The director and choreographer Vince Paterson may not be known to you by name, but you definitely know his work. The dazzling dance moves you’ve seen in the most iconic music videos — from Michael Jackson and Madonna to films like “Dancer in the Dark,” “Evita,” and “The Birdcage,” among countless others — were the work of this man, who is going to be spotlighted at a special Dance Films Association event at SVA Theatre on August 25.
Paterson will appear in conversation with film expert Joseph Berger, and clips of his work will be shown. Excerpts from his forthcoming autobiography will, as well, be read.
I first met the handsome, charmingly modest, and whip-smart Paterson a few years back at the Lincoln Center premiere of his career documentary “The Man Behind the Throne.” I was eager to chat with him again on the eve of this most deserved tribute evening.
“The funny thing is they requested a lot of the same things from the documentary,” he told me. “The fun part is I recently wrote my autobiography so I will be reading excerpts from my book with the clips that Joseph Berger has selected. It will be about my working process on some of those projects and I think it’s gonna be fun.
“I co-wrote my book with Amy Tofte, an award-winning screenwriter. She’d seen the documentary about a year ago and had approached me, saying, ‘I think this needs to be put into book form.’ I said, ‘I don’t think about myself as a writer,’ but we started playing with it and it took about a year to go back and forth.
“As far as getting it published, we spoke to someone, a great literary agent — I don’t want to say his name yet — but I think it’s going to be a very good fit. He said, ‘This is exactly what people are interested in,’ and it’s right up his alley so we’re excited about it. I think it will have something to say to people, even if they’re not in acting and dance and other artists, about the ups and downs of the business so people will know it’s not all a beauty pageant. It’s a lot of damn hard work and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you have to keep on.”
Dancers are amazing creatures, right there in the trenches, sweating to make something wonderful, whether in a huge MGM musical or a small music video. Paterson agreed, saying, “This will not be a slander rag but about the process of taking the people I’ve worked with and maybe showing a more human side of the superstars. I’ve been doing some directing as well as choreography, and dancers have the kind of focus that actors generally don’t — except for the very greatest. Acting is a more amorphous pursuit, whereas being a dancer is like being a musician — you either can or you can’t. There is no fooling anybody.”
One of the most iconic dances of his career has got to be Madonna’s “Vogue”: “That was her Blond Ambition tour, and what happens was I was hired the day before they were going to shoot the video. She had hired Luis [Camacho Xtravaganza] and José [Gutiérrez Xtravaganza], who basically had the movement but it wasn’t a dance. I basically put the movement together into a form that made it a dance, and there were three versions of it: the video, the tour version, and the Marie Antoinette version when she asked for something for the MTV Music Awards a million years ago. So yeah, I’ve played with the ‘Vogue’ several times [laughs].
“I just choreographed and directed a new physical version of ‘Evita’ in Vienna, and with the aristocracy, I wanted to put them on these tall boxes so they’d be seen to tower above everyone else, and rather than give them gestures I had them vogueing as a kind of language of the aristocracy. It actually was quite fun to get back into vogueing [laughs].”
To me, Madonna owes Paterson a huge debt because of the way he presented her, as a true star in a style so simultaneously elegant and funky that it has become timeless, and endlessly copied by lesser artists, not just “Vogue,” but my favorite, “Keep it Together,” with its genius steals from “Cabaret” and “Clockwork Orange.”
“With her, as with every superstar, they’re filled with insecurity because they have a huge reputation to live up to. But once they trust you, it can become a good collaboration. Whether it was the tour, movies, videos, or her appearance on the Academy Awards, she was always so open and anxious to get the information I had. She would always challenge me but I think that’s what a good artist does.
“On the Blond Ambition tour, especially, we had an incredible collaboration because she had hired someone who didn’t work out. I came in and had to put everything together in a very limited amount of time. The good thing about that was she didn’t have the opportunity to say too much [laughs]. She came, and I said, ‘Here’s the next piece and here’s the next piece, okay?” But I always had a great time with her. I haven’t seen her in years but it was a special time.
“Before I met her, she called herself a dancer and I had never really seen her, so it was like, ‘Girl you can say you can dance, let’s see,’ and all the years I worked with her, she was like that, very open. I believe that the vocabulary I created for her body for her worked really well. I’m not so sure the choreography today really suits her. It’s not my taste, and personally I think she has a different kind of knowledge about her body and it would nice to do something that showed that off.”
Another icon crossed his path with his first Broadway musical, “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
“To have Chita Rivera as your star, well, it doesn’t get any better. She had had a lot of surgery and knee problems at the time, a triple threat of course but in her heart she’s a dancer and thinks she was born dancing. In her 80s, and still doing her act, just incredible.
