as well as television work on RuPaul's Drag Race: Vegas Revue; Dancing with the Stars; and the Emmy Award-nominated 82nd Academy Awards; and music videos and stage shows for Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Usher, P. Diddy, Spice Girls, Outkast and Gloria Estefan. Sims is currently in production with Director Tamra Davis on her feature adaptation of 13: The Musical.
Chris RobinsonDirector Chris Robinson
Robinson’s directorial credits include the feature films, ATL and Beats; the documentaries, Young Jeezy: A Hustlerz Ambition and Cypress Hill: Still Smokin’; the mini-series, Real Husbands of Hollywood 2021 and The New Edition Story; episodes of Grown-ish, Black-ish, Wu-Tang: An American Saga, American Soul, Star, Real Husbands of Hollywood; and numerous music videos and television specials including Barack Obama's White House concert, Love & Happiness and the Emmy Award-nominated 22nd Annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor celebrating: Dave Chappelle. He is currently developing several projects including a scripted series that examines the unscrupulous world of music videos in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Robinson joined the DGA in 2003.
Fatima RobinsonChoreographer Fatima Robinson
Robinson’s resume includes choreography on feature films including Craig Brewer’s Coming 2 America 2, Peter Chelsom’s Shall We Dance and Michael Mann’s Ali; as well as television work on The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol, and Kenny Leon and Matthew Diamond’s DGA Award-nominated movie for television, The Wiz Live! She has also collaborated on music videos and stage shows for Britney Spears, Pharrell Williams, Black Eyed Peas, Lana Del Rey, Prince, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar and Mary J Blige. Robinson also worked with Director Chris Robinson on musical numbers for the series American Soul and is currently at work on Director Blitz Bazawule's musical adaptation of The Color Purple.
Christopher WernerDirector Christopher Werner
Werner’s directorial work has garnered him two DGA Award-nominations for his “Trump & Election Results” and “SLAPP Suits” (shared with Paul Pennolino) episodes of the HBO series, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, as well as four Emmy Award-nominations and two wins for the same series. He also works as a commercial Director for Moxie Pictures. Before his involvement with Last Week Tonight and Moxie, he also served as a producer for projects on HBO, Funny or Die, Discovery, NatGeo and the Lifetime Movie Channel. Werner has been a DGA member since 2016.
John CarrafaChoreographer John Carrafa
Carrafa’s resume includes choreography on feature films including John McTiernan’s The Thomas Crown Affair, Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco and Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express, for which he won the Media Choreography Honors for his use of motion capture technology. His television work includes episodes of Empire, Royal Pains, The Knick, The Blacklist, Barry, Succession, Dead to Me, The Flight Attendant, and Directors Christopher Werner and Paul Pennolino’s DGA Award-nominated “SLAPP Suits” episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. He's currently creating choreography for Westworld, Only Murders In The Building, Extrapolations and the upcoming HBO period drama, The Gilded Age. After staging all the musical performances for six seasons on the series, Nashville, Carrafa has also directed an episode the show and joined the DGA in 2017.
Kenny OrtegaDirector Kenny Ortega (moderator)
A DGA member since 1985, Ortega is known around the world as an accomplished Director, Choreographer and Producer. His film and television directing credits include the features Newsies, Hocus Pocus and A Change of Heart; the movies for television The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again and Legally Mad; the documentary This Is It; and episodes of Julie and The Phantoms, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Gilmore Girls, Ally McBeal, Resurrection Blvd., Chicago Hope and Hull High. Ortega has received two DGA Awards for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Children’s Programs for High School Musical and Descendants, and he was also nominated in that same category for High School Musical 2. Ortega has also won Emmy Awards for his directing and choreography on the XIX Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony, as well as a directing Emmy nomination and a choreography Emmy Award for High School Musical.

About The Special Projects Committee

Special Projects is the educational and cultural arm of the Directors Guild of America, providing its members opportunities for creative exchange to advance their craft and celebrate the achievements of directors and their teams.

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