Find Out Who and What Inspires Brian Friedman on the Dance Floor

March 21, 2018

Brian Friedman is not only a legend in his own right—he’s also worked beside the biggest legends in the business. Growing up a Scottsdale, AZ, comp kid, Friedman was soon dancing behind Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, and Paula Abdul, and as an OG Newsie in the 1992 film. Now he calls the shots: He’s choreographed and been creative director for icons like Britney, Cher, Beyoncé, and Mariah. Nominated for five MTV VMAs, two Music Video Production Association Awards, and four American Choreography Awards, Friedman’s won an Industry Voice Award for best choreography, and a World of Dance award. Dance Spirit talked to Friedman to find out what inspires him. —Helen Rolfe

I draw inspiration from my current assistants because of what their bodies can do. Anytime I get a dancer who can make the strangest creations in my head a reality, I never let go of them. I recently had Zack Venegas and Charlize Glass in class dancing side by side, and it’s just not human, how they dance. Jade Chynoweth is another one of my kids who’s ridiculously talented. I’m very drawn to that sort of out-of-this-world dancer, starting with Taja Riley a decade ago. Kaelynn Harris has also been an amazing inspiration to me.

With Jamie King (courtesy Friedman)

Working with Marguerite Derricks as a kid developed my sense of cleanliness. She was very specific about hand placement and stylistic choices—that’s where I got my Fosse influence. Jamie King was all about musicality and speed. He moved so quickly choreographing, pulling out sounds in the music the normal ear wouldn’t hear and making them part of the choreography. I worked with Kenny Ortega when I was very young. He’d create organic movements, which was a completely unfamiliar process to me as a competitive dancer. I didn’t know you could make up moves that weren’t already part of someone else’s vocabulary. I found my own vocabulary thanks to my mentors, Marguerite, Jamie, and Kenny.

The first film that made me want to dance was Staying Alive, the Saturday Night Fever sequel starring my idol Cynthia Rhodes—aka Penny in Dirty Dancing and Tina Tech in Flashdance. I was enthralled before I even got into a class. There’s a scene where they’re doing all these moves in rehearsal for ‘the big show,’ and the choreographer’s screaming ‘AGAIN! AGAIN!’ They’re flipping, sweating—I wanted to do that. You can see its jazz influence in my work today.

Striking a pose with assistants at Degas (courtesy Friedman)

It’s all about the room I’m in. I have to feel a certain way to get into a creative space. A former teacher of mine from back in Arizona opened a studio called Degas in Encino, CA. It’s comforting how it reminds me of being a kid and feeling safe in the studio. I call assistants in, we go into the studio at 10 at night and stay there to make up choreography. That’s my favorite place to create, just because it feels like a safe zone.

In rehearsal for “A Mob Story” (courtesy Friedman)

I choreographed and directed the dance segments for a new musical opening this year in Vegas, called A Mob Story. The show is set in Vegas in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m a mob aficionado now. The mob wives, the money, the parties, the crime, the terror! I watched all the movies and researched the fashion. We’ve got a great costume designer, and she sketched out different options they’d wear; I’d choose my favorite and use that as inspiration. The shapes and silhouettes of the clothes helped me develop vocabulary for the movement.

A version of this story appeared in the April 2018 issue of
Dance Spirit with the title “Choreographer’s Collage: Brian Friedman.”