Choreographers Who Dominate L.A.

June 9, 2008

Choreographers are a driving force behind much of the entertainment being churned out of L.A.— whether framing a rock star in concert, advancing a TV or movie plotline, or branding a product in a commercial. With the popularity of dance-themed films and reality TV shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” choreographers are gaining recognition as never before, especially in media centers like L.A.


10 Choreographers Who Dominate


Fatima Robinson 

During the day, she was a licensed cosmetologist with no formal dance training. After hours, Fatima Robinson liked dancing at clubs during a time when hip hop was developing a name, but didn’t yet have an identity. Scouts at the clubs recruited her for music videos, which led to other choreography. Robinson didn’t stop cutting hair, though, until after the success of Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video in 1992. That triumph led to gigs choreographing music videos for Fergie, Andre 3000 of Outkast, the Black Eyed Peas, Aaliyah, the Backstreet Boys, Nelly Furtado and Will Smith, which  have garnered her seven MTV Video Music Awards nominations for choreography. In 2006 she won Best Hip Hop video direction for the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps.” She’s also done commercials, contributed moves for the film Shall We Dance, and choreographed Save the Last Dance. Her newest big-screen presence is choreography for the film Dreamgirls. (For more on the film, turn to p. 120.)


2. JoAnn Jansen

When growing up in Cuba became the core of the movie Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, JoAnn Jansen had the enviable task of choreographing her own life. Her skills, particularly with partnering, shone in her work in the films Take the Lead and the American remake of the Japanese film Shall We Dance. Her other choreography credits include Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School, Rumor Has It and the upcoming Bill, with Jessica Alba and Aaron Eckhart. 


3. John Clifford

John Clifford is the choreographer who Warner Bros. selected to turn the iconic film Casablanca into dance-theater. He assembled an international cast that toured China and is planning an Australian tour, a U.S. national tour and a version based in Paris. His current credentials may be film-based, but his background is classical ballet. Trained in L.A., Clifford migrated to New York City Ballet, became a principal dancer there, then returned to L.A. to establish Los Angeles Dance Theater, Los Angeles Ballet and Ballet of Los Angeles, whose members (along with guest stars Simon Noja and Giueseppe Picone) he cast in Casablanca, The Dance. 


4. Kenny Ortega

Kenny Ortega is L.A.’s reigning master choreographer-turned-director. He’s the darling of the Disney Channel with the recent success of The Cheetah Girls 2, the mega-hit, Emmy Award–winning High School Musical and its sequel scheduled for release in 2007. Ortega also spent part of last year in Australia directing and co-choreographing the arena version of the Broadway musical The Boy from Oz. Ortega’s more than 25 years of choreography credits include the films Xanadu (where he met his mentor Gene Kelly in 1980) and the groundbreaking Dirty Dancing; stage shows for Cher, Bette Midler and Kiss; and the Emmy-winning opening ceremonies for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He can make anyone and anything, even water, look like a dancer, as evidenced by his choreography for Las Vegas’ Bellagio Fountain, a tribute to Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. 


5. Marguerite Derricks

After years of ballet training, Marguerite Derricks arrived in New York, only to be told she didn’t have the right body for ballet. So she turned to jazz dance on Broadway, then later to TV’s Fame, and has been working in the dance industry ever since. She moved into choreographing videos for Quincy Jones, Céline Dion, Donna Summer and Deborah Harry. Gap and Old Navy commercials followed, as did TV shows—for which she won three Emmys—and dozens of movies, including American Wedding, both Charlie’s Angels movies, Showgirls, Striptease, the Austin Powers trilogy and, more recently, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Southland Tales and Spider-Man 3. When Cirque du Soleil needed a choreographer for its lavish Las Vegas production Zumanity in 2003, Derricks got the gig.


6. Mia Michaels

She started in Miami, cut her artistic teeth in NYC with her company RAW (Reality at Work), and broke into the top ranks of commercial choreographers with work for Prince, Madonna, Jon Secada, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan and Céline Dion. Recently, Mia Michaels made L.A. a home base as a judge and choreographer on TV’s summer hit “So You Think You Can Dance,” distinguishing herself with thoughtful critiques and riveting choreography. Just as her life has become bicoastal, her choreography moves easily between the worlds of artistic and commercial dance—her choreography for Coldwell Banker turned a mundane real estate open house into a fantasy sequence reminiscent of an MGM movie musical. Cirque du Soleil entrusted Michaels with the choreography for Delirium, its first non-circus theatrical venture, and her choreography for a bench, a flower and two contestants was arguably the ultimate dance moment of “SYTYCD” season 2. (Though first-place winner Benji Schwimmer turned down the gig, the grand prize in “SYTYCD” was a year contract in Céline Dion’s A New Day… choreographed by Michaels.) 


7. Michael Rooney

Michael Rooney, the son of movie-musical icon Mickey Rooney, is credited with elevating dance in commercials to an artform. He draws observers into worlds not only populated with but dominated by objects, in an effort to make audiences want to shop. In today’s advertising world, Rooney has the golden touch, which is why big names like Target, iPod, eBay, Burger King, Old Navy, Marshall’s, Nike and Starbucks line up for the Rooney fingerprint.


