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In expanding our cause, That Grape Juice will, alongside our staple celebrity interviews, also now serve up candid features with noted names behind the spectacle of the industry. What better way, then, to kick off this foray into the relatively unknown, than with a sit-down chat with Beyonce‘s creative director Frank Gatson!
The much-sought after choreographer/director, who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Destiny’s Child, talks openly with us about how he broke into the industry, working with Beyonce, her new project, reuniting with Kelly Rowland, Rihanna needing to add more ‘energy’ to her performances, Trey Songz and much more.
As ever, we ask the questions you really want answers to. And answer Mr Gatson did. A great read, if we must say so ourselves! Enjoy.
Sam: You’ve been in the industry for over 20 years and worked with some of the best to ever do it. How did your journey begin?
Frank Gatson: I saw ‘The Wiz’ on Broadway while in high school. It was that show which made me pursue (a career in) show-business. Not to be confused with ‘The Wiz – The Movie’. But the original show on Broadway with Stephanie Mills and Hinton Battle. It was amazing.
Thereafter, I traveled around the world with a group called Up With People. They used to do halftime shows for the Superbowl and we traveled around the world to build understanding between races and cultures through song and dance. I was a dancer, dance-captain and then a show-director with that group. Next, I moved to Los Angeles after the suggestion (that I do so) from a young lady I met while working with Up With People named Cheryl Cobb. I credit her with introducing me to Los Angeles show-business.
I was staying with her when I landed a job as a dancer in Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ video, did various jobs in LA, worked with Paula Adbul, Billy Goodson, Vince Paterson, Debbie Allen, Lester Wilson, Claude Thompson, Lavelle Smith, Travis Payne, Richard Lagraveness, Matthew Rolston and many others.
Then I got my “big break” choreographing for EnVogue. This came after meeting member Cindy Herron, who was in a pageant I choreographed. (Working with) EnVogue opened the door for me (with them I have 3 MTV Awards). Thereafter, I was invited to guest on a show with Oprah. Doors opened from then on out. More and more…
Sam: To the new generation, your most prolific work has been with Beyonce. Having collaborated with her for so long, what is it about her that sets her apart from the competition?
Frank: Beyonce is the best in the game because she rehearses, plans and is very creative. She is nice, she is beautiful, she gets “it”, she is honest. She does not waste your time in rehearsal. When you’re in rehearsals you work very hard which is exciting. You might say everyone rehearses, but Beyonce is full-out, working harder than the dancers. She comes from a place of love for what she does. Most female dancers and performers don’t love it like her. She never complains when it hurts; she’s always in her heels killing it. She is a beast on stage and in rehearsal. She is so gracious, so fine, but not a bitch (she will push you to get the best out of you and I love that sh**) and that makes her a gift to this business and the world. She might not be from this planet (laughs). I would love to visit the planet she’s from (laughs) because I bet there are some amazing people there!
Sam: Beyonce’s ‘I Am…World Tour’ DVD was recently released and featured her traveling around the globe. With a new Beyonce project around the corner, how have these experiences – if at all – been fused into her upcoming musical and performance output?
Frank: I have heard some of the new project, but I can’t talk about it…yet.
Sam: Is there anything – at all – you can share with us about we can expect from the LP?
Frank: Once again, I cannot talk about it…yet (laughs).
Sam: From one of destiny’s children to another; Kelly Rowland. Word has you recently reunited with her. Tell us a little about how that came about and what you’ll be doing with her this go round?
Frank: I love Kelly and I am very excited about being an artist visual developer/creative director for her! Kelly is amazing and the world is going to be amazed. I know the secret to Kelly. Watch. VERY excited about her new project.
As to how our reuniting came about; I asked her, she said yes…
You must wait to see the direction we will go with Kelly. We are baking the sock-it-to-me cake now. Just wait till you see Kelly Rowland – the solo artist!
Sam: How do you feel the Kelly of today differs from the Kelly of yesteryear?