“With [director] Hal Prince, it was the situation that I discovered had happened on other productions: when things went wrong, Hal tended to blame the choreographer, as he had with Michael Bennett and Susan Stroman. She is one of the high priestesses of Broadway, and she had done a workshop of ‘Kiss’ at Purchase just before Broadway and he called me and said, ‘She wasn’t really able to do it,’ and I thought, ‘Wow,’ and then I found out he had said the same thing about Michael Bennett, so I felt I was in good company [laughs]. That was pretty much it. I didn’t have a hard time, although I tended to work a little differently. He was a little shocked that I worked as fast as I did. In LA, you work very fast as opposed to Broadway where you have a week to put a number together. We have an afternoon or a day and it’s like working at a different pace anyway, but I’m grateful to have that opportunity.”
Paterson has now conquered the operatic world, as well.
“It really is another set of challenges, but when you deal with amazing people like Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, this is the new world of opera. Prior to them coming onto the scene, people stood in place and didn’t move and sing. But having this kind of talent at your disposal, these people can run around and sing at the top of their lungs, and it’s just mind-boggling coming from the world I come from where any time anybody moves it’s prerecorded and lip-synched. But in opera, Anna can stand on her head just about and still hit every single note. She’s mind-boggling, a tremendous talent. I knew very little about opera before I met her, but hearing her voice there was something about her that hooked into the rock-pop world, somehow, and was also beautifully operatic. That’s what connected me with her and opera. This was a voice I could really love.
“She touched me when she said, growing up, all she would listen to was MTV, my music, although she would never sing that music. It’s crazy when you think what inspires some people. She loves to move onstage and that’s very exciting.”
Paterson has had history as well with Diana Ross: “I did several things with Diana, the video ‘Pieces of Ice,’ was really fun because I got to partner her. She was someone I had had a crush since I was a kid — the Supremes! Ohmigod, she was the most beautiful and sexy woman on the earth for years. I was supposed to do her concert in Central Park but I got sick at the last minute and a friend filled in for me.
“I was going to direct a tour for her, and I had worked out the whole thing together while she was out of town. All her people around were very excited because this would have resuscitated her career and shown her in a new way and positioned herself in the stratosphere in real competition with some of the younger female stars. But she changed her mind at the last minute and decided she was just going to go back and do her old show, which was a shame because it would have been nice to see her stretch and do something new.
“You are right, David, it’s a comfort zone thing, and that’s why, when you work with certain people at an early stage in their career like Madonna or Michael Jackson or Anna or Rolando, or even a little later on, like Bjork, these are people who are brave and want a challenge to show something that’s never been done before. For me, that’s the most inspirational collaborator, because God knows, by my work you can tell I don’t like to do things that have been seen before, so I was really lucky that way.”
Major inspirations for Paterson include modern choreographers like William Forsythe and — always — the movie “Cabaret” because, although he was not as steeped in Bob Fosse as a New York kid would have been, he responds to the sheer beauty of his dance presentation. Paterson is decidedly less a fan of the kind of hip hop choreography flooding TV and dance movie franchises.
“The greatest loss in dance today is the removal of all of the story and characterization from the movement, and making it all too aerobic. I lose interest if I can’t find some kind of emotional attachment to it. If a choreographer can bring that to a dancer then I think it’s great. But if dance is just hit the number, hit the number, hit the number, it’s just aerobics. And it’s all starting to look alike. I won’t mention names but recently I was looking for a choreographer for a project I was directing. My agent sent me seven different reels and I called him and said, “I hate to tell you this, but I can’t tell one from another.’ I’m hoping that there will be someone who will bring back some of the old with the new and create a new form.”
Michael Jackson’s collaboration with Paterson on all of his most iconic videos has immortalized both men forever, but what I wanted to hear about was the more personal side of the enigmatic, troubled star. Did he ever just chill with this legend at home?
“When working with him, I would hang out a lot with him because he was so shy, and I would try to get him to sit and talk to people. But it was tough to get him involved there, so I would go into his trailer and talk to him and try to get him out of there to talk to the dancers. Once he started to talk to them, he really opened up.
“I never went to Neverland, but I was at Hayvenhurst, watching things like ‘The Third Man’ with him. Michael liked popcorn and always had it, and Bubbles, his chimpanzee, was going crazy because we started throwing popcorn at him. He wanted to play and was really funny, but Michael wanted to watch the movie and kept saying, ‘Bubbles, be quiet! Bubbles be quiet!’ Finally, he took his slipper and threw it at him, and said to me, ‘Vince, if you tell anybody, the ASPCA Is going to come and take him away!’”
Paterson also talked about the vital importance of his relationship with his husband, musician René Lamontagne.
“We’ve been together for eight years and married for two. René is from Montreal and is about to record his first 10 songs, dance music, which we co-wrote under the name of Edward Edon. I don’t know how people live without love or a partner in their life. This business is so difficult, even where I am in my position and I’ve been so fortunate. But I’m still auditioning every day, it never stops. It’s not really easy on the ego so it’s nice to have someone to come home to whom you really love, after a 14-hour day. I wouldn’t be able to bring the kind of heart and soul into my work you say you admire, David, if I didn’t have this kind of loving.”
AN EVENING WITH VINCE PATERSON | Hosted by Joseph A. Berger | SVA Theatre, 333 W. 23rd St. | Aug. 25 at 8 p.m. | $20 at dancefilms.org