Rooney started as a dancer in the film Staying Alive and the TV show Fame and choreographed the films Clerks II, I Heart Huckabees, Jackass Number Two and multiple music videos for artists like Björk, Fatboy Slim, Fiona Apple and Kylie Minogue. He has four MTV Choreography Awards.


8. Otis Sallid

It may seem like Otis Sallid has done it all, but he keeps finding new and interesting places to explore. At Juilliard, he studied with Martha Graham, Antony Tudor and Alvin Ailey and watched Broadway musicals, then injected those influences into his own dance company, named New Art Ensemble, which nurtured talent that included Michael Peters, Hinton Battle and Debbie Allen. Later, Allen recruited Sallid to join in choreographing the TV show Fame, which led to commercials and music video gigs. 2006 saw a revival and national tour of the 1995 Broadway hit Smokey Joe’s Café, which Sallid co-conceived. His choreography opened the 2006 Super Bowl, and his musical Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! opened and embarked on a national tour in October 2006.


9 & 10. Rich and Tone Talauega

The Talauega brothers were in high school when they were first spotted freestyling in an Oakland dance club by LaVelle Smith and Travis Pane, choreographers for Michael Jackson. Before long, Rich and Tone were not only dancing in music videos, they were choreographing them, too—for artists such as Madonna, Pink, Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey. Surfing the curve of the emerging hip-hop craze, Rich and Tone choreographed commercials for Pepsi, Gap, CoverGirl, iPod and Mitsubishi. The two also produced Rize, the 2005 documentary spotlighting the South Central L.A. dance forms of clowning and krumping. 


13 Choreographers to Keep an Eye On


1. Cati Jean

A dance teacher by day, Cati Jean also choreographs and directs long-running L.A. nightclub cabaret L’effleur des Sens, and choreographs for the TV show “The Shield,” commercials for Pepsi and music videos for Silk and Rancid. 


2 & 3. Chonique Sneed & Lisette Bustamante

This duo, who teach at Debbie Reynolds Professional Rehearsal Studio, mixes up highly theatrical movement cocktails that include jazz, hip hop and salsa for film, music videos and concert tours.


4. Dan Karaty

Another high profile hip-hop choreographer and judge for “SYTYCD,” Karaty also choreographed the new Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore film Music & Lyrics By, set for premiere in 2007. Karaty, whose parents both performed on Broadway and own a studio in New Jersey, got his start in the competition and convention circuit, and went on to teach at Tremaine Dance Conventions. He has performed on Broadway in Footloose and for Britney Spears, and has choreographed for Jessica Simpson and Kylie Minogue. 


5. HiHat

Sought out for her hip-hop choreography for music videos, concert tours and commercials, HiHat just completed a series of commercials in Japan and recently choreographed Brooke Hogan’s “About Us” music video.


6. Kishaya Dudley

2005 MTV Video Music Award choreography winner for Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” Kishaya Dudley recently choreographed Jessica Simpson’s “Public Affair” video, as well as commercials for Gap, Pepsi and Starbucks and the Bratz “Ballet Divaz” DVD. 


7. Lil’ C

Best known for his role in the 2005 film Rize, Lil’ C has since lent his choreography skills (as either co-choreographer or assistant choreographer) to the films Bring It On: All or Nothing and Be Cool, The Omarion Scream Tour and the Brooke Valentine Promo Tour.


8. Ryan Heffington

Finding a niche for his high concept, sometimes wild, avant garde dance moves is proving lucrative for Ryan Heffington. He is co-artistic director of (and in-house costume designer for) the concert dance company Hysterica, designs a clothing line called Sir Heffington and is designing costumes for Tracy & Dominic (see below). He has also choreographed music videos for Tiga and The 88.


9. Shane Sparks

Shane Sparks burst into the limelight as a choreographer and judge on both seasons of “SYTYCD.” Before that, he co-choreographed the 2004 film You Got Served, promos for ESPN, for the nationwide Urban Jamms Dance Convention, Pro Dance Convention, “America’s Most Talented Kid” and Steve Harvey’s Big Time Challenge. 


10. Teresa Espinosa

Teresa Espinosa is a respected music video choreographer on the verge of breaking into the front ranks. She’s currently working on the Cheetah Girls Tour with Miley Cyrus, star of Disney’s “Hannah Montana,” and was a contributing choreographer for Ashlee Simpson’s “L.O.V.E. Tour.”


11 & 12. Tracy & Dominic

This pair has choreographed for Marilyn Manson, No Doubt and Wolfmother, and they’re currently gaining attention for choreographing monthly showcases (described as “underground striptease”) that are performed in area clubs. Ryan Heffington (see above) is creating the costumes. 


13. Wade Robson

“The Wade Robson Project,” Robson’s own reality show that aired on MTV for one season in 2003, introduced him to mainstream audiences. Robson has been in the dance industry, though, since age 5, after being discovered by Michael Jackson. Since, Robson has choreographed for Britney Spears and *NSYNC, and most recently for “SYTYCD”—his piece, with characters that resembled Victorian zombies, was a highlight of the season. He recently produced an album of songs that were played on “The Wade Robson Project,” called Wade Robson’s Project: Dance Beats Vol. 1.