In the late 70s, Madonna Ciccone was a young dancer just arrived in New York, living on popcorn and self-belief between classes at the legendary Martha Graham’s dance school, and clubbing the night away at Danceteria.
Thirty-five years on, and the queen of pop’s life might be unrecognisable, but her instincts aren’t so different. Dance, from serious art to club trends, is still at the heart of Madonna’s live shows – her latest, Rebel Heart, arrives in the UK in December. Over the years she has incorporated everything from flamenco to Basque folk dance, tango, pole dance and parkour.
She’s known for reinventing her music, recruiting fashionable producers to update her sound, but she does the same - arguably more successfully - with dance, seeking out street and club trends and bringing them into mainstream pop culture. It started with 1990’s Vogue, but more recently there’s been krump (in her videos Sorry and Hung Up), Chicago footwork (Sticky & Sweet tour) and the arm-twisting, extra-bendy Brooklyn dance style bonebreaking (MDNA tour). You don’t get that from Katy Perry.
'The thing that separates her from everyone else is that she started off as a dancer. She has that dance itch,' says choreographer Richmond Talauega, who with his brother Anthony (AKA Rich+Tone) has worked extensively with Madonna. 'She has taste, and she has that eye that knows what’s good out there.'
It takes time to find the right team - 'She’ll fire a lot of people that come through,' says Tone Talauega - but one who made it is French choreographer Sébastien Ramirez, who normally works in theatre, making arty contemporary hip-hop with partner Honji Wang (they recently performed at Sadler’s Wells in London).
Ramirez got the job after accompanying Wang to the dancer auditions in Paris. Wang might be the only dancer to get through the gruelling audition process - 5,000 auditioned for the current tour, in Paris, New York and Los Angeles - and then turn down a job, because it would demand she put her own company on hold for a year. But Madonna liked what she saw of their work, and hired Ramirez to make two numbers for the show.
What was it like working for her? 'She’s very impressive,' says Ramirez. 'She’s into all the details. She knows who you are and what you do. She’s really looking into your eyes and trying to get you. She’s analysing a lot.'
'She’s a very impressive authority,' says Wang. 'When you see her arriving there’s an energy around her. But as well, I see this fragility in her. She’s so natural and accessible. She’s just one of us, working hard on the artistic vision.'
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