Emmy-nominated choreographer talks John Legend's special, volunteering with Janelle Monáe

Artistic director and choreographer Jemel McWilliams has had to shift from putting together dance numbers at awards shows like the Oscars to directing at-home performances.

ByAndrea Lans OTRC logo
Thursday, August 6, 2020
Choreographer talks working with John Legend, Janelle Monáe
Jemel McWilliams chatted with On The Red Carpet about his Emmy-nominated opening number at the 2020 Oscars and putting together quarantine performances.

Meet the man behind some of your favorite performances. Artistic director and choreographer Jemel McWilliams has put together shows and performances for John Legend, Janelle Monáe, Lizzo, Alicia Keys and Nick Jonas -- just to name a few.

McWilliams is up for the Emmy for Outstanding Choreography for Variety or Reality Programming for his work on the 2020 Oscars opening number "Come Alive," featuring Monáe.

"We had the vision of highlighting films of the year and from there just really bringing those characters to life," McWilliams told On The Red Carpet.

While in-person award shows are at a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, the choreographer is still busy putting together at-home shows and music videos. McWilliams has worked on the ABC special "John Legend and Family: A Bigger Love Father's Day" and the singer's performance for Global Citizen's concert "One World: Together at Home," which raised over $120 million in support of frontline health care workers.

McWilliams said that putting together these performances was a fun, creative challenge for him, with the hardest part being the logistics of remote shooting.

"Having dancers [do] their own lighting and be their own cameraman [was the hardest]," McWilliams said. "John and Luna, his baby girl, and Chrissy had to help with filming."

Since the crