Both Ashley Everett and Chris Grant credit choreographer Frank Gatson Jr., whom they affectionately call their “industry father,” for their introduction into Beyoncé’s tireless team of creatives. After moving to New York at 16 years old, Everett met Gatson Jr. while she was dancing at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
He gave her the opportunity to audition for Beyoncé at the end of 2006, earning her a spot on The Beyoncé Experience Tour in 2007. She continued to work with Bey on music videos and tours, assuming the role of dance captain in 2009, shortly after dancing alongside the pop legend in the iconic music video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”
Grant was noticed by Gatson Jr. while he was a contestant on Making the Band in 2008. They stayed in contact, with Gatson Jr. eventually asking Grant to show him what he was working on, which happened to be Grant’s own version of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” the video having just recently debuted. Gatson loved it, asking Grant to fly out to Los Angeles to help with the auditions for Beyoncé’s upcoming tour. After Beyoncé saw Grant’s “Single Ladies” choreography, she promptly responded, “You’re not real,” sealing Grant’s position as one of Beyoncé’s choreographers.
Everett and Grant chatted with Billboard about Beyoncé’s unshakeable work ethic, creating a pregnancy-safe Grammy performance and their proudest moment with the superstar.
What is your choreographing process like?
Chris Grant: In “Formation,” I had the song for about a month or two. We were just playing around with it and getting a feeling. We wanted it to be super great — not just ratchet, but a message. I choreographed a verse, a chorus, and [another] verse. Then JaQuel [Knight] does the same thing with his part, thinking in the world of [band dancers]. Then Dana [Folgia] comes in, very elegant with a lot of technique. Then [Beyoncé] comes in and she strips certain things down. We keep the things we get a great response to. It’s a draining process because we’re doing it a hundred thousand times, but it’s really fun. We all think in our own lane, but when we come together, it’s magical.
Ashley Everett: We always have a thousand different versions of everything, so it’s a workshop process. Chris is a choreographer, but he’s a guy, so they need to see [the choreography] on a female body too, so I’m one of those bodies. It’s a fun, crazy long process.
What is your proudest moment with Beyoncé?
CG: The first Super Bowl was really emotional for both of us. I remember standing with [Ashley] at the end, and [she] were turning up and crying. That was a good feeling, because the Super Bowl is huge, and we worked so hard on that. Sometimes you get so caught up [in preparing] that you don’t realize what you’re doing until after the fact.
AE: That was our biggest performance because it’s not just a Beyoncé concert. Everyone is watching across America. That was one of the biggest moments of our careers.
How do you prepare for the pressure of performing in front of so many people?
AE: I always tell people the reason why Beyoncé is who she is is because she’s such a hard worker. She’s made so many sacrifices, and she’s right there with us. She’ll put in the time and the work, and that’s why everyone who works with her and for her has to have the same kind of work ethic.
CG: For every show and every rehearsal, you treat it the same. You put in the same hard work and blood, sweat and tears — and that’s who [Beyoncé] is. Even when we’re working, she’s over everything, from the music, to the rehearsal, to the editing, to the lighting. Everything that went into the show, Beyoncé is involved in it. I think it’s the time and the effort a lot of artists miss these days. They don’t understand that if this is what you want to do and you want to be the best, you have to sacrifice. You can’t just hire people and expect people to do it for you.
What have you learned from working with Beyoncé?
AE: I feel like I’ve learned so many things just being in a room with her and watching her work. She’s always dropping gems because she’s been in this industry forever. She’s been a superstar for all these years, but she’s still not settling. She’s always pushing herself to the next level. That’s a key lesson: don’t get comfortable and don’t settle.
CG: For me, [Beyoncé] helped me see and hear differently. She made me really analyze things, so [our work] doesn’t remain the same. I’ve also never met an artist who’s so completely down to earth. How Ashley and I talk is how we are with Beyoncé, and I really appreciate that. It taught me to never change and be yourself. Be a good person, be humble and know that no matter how hard or crazy things get, you have to keep that love and that connection with everybody.
What have you learned from working with each other?
AE: I’ve learned how to be full-out all the time because Chris only knows how to be full-out. He’s passionate and it comes from the heart. If you aren’t full-out next to him, you look lazy.
CG: I’ve extremely proud of [Ashley]. I really see the progress and how far she’s come. She’s always been an amazing dancer, but it’s different when you push yourself to that limit. What I’ve learned from Ashley is to be a little more aware of my body and my face. I’ve learned to pay attention and not just go for it because [just going for it] was my gift, but it was also my problem. You have to find the balance. Some people don’t have good facials, some people don’t have good lines, some people don’t learn fast, some people don’t take direction well — but when Ashley’s on, she’s on. She’s the full package.
What’s the difference between choreographing for a performance and choreographing for a music video?
CG: We always make sure it’s realistic [for live performances]. [Beyoncé] is an artist and we have to worry about the art first. People want to hear the song and see her. Everything else is add-ons. What I learned from Frank [Gatson Jr.] is sometimes on the versus, you don’t need to do anything, and if you do something, you need to go for something memorable. We’ll often put breakdowns into it towards the end because we don’t have her dancing at the chorus or the versus. We try to structure it so that she has time to breathe — and she’ll tell us too. She’ll say, “I can’t do that,” and we adjust.
Music videos are fun and different. [Beyoncé] wants us to just go for it because she’s not holding a microphone. She wants to do everything the dancers are doing. It’s all going to be edited with multiple takes, so there’s no worries there. We have time to do it well.
How did you create a pregnancy-safe Grammy performance for her?
AE: We rehearsed for a month before the show and we had so many versions of it.
CG: We had so much time, so we kept playing around with it. It wasn’t stressful, it was more draining. But we took the best of all these variations and were able to create a masterpiece.
Where do you see the direction of pop music going?
CG: I miss the old days where everyone was performing, from rap artists, to R&B artists, to gospel singers. What works for us as a team is we all remember certain performances, and do our research. We have references. We were inspired by these amazing artists, from Madonna, to Michael Jackson, to Janet Jackson.
Not a lot of people are feeling [their work] anymore, and that’s the problem. You have to put in those long hours and you have to get frustrated. You have to put in the work. Whatever moves us and whatever we feel, that’s what we make sure to get out to the world. That’s why everyone goes crazy when Beyoncé performs: because you feel her. Now it’s just about the ratchetness or trending dance — which are cool, but Beyoncé allows us to incorporate that while still sticking to what we know and what we’re used to.
AE: The artists who are putting on great performances these days still have a passion. The Beyoncés and the Kendricks make timeless performances. You could look at it today and love it, and you could look at it in 20 years and love it. I don’t know if you can necessarily teach that. It’s just a gift.
What are you doing with your time off as Beyoncé focuses on her pregnancy and family?
AE: We’re working on projects individually and together. It’s kind of nice to have a break and work on other things.
CG: It’s just good to be free and open. I’m more focused on making sure I’m happy and doing things, while keeping my personal life in check. You have to put yourself first. If you’re not good and happy, you’re not able to give back and do what you have to do for others.