Interviews

Highly acclaimed choreographer Frank Gatson returns to Milwaukee to build new opportunities for creatives

todayDecember 27, 2022 1

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Frank Gatson Jr. has come back home and he’s bringing some famous friends with him.

Gatson Jr. is an award-winning choreographer who has worked with legends throughout the entertainment industry. He has returned home to take on a new role as co-founder and creative director of the YWCA’s new state of the arts women empowerment hub. The 70,000 square foot building located at 1915 N Martin Luther King Jr. Drive will be transformed into an integrational performing arts center.

The YWCA’S President and CEO, Tracy L. Williams has worked with Gatson Jr. to create a star-studded gala and awards ceremony on Wednesday, Dec. 28. The event will feature artists like Brandy, En Vouge Luke James to raise money for this future home to creatives. We discussed this mission and vision for the center as well, what it was like working with Michael Jackson and even his very 1st video gig with Brandy take a listen.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Element Everest-Blanks: So I am sitting here with Frank Gatson, Jr. You are a director and choreographer. You are the creative director for En Vogue and Brandy. You’ve created beautiful choreography for Kelly Rowland, Muni Long, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce, the list goes on and on, Usher, Destiny’s Child. How are you this morning?

FGJ: I’m good. How are you? Just busy. Very busy. Very, very busy.

EEB: Yes. Let’s talk about why you’re very, very busy. You have come back home to Milwaukee now. You have traveled the world and you have been around some of the most incredibly talented artists on the planet and you’ve made them look even better through your choreography. I want to know if you can briefly tell me how you got started in this field.

FGJ: Well, I guess I always performed in local productions in high school, but I just did it for fun. But then in my senior year, my music teacher, Sarah Grant and Arlene Skwierawski, they took us to Broadway to see The Wiz in 1976. That had Stephanie Mills in it, Hinton Battle, Battle Mabel King. Just imagine having orchestra seats at the Imperial Theater in Broadway and I see this scene where these guys that… You know how they call them the Underlings, but I call them the Funky Monkeys?

EEB: Yes, yes.

FGJ: And it’s not like The Wiz, the movie, which is different, which I feel is not as good as the Broadway show.

EEB: Of course.

FGJ: Stephanie Mills was singing and dancing her butt off, but the monkeys, they danced by jumping in the air, coming across stage like that, all in unison. It looked like they were flying, but they were really dancing. I just thought that was so incredible. I used to like to jump. I used to like to do the Russian kicks and stuff like that. I just did that when I was in stuff in high school. I used to love the jump, for some reason. But I just said, “I want to do that. How can I do that?” But you really don’t know. But then I get back to Milwaukee saying, okay, I want to learn how to dance professional like that. So I started sneaking down to the Milwaukee Ballet School because it was kind of uncool for guys to take ballet back then. So from there, I still don’t know what to do.

So I go to college, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I majored in political science because my dad wanted me to be a lawyer, which is great. But something kept bugging and knocking on the door saying, “Frank, this is great.” Then I pledged Alpha Phi Alpha and I was a great stepper in it.

EEB: Yes.

FGJ: I was putting together the step shows, but never realized that was choreography. I was really good at it and still not understanding that I can make a life of this still, I graduate political science at University of Wisconsin-Madison. But you know how you have to take a language requirement when you’re in college?

EEB: Yeah.

FGJ: I didn’t take Spanish. I didn’t take French. I took Swedish. And the reason I took Swedish is because I could recognize the words when I saw them.

So I took that as my language requirement to fulfill my language requirement and that’s that. So now I’m graduating from university. I’m walking downtown Milwaukee on Kilbourn by Milwaukee Auditorium. I walk into this place called the Milwaukee Auditorium or the Milwaukee Theater now. I forget what it’s called now. It’s right by the arena. And I just go in there like a little lonely kid. I don’t know why I think of The Jerk. Oh, I don’t want to really go to college, da da da da. I walk into this place and I see all these kids, kids from all the world singing and dancing. They were called up with people and I’m standing there watching like, wow, that’s amazing. They’re doing Russian dancing, they’re doing Spanish dancing, they’re doing Jitterbug, the Charleston, all kind of stuff. This girl comes up to me and says, “Who are you?”

I say, “Hi, my name is Frank.” And she says she’s from Sweden. And I said, “[Speaking in Swedish]”. She just said, oh, this Black boy know how to speak Swedish. And just like that, it was destiny where she interviewed me to be in the group and I toured around the world with the group for three years. We used to do the Super Bowl halftime up with people before these big stars started doing it. So I had done Super Bowls before I worked with Beyonce on the Super Bowl, which is interesting. Then I came back to Milwaukee, enrolled in University of Wisconsin to get another degree in theater and dance. Then I went to LA and I got Smooth Criminal and it was on and popping then.

EEB: Oh, my goodness.

FGJ: Then I worked with En Vogue and I worked with Brandy and then I work with Destiny’s Child and I worked with Usher and it just started happening.

EEB: I just love how simply you just dropped, “Yeah, then I got ‘Smooth Criminal’.” Oh yeah. Yeah, I was just in this little television production with Michael Jackson. I love it. I love it. How did “Smooth Criminal” come about? This is an epic revelation to people who don’t know this.

FGJ: Yeah. When I was studying in New York and when I lived in New York and got broke, I had made some friends in New York from Broadway who went to the Broadway Dance Center. A good friend of mine that was my roommate, Kenneth Steel, he had done the music video, Bad, and that was real secretive. But he knew about a big audition that no one knew about in LA, which was Smooth Criminal. And even when they had advertised about the audition in LA, about Smooth Criminal, no one knew what it was, but I knew what it was because my friend, buddy of mine named Kenneth, he knew they were having it. So I heard about it and I flew out to LA.