Frank: Kelly today has always been the same Kelly to me. She just needs to find the music and style that says “Kelly” (which she is doing now). The Kelly that performed in Paris last month at Starfloor; I saw it on That Grape Juice and was excited to see that people loved it. I have always known that about Kelly. People don’t open their eyes to see sometimes…
Sam: Clearly the name of the game with Beyonce is to achieve icon status (as evidenced by her undeniable drive and the careful post-production on the ‘I Am…World Tour’ DVD). What do you think Kelly needs to do to achieve icon status
Frank: I don’t like to compare sisters – they are like little sisters to me. Kelly is at icon status. She was a member and still is a member of Destiny’s Child, so I feel Kelly, Beyonce and Michelle are icons because they are stars of Destiny’s Child. Destiny’s child is an iconic group, everyone knows that.
Also, I co-directed the DVD with Beyonce and there was so much footage to choose from that we could have done 15 DVD’s! Beyonce is undeniable. Fans were going crazy. I can still feel the excitement. It amazed me. And thank you for the compliment on great post-production work. I’m pretty sure Ed (Burke) and Beyonce would say thank you too. ‘Cause we worked very hard on every aspect of the DVD. Therefore there was a lot of accuracy in the capturing of the excitement of the shows.
I can’t wait for Kelly to allow me to direct a DVD for her upcoming tour. I’ve known her for 14 years also. I am so very excited for Kelly. Thank you Sylvia Rhone (Universal Motown President) for believing in Kelly.
Sam: Who are your top 3 performers of today and why?
Frank: Of course (I have to include) Beyonce and Destiny’s child, so there are 6 in total:
1) EnVogue – they still have “it”. Dawn Robinson just gets in the way of herself and of the group. The original EnVogue group will go down as big Beyonce. Beyonce, to me, is all 4 girls in one person. And EnVogue with all 4 members is just like Beyonce. Terri Ellis has the grace and southern charm of Beyonce, Cindy Herron has the confidence and beauty of Beyonce, Dawn Robinson has the style and swagger of Beyonce, Maxine has the soul and passion of Beyonce. So therefore EnVogue is one of my top 6 and it is stupid that executives of record companies don’t see what these ladies still are.
Dawn, please get it together so EnVogue can fly again, ‘cause we are all getting older! Dawn is so fly, but I just want her to see the greatness that is in her. I wish them good luck on their new album and I thank all the ladies for opening that door for me. Thanks for the hard work.
2. Michael Jackson – he just got “it”. I am so glad I got to work with him. He works hard. Beyonce is probably from the same planet as Michael (laughs)
3. This is a tie. Chris Grant and Danielle Polanco. These 2 dancers/performers are the most amazing performers of our time. Chris Grant was picked by Michael Jackson for his ‘This Is It’ tour. Chris is amazing. Chris played Michael Jackson for me in a tribute in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and I feel Michael has left his soul of dance in Chris Grant and I believe this with all my heart. Chris is so magical and he is pursuing a solo career. Danielle Polanco is a dancer that is magical and if I had the money I would do a remake of her in the ‘Flash Dance’ movie. Her life is a similar narrative. This girl can dance anything well. Every chromosome of her exudes magic like Cyd Charisse or one of the greats of the past. It’s a gift.
4. Of course I must mention the act that I manage, who has just been signed; Luke James – originally from the group Luke & Q (formerly of J Records). Luke is very cutting-edge and hard-working. He is after the same success as Beyonce and I respect that drive in him. Watch out for Luke James. Beyonce is a fan of his also and that is very exciting. Luke is from New Orleans.
Sam: Several artists in today’s era lip-sync during their live shows. What are your thoughts regarding that issue? What are your thoughts on the use of pre-recorded vocals?
