The Pop Music Choreography of Michael Peters
Few forms of dancing are more present in our popular culture than that associated with popular music. While the forms of tap, ballet and ballroom all occupy an obvious place in our academic understanding of dance, these are for the large part only seen in specialized contexts such as theatres and formal events. This contrasts the style of dance and choreography that accompanies live pop music performances, music videos, television shows and perhaps more importantly, our own informal dancing proclivities. It is for this reason that we consider a pioneer in this form and one who, though hardly a household name, has had a dramatic influence on the way that dancing is choreographed in pop music contexts from Justin Timberlake to Glee. Michael Peters was among the most prominent music video choreographers of the 1980s. In an era when the medium of MTV was helping the pop music industry achieve new heights of economic success, Peters' style of choreography would prove iconic to its time and highly influential on succeeding generations of pop choreographers. His body of work is the subject of this discussion.
In 1982, Michael Peters collaborated with director John Landis and pop superstar Michael Jackson on "Thriller." Still widely considered the greatest and most important music video of all time, "Thriller" was essentially a short-film centered around a horror-themed plot and the title song of what would become -- due in no small part to the revelatory success of the video itself -- the biggest selling album ever produced. Therefore, to say that the work of the late Michael Peters was important is an understatement. Though "Thriller" was his most iconic work, he had already amassed an impressive resume of 1980s hit-making videos by that point. According to Monfalco (1994), Peters' credits "ncluding choreography for Donna Summer's Love to Love You Baby, Michael Jackson's Beat It, Pat Benatar's Love is a Battlefield [and] Lionel Richie's Hello." (Monfalco, p. 1) In all of these works, Peters' signature style is on display....
His scenes favor large, ensemble sequences intended to convey a highly structured narrative. Peters truly perceived the evolving medium of the music video as a way to tell the song's story through interpretive dance.
This is certainly on evidence in such compositions as that for "Beat It," which Dunning (1994) tells actually co-starred Peters as a lead gang member. "Beat It" makes heavy nods toward the particular Broadway tradition of West Side Story, simulating a pair of rival urban gangs of a distinctly 1980s aesthetic engaged in conflict with Michael Jackson serving as the peacemaker. Again, here, a large cast of theatre-trained dancers is used. To Peters' credit though, dancers were also cast to showcase the loose and freewheeling qualities of popular music and urban forms such as breakdancing. The result was an ensemble performance both highly synchronized and simultaneously given over to individual displays of startling creativity, almost like soloing jazz musicians working off of a shared theme.
In an article by Chu & Rowes (1984), a colleague of Peters would account for this approach, telling that "instead of counting out the steps, as is the rule in classical ballet and modern dance, he has tilted the emphasis of dance toward the sounds of the instruments -- a slick drum riff, say, or a guitar lick. 'When you dance by the numbers,' he says, 'you extract all emotions and sterilize the movement. You remove the dance from its inspiration, which is the music. What I love is the capability of a body to be free in the sense of street or social dancing and, at the same time, do something that is technically hard and tremendously disciplined." (Chu & Rowes, p. 1)
This description seems to fit the work of Michael Jackson perfectly. The ensemble dance number that drives the narrative of "Thriller" is driven by this symbiosis between synchronized and…
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