I stayed with my best friend, Cheryl Cobb, and I walked to it. I’ll never forget it. I walked to the audition from her house. Luckily, she lived maybe seven blocks from Debbie Reynolds where they held the audition and I got it. I mean, I got lucky. I mean, people say you shouldn’t say you got lucky and I agree that. I love that Jonathan McReynolds, I’m not lucky. I’m loved.” So I’m loved and I love got me that job.

EEB: The opportunity came. You were prepared to receive that blessing at that time, right?

FGJ: Yes, no doubt about it. It was just the most amazing thing ever to get a job and make $10,000 on a music video. People just don’t do them that big like Michael did it back in the day. He did it big. We shot that in 30 days.

EEB: And that was an iconic… That was the visual album before it was the visual album. Michael made these movies. Prior to him, yes, people had music videos, but he made, it was such theater when Michael Jackson was involved. I mean he had the best of the best of the best of everything and you were a part of that.

FGJ: That’s what spoiled me and I think that’s why my standards are so high. I got to see it done at its best. And he used to call them films. He would never call them music videos. So that was something else.

EEB: That makes perfect sense because it really was… They were short films.

FGJ: Exactly.

EEB: So we go from you living in LA to this huge production that you are putting on in our city. Tell me a little bit about it. I’m so excited.

FGJ: Well, I just want to connect the dots first. I was here in 2010. Arlene Skwierawski wanted me to come back and work with an organization called Capita. And we did an event called Michael Jackson’s Tribute, We Are The Drum. I did a show there and it was incredible to people here in Milwaukee. I just got to put that out there because I always imagined if I would’ve stayed then to do what I’m doing now, that show set me up, okay, to something like a Intergenerational Performing Arts Center. But here I am now. I’m doing a show on December 28th at the Performing Arts Center, the Marcus Performing Arts Center, in the big room, the Uihlein Hall. My very first video was when Brandy was 15 doing I Want to Be Down and a young man and I choreographed this thing called… And everybody does that step. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them do that stuff?

EEB: Oh, of course. Everybody does that.

FGJ: Yeah, right. So that was my beginning in show business and it’s just so great that she’s here to co-partner with me with the YWCA to put this gala on. She’s like the co-host. She’s like my goddaughter. So she got on board June 8th to say, “Frank, I’ll help you with this center.” So she and myself, we called our friends and our friends are showing up. En Vogue is showing up. Chante Moore is showing up. Major is showing up. Luke James, I used to manage. En Vogue is the first MTV award I won. This new young lady named Doe. Anthony Burrell, Alvin Ailey dancer, he’s a partner in this. Carl Lewis, the nine time Gold Olympic medal winner is a partner in this. I noticed somebody I’m forgetting. There’s just so many people who are stepping up. There’s this 40 plus Double Dutch team out of Chicago. They’re women over 40. They do Double Dutch. They have this amazing routine they’re going to do. A young lady named Tiffany is singing. I know the new Nicholas Brothers, they’re these two twins out of Vegas. They’re like sons to me.

They’re called Sean and John Scott and they’re incredible. They’re in the Absinthe in front of the Caesar’s Hotel there. They’re coming to tap up a storm. There’s an amazing ballet dancer that used to be in Complexion named Brandon Gray who’s performing. Major is opening the show. Did I forget anybody? Leandra’s getting ready to sing the house down and Brandy’s going to close the show and kill it. We’re going to just perform. Then I got a hundred kids out of Milwaukee about dancing and just perform with us, so I can include my Milwaukee folk. We’re going to put on a Frank Gatson production meets Frank Gatson Milwaukee. You know the Uihlein Hall is a beautiful place. Thank you, guys, for having us there. Then there’s a private reception that night. You have to pay to come to that too because we’re trying to raise money to do this building.

EEB: Right.

FGJ: So it’s going to be an evening of performing. And like I said, the theme is To The Nines. Anybody who knows that theme, it means most Black folks know dress to the nines.

EEB: That’s right.

FGJ: Dress to perfection. But when you look up the, I think it’s called an idiom, when you look up the word to the nines or the phrase to the nines, it means to perfection. So I’m trying to do an evening that’s to perfection. I really appreciate you guys helping us do that. I just can’t say enough. Element, you have just been so spectacular on Instagram, just always seeing what I post.

Then you get on top of it like you on my committee. I appreciate that. You just don’t know. The criteria for the honorees are being honored because all of them are in line with what we’re trying to do with the mission of the YWCA. So think of the show like this. This is the BET Awards or the BET Honors, but we’re not giving out best R&B songs. We’re giving out awards for people who have impacted the community. I heard a sermon, and this is kind of my own personal thing, don’t think I’m crazy, but Kenneth Block preached a sermon called Pregnant With Purpose. At first when he said that was the topic, I was like, oh, that’s strange. But he just compared that nine months it takes to have a child and all the things that a woman will go through. And I feel like I’m right now, I’m in the last trimester, is that what you call it?

EEB: Yes.

FGJ: We getting ready to deliver this baby on December 28th. And it wouldn’t be possible without Tracy Williams allowing my ambitious attitude to come in here and do this thing, but it’s going to help the community. I know it in my heart. I know it.

EEB: And see, that’s what I’m saying right there, how you always pay it forward and acknowledge people who are right by your side helping to move your vision, the midwives, if you will, to you being pregnant with purpose.

Written by: Element Everest-Blanks

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