Frank: I feel if you can really sing, lip-syncing does not matter. Michael Jackson always did on TV – sometimes without even having a microphone in his hand and it did not matter ‘cause he brought it in the performance. So if you can hold the note and project with confidence in the recording booth, just bring it when you perform it and the only reason you need to lip sync is cause you’re doing a lot of movement.
Sam: Rihanna has emerged as quite the (singles) chart force over the last 5 years. What are your thoughts on her as a live performer?
Frank: I met Rihanna when she did a tribute to Destiny’s Child for the World Music Awards in 2005 – alongside Amerie and Teairra Marie. When I met her, I knew she was a star. She was amazing and I asked her if could work with her and she let me work with her on the ‘SOS’ and ‘Unfaithful’ videos, as well as many live performances. And I was right, ‘cause she is a big star and people see it finally. Only note, if I still worked with Rihanna, I would tell her to project more (more energy) and if you look real close, you can see I just worked with her on the Anthony Mandler directed clip for ‘Only Girl’. It was fun to work with her again. She is like a little sister to me. She just needs to project more energy. She has magic also; everyone’s magic is unique and different. I did not miss hers when I first met her..
Sam: Name us three artists who you see potential in, (who for one reason or another haven’t realized it), that you’d love to work with/transform?
1) Usher. I have worked with Usher, but (at this point) he should be the master (meaning MJ level & killing everyone on stage). However, he just over thinks it on stage. When Usher begins to not over-think on stage, he is gonna blow people away. When Usher is on stage, he must (allow himself to) get lost and then the audience will totally see the magic he possess. You saw the magic at Michael Jackson’s memorial event in 09 and his remake of Gene Kelly’s ‘Singing in the Rain’ at Movies Rock. In those instances, he did not over think it, and it was magical. I would like to work with him again to make him realize this. Congrats on his success with his new project, though.
2. Brandy. I think she just realized her potential on Dancing With The Stars, but I could help bring it to her music career. She has to dismiss all fear and then she will be amazing. She has always had great music and the talent. She just needs the right direction.
3. Trey Songz. I just staged a Monica tour where she opened for Trey and I saw his show a few times. But I said to myself, that brother is a star, but he is too safe on stage, trying to be too cool (cool is not needed on stage – just truth and honesty). He should not be-occupied about what people say about him. I would show him how to forget what people say and just show him all the concepts of a great production and a great performer. With my help, Trey Songz can be great as R. Kelly was. I have worked with R. Kelly and I do see similarities, but differences too. ‘Cause don’t mistake this statemen but: R. Kelly is the king of R&B, yet there is room for a Prince of R&B too.
Sam: Name a legend, whose stage-show comeback you’d love to mastermind? And why…
Frank: That’s easy: EnVogue. They get it, and when they left the scene pre-maturely, there is so much they had not done yet and I want the world to see what I saw everyday in rehearsal. They were just too nice protecting the real truth of why it ended. I pray and hope all four original girls of the group do it for the world the right way. They owe their fans that…
Sam: What’s next for Mr Frank Gatson?
Frank: First of all, I must say that I have been so thankful for the success of the ‘I Am…World Tour’ DVD. To co-direct that body of work, along with Beyonce and Ed Burke, makes its recent double Platinum certification so gratifying.
Next– working on Beyonce and Kelly Rowland’s new projects (very excited about that).
Also looking forward to releasing Luke James’ project in 2011.
Have also been asked to direct a feature film, where I’ll be bringing a classic book to life. I can’t talk about the film until the screenplay is finished.
My biggest dream is to bring back the movie musical like Jerome Robbins. I want to direct & choreograph the musicals of today. When will people see that music videos are little small movie musicals? So I want to bring the movie musical back. The industry did it with ‘Chicago’ and so there is room for many more, just like the 50’s and 60’s.
Sam: Frank Gatson, thank you for your time!
Frank: Thank you Sam and Trent for the interview! I love your That Grape Juice…always informative!
P.S: I also just want to add that I enjoyed working with Duffy, JLS and Alexandra Burke over there in the UK!