How a Beyoncé dancemaker ended up on the Yellow Brick Road

How a Beyoncé dancemaker ended up on the Yellow Brick Road

“Ease on down the road” sounds simple enough — but how exactly does one ease?

JaQuel Knight, a choreographer renowned for his work in the field of popular music, will help answer that question for the new Broadway-bound production of “The Wiz,” the beloved musical now touring the country with a stop at D.C’s National Theatre on Oct. 24-29.

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Knight, 34, who helped make the Beyoncé video “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” a sensation when he was still a teenage dancemaker, has also collaborated with the pop star on other projects, including her 2018 headlining turn at Coachella, documented in her film “Homecoming.” His credits also include Shakira’s performance at the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” video.

Those 21st-century projects may seem a million Yellow Brick Road miles away from a theater classic like “The Wiz,” adapted from L. Frank Baum’s children’s book by composer-lyricist Charlie Smalls and book writer William F. Brown and conceived for an all-Black cast. But Knight is among those who revere the musical, which opened on Broadway in 1975, winning seven Tony Awards. In 1978, it was adapted into a movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, paving the way for more recent “Wiz” iterations like NBC’s 2015 live televised version. Invited to choreograph this revival — scheduled to open on Broadway in 2024 — Knight eased on board.

The North Carolina-born, Atlanta-raised artist joins a team that includes Oscar-winning designer Hannah Beachler (“Black Panther”) and performers Deborah Cox as Glinda and Melody A. Betts as the wicked witch Evillene. Schele Williams directs the show, which features additional material by Amber Ruffin. Nichelle Lewis plays Dorothy.

The production launched in September in Baltimore, where “The Wiz” premiered in 1974. While in Charm City, Knight spoke via Zoom about his inspirations for the choreography and how traffic control on the “Wiz” stage compares to that at Coachella.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Why did you want to be involved with “The Wiz”?

A: Being part of “The Wiz” is still mind-blowing to me. My contributions to music and dance — and Black culture — have been about how do I elevate culture and do something that is innovative and also pays great respect to the past. “The Wiz” was the perfect opportunity. And it’s “The Wiz”! It’s the one musical every dancer has seen in their lives.

Q: How did you go about finding a distinctive choreographic vocabulary for the show?

A: A few different buckets: Self-exploration. Research — understanding what the property has done in the past. Having conversations with those who have seen the show: Everyone has a moment that means something important to them. And then allowing myself to just turn the music on and let loose.

October [2022] was when I started my movement-vocabulary discovery. I had a week with some of my favorite dancers in Los Angeles. [We played] some music from the show, some music that I was inspired by. Amapiano is a style out of South Africa that I felt, “Wow! The Emerald City feels like this!”

The vocabulary created over that week became a huge part of the language that has made it into the show. It’s a wide span of movement genres, everything from your traditional jazz and modern inspirations to street dance, to ballet technique.

We went back and studied “A Chorus Line.” There’s some really great dance in “Chorus Line” that had that visceral energy we wanted to capture. I’m always looking back — blast from the past — at all my favorite musicals. I’m a huge Bob Fosse fan, [as you can see in] “Single Ladies.” I’m often looking at his work as a starting place of what greatness looks like.

Q: Do you remember the first time you saw “The Wiz”?

A: I must have been around age 13, and it was the film version [choreographed by Louis Johnson]. I remember being so inspired by the movement. The Emerald City scene changed my life and my outlook on dance. Now the color is green! Now the color is gold! Oh, my God, it’s so beautiful.

George Faison [the first African American to win the choreography Tony, for his work on the original Broadway “The Wiz”] and Louis Johnson were both ahead of their times. I’m really taking that to heart, because that means we have to put something on that stage that is forward-thinking, that allows people to have ownership, but also has to be covered in love.

Q: Could you give an example of a decision you made about a character’s movement?

A: The Tin Man has sort of taken on ownership of the tap space. So, once he’s oiled up, how do we use his entire body — not just his feet, not just his legs, which is what tap focuses on? So we’ve crafted something outside of tap for the Tin Man.

And Evillene — even within her evilness, she has a sense of gospel. So I’ve taken on this gospel inspiration to help give [her number “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News”] a look that’s distinctive.

Then for me it was all about Dorothy’s journey: How did every piece feel like a look back or a look forward? Here, this movement has a jazz base with influences from New Orleans. Here is fight-based movement that deals with them being athletic. On this journey, she’s not only discovering new life struggles, but also this new sense of music, culture, dance and style.

Q: Have you had a learning curve in terms of how a show like this functions?

A: What I’ve done in the concert and live space has absolutely prepared me for this moment. For “Homecoming,” I had a cast of 200 people. So my “Wiz” cast of 27 is pretty easy to move around! But something that is new is an overall sense of story. Who is this character? How do they move? Why do they feel the way they feel? Having paper where it all lives and creating based on that is the biggest difference.

I think “The Wiz” is probably my best work to date. And the most important, because of how much the project means to so many people. I’m not taking that lightly.

The Wiz Oct. 24-29 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. broadwayatthenational.com.

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Celia Wren

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