When Maya Taylor found out she was nominated for a 2019 MTV Video Music Award for choreographing Solange's "Almeda," she was in the middle of teaching a dance class for middle and high schoolers. "I was at the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp in Colorado and got a text from my agent," she remembers of the moment. "I was like, 'Okay, okay, okay. This is very cool. Let me try to remain calm in front of these kids.' But my computer and phone kept dinging. I wanted to scream." Eventually, Taylor spilled the beans about her good news. "When we had a break in class I said, 'I would like to share something with everyone.' We were all freaking out and celebrating."
For this year's nominated group of choreographers — which also includes Kelly Yvonne, Charm La’Donna, Ryan Heffington, Calvit Hodge & Sara Biv and Rie Hata — it's a rare honor in an industry that doesn't always push the art to the forefront or honor in a mainstream way. Despite its prevalence in the music realm, whether in videos or live performances, most awards shows eschew honoring choreography in any meaningful way. "It's just really exciting," says Taylor, who has also worked with St. Vincent and Arcade Fire's Régine Chassagne. "It's a wonderful thing that happened, but you still have to keep working and moving forward."
Taylor set out on the path to her first VMA nomination when she and future collaborator Solange were both living in New Orleans. "It's an amazing city, but such a small town," remembers Taylor who had brushed shoulders with Solange at dance-related events throughout the Big Easy. "My first time working with her was as the dance coordinator for (the 2016 video for the A Seat at the Table single) 'Don't Touch My Hair.'" From there, the two developed a creative rapport which extended to Taylor joining the creative fray on the video for "Almeda," a single for the singer's March album When I Get Home. "They sent me the treatment and it was full of these incredible, stunning images," says Taylor. "I basically studied everything, so when it came time to create something for a certain scene I had a lot of inspiration. For me, it was about being as prepared as I can possibly be which just comes from the experience of choreographing over the last few years."
Meanwhile, fellow nominated choreographer Charm La'Donna, who concocted the moves for Rosalía and J Balvin's "Con altura," had a very different path. "This project started about a year and a half ago, when I received a simple direct message from Rosalía," she remembers of the connection through social media. "We started talking about bringing our ideas and worlds together. From there, 'Con Altura' took off." For La'Donna, who has danced for everyone from Madonna to Britney Spears and in 2018 became a viral star when she hit the Grammy stage with frequent collaborator Kendrick Lamar, the video is the latest in a long line of high-profile projects. "There's nothing like this industry," she says. "It's a place that encourages taking chances, breaking some rules and going outside the box." Those are the virtues that propelled her collaboration with Rosalía. "The energy we all had in rehearsal just fed into the choreography," she says of the video, which involves the star exploring a plane piloted by featured artist El Guincho. "You can see the connection between all of us and how well we vibed, Rosalía and I, as well as the dancers. We just had the best time getting to listen to the music and letting our bodies move."
From a plane to pole dancing, nominated choreographer Kelly Yvonne collaborated with FKA Twigs on the sultry video for her track "Cellophane," which takes place entirely on a pole; Yvonne and Twigs' intricate series of moves are front and center. It was a task tailor-made for Yvonne as she's the artistic director of Los Angeles pole dance studio The Choreography House, and was hired by FKA Twigs to teach her the craft. That led to their first project: 2018's video for her A$AP Rocky collab "Fukk Sleep."
"She is one of the most creative humans to exist, so her projects push boundaries and break convention," says Yvonne of the star. "This inspires me to explore uncharted artistic territories and together we make magic." When it comes to her collaboration on "Cellophane" (which Yvonne calls "one of the most transformative, professional experiences" of her life), she notes the two-day shoot was an intense one. Twigs pole danced for eight hours straight on day one alone. "There were many iterations of the choreography before arriving at the final routine. Initially I created choreography stems (short combinations of pole tricks) that she would rehearse to different parts of the song. The final stem sequences were combined to create the full routine and together we would flush out the articulation of the movement."
Joining the cavalcade of this year's sultry group of nominated videos is Camilla Cabello and Shawn Mendes' "Senorita," which can credit Calvit Hodge and Sara Biv for its steamy moves. The two, who were also nominated last year for Cabello's video for "Havana" (which won video of the year), have been working with Cabello since she departed Fifth Harmony. "We actually didn't get to hear the song until we had stepped foot into rehearsals, so we created the dancing on the spot and tried to work both Camila and Shawn's natural movement to blend together," says Biv, who notes that it was Mendes' first time dancing. "Our days in rehearsal and on set were filled with so much love, laughter and a little nerves that went away the more we did the dance. We actually had a method before every take that we would just scream to let everything out; all nerves vanished after that and everyone thought we were crazy on set."
For Hodge, who hails from the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas, it's the continuation of a lifelong passion. "There was no straight and narrow way to go about this and everyone's path is different," he says, noting he worked as an assistant for seven years and has had many mentors along the way, including Nadine "Hi-Hat" Ruffin (famous for her work with Rihanna and Missy Elliott). "I respected the steps to become a choreographer so I worked my way up. All of my experience prepared me for everything that I'm doing today."
Much like the rest of the group, the VMA recognition is one the duo doesn't take lightly. "It means a lot to be nominated," says Biv. "You work so hard every day and sometimes you wonder if anyone is watching and then, bam! There's your little bit of validation that people are paying attention. It just keeps you pushing harder to level up every time, whether people are watching or not."