He may have begun his career in a group that steadfastly refused to dance in a coordinated way, but it’s no secret now that Harry Styles has moves to spare — whether he’s shimmying and bouncing around a festival stage, executing stylized choreography reminiscent of classic movie musicals in 2021’s “Treat People With Kindness” video or, most recently, throwing himself into abstract partnering on a spinning turntable platform in the music video for his current hit “As It Was.”
His key collaborator for that latest dancing feat is French choreographer Yoann Bourgeois — though really, choreography is just one element of Bourgeois’ many creative talents. Trained in circus arts, acrobatics, and dance, Bourgeois is as well-known for his set designs, usually involving contraptions he creates that challenge gravity and balance while encouraging a sense of play and risk-taking in his performers. “These devices generate something very alive in the performers, and that’s what I like,” says Bourgeois, who describes his age as “I believe I’m 40 — but in my mind I believe I’m around 16.”
Bourgeois — who came onto the “As It Was” creative team via video director Tanu Muino, but had also caught Styles’ attention previously with his work Fugue/Trampoline — has long worked with singers in Europe, but has increasingly become a collaborator of choice for a wider array of pop artists. In January, he oversaw theatrical direction of the late Virgil Abloh’s last Louis Vuitton show in Paris; he proposed the idea of the “weeble-wobble” structure used in Missy Elliott’s “Cool Off” music video; he recently choreographed and co-conceived the concept for Coldplay and Selena Gomez’s “Let Somebody Go” video; and he’s choreographed a yet-to-be-released fka twigs project.
Through a translator, Bourgeois spoke to Billboard about working with Styles on “As It Was” — and why he was “very nicely surprised” by the the singer’s talents.
Director Tanu Muino has said she was a fan of yours – was it she who brought you on for “As It Was”?
At first, it was Tanu who contacted me. I understood a bit later in the process that Harry knew my work also, but Tanu contacted me at the conception stage of the film, so quite early on. We spoke first of all about the meaning of the song, and Tanu, having watched a few videos of my work, spotted one device — what I call the turntable — that I’m working on, the spinning platform. It seemed to us it was a great device to work on with the meaning of the song. Since I’m always working with space, it’s always a bit more than just creating movement — I’m involved in the set design as well.
Tell me about that spinning platform and what it was like for Harry to work with it – it looks slippery and tough to negotiate!
We need to let the artist accustom themselves to the platform physically — it can be a bit disorienting. We had a few days with Harry, and he was actually very talented, and it seemed like Harry was having a lot of fun, so we kept in the music video a lot of the moments of playfulness from that. There were some very specific set and written choreography parts that were very precisely choreographed, but also “rules of the game” for Harry to play with and improvise upon. We kept both those principles in the music video.
What were those “rules of the game”?
These are very basic rules, but they make sense when you want to play a little bit with the idea of risk. So for example, it can be just to stay standing up on the platform as it spins faster and faster, or to try to escape from that platform as it is spinning. I feel like these rules summon a childish part of the performer each time. Something very pure.
That sense of playfulness is definitely something that comes across in Harry’s performances, whether onstage or in videos — and in your work, in general, as well. Did that feel like a quality you shared?
Yes. I really felt the same way about Harry — that common ground about playfulness. And that’s also the reason I create these devices. I want them to be not contemporary art forms, but machines to be played with. These devices generate something very alive within the performers, and that’s what I like. It generates this playfulness as well as being poetic.
What did you know of Harry as an artist, and particularly of his movement ability, before working on this video with him?
Of course I knew Harry as a musician, but also as a very highly-skilled performer. What I particularly liked is, I feel like Harry is a little bit… he deviates from [tradition] with a lot of subtlety. I really enjoy that about him. I’ve collaborated with a lot of music artists, and I was very nicely surprised by Harry’s capacities. Since the first seconds of working with him, I felt a lot of joy from Harry working on this experiment. I was very, very happy to see that.
What was it about “As It Was” in particular that made this feel this was a project you wanted to be part of?
For me, the song is full of paradox. It carries a lot of energy and a kind of joy, and somehow still it carries nostalgia. It’s about trying to free ourselves from what links us to the past, from what locks us up maybe in a loop. So that’s why I decided to work with this simple disc that spins very fast, where everything comes back to the same place. It resonates with the lyrics.
I think some things are bigger than us and as humans we don’t choose everything, we don’t initiate all movement ourselves, we have to deal with a lot of things [we can’t control]. These devices also show the interaction with everything that surrounds us — really, invisible forces, but my aim is to make them visible so we are able to perceive them.
What was your work process like with Harry?
When I arrived, I was slightly afraid because I obviously want the process to go well and to get along with Harry, and that goes both ways. But what’s great is when you bring a big toy like the turntable, it puts everybody in a playful mood. So, for me the relationship is first of all to propose to play. It’s also a strategy, because it would be a bit difficult to come from a blank page and try to write everything with Harry in such a short time. So to establish a common game, we share something from the beginning. We meet as players, and for me to be a player isn’t nothing – it’s a relationship ideal.
Of course we had different scenes to work on. Two of them were quite easy to agree on with Tanu and Harry, and two others – the dance improvisation at the end, and everything that happens on the turntable – those required a little bit of rehearsal. It was specifically challenging because the [dance] partner Harry was working with throughout the rehearsal period was unable to perform the day of the shoot, so we had to replace her the day of the shoot. Mathilde Lin, who is in the video, had to learn everything the day of, and she did an amazing job. I’d never worked with her before, but I’d heard about her – she’s a very multi-skilled contemporary dancer.
Do you know why Harry liked your work, what he had seen of it before?
I don’t know why Harry liked it, but I knew Harry discovered it through a dance I performed myself with a trampoline on some stairs. He saw that on video, it’s called Fugue/Trampoline.
(Bourgeois in his Fugue/Trampoline)
You also recently choreographed the music video for Coldplay and Selena Gomez’s “Let Somebody Go,” for which you co-conceived the concept with director Dave Meyers. Do you receive a lot of requests from the pop music world?
When I started to create my own universe [blending] acrobatics, visual arts and dance, I realized really quickly that made sense to a lot of people. I’ve been reached out to by people in diverse fields, from contemporary art to technology, and I was helping some known artists in France, singers I was friends with, like Camille, Vincent Delerm or Yael Naim. I’ve also performed my own shows worldwide. Recently there was an excerpt of Fugue/Trampoline in the first episode of [Hulu’s] Only Murders in the Building. I think it’s a coincidence that Selena Gomez was in both projects!
It was this little clip for Apple that I made with Oscar Hudson [the “Bounce” campaign for AirPods in 2019] that [got Chris Martin’s attention]. Last summer Chris came to my house and we spoke a lot about many things, including love, and at some point Chris took his phone out and played this song he was recording with Selena, “Let Somebody Go.” When I was listening to the song, I felt like the sky could split in two — which made me think about how sometimes in a [romantic] separation you can see the world upside down, and how trying to meet again is like surmounting a giant mountain. So the concept for “Let Somebody Go” was born this way.
What I appreciate a lot, and maybe it’s happening more but progressively, is the fact that I receive more and more propositions from multiple fields. That kind of proves that the language I’m trying to establish is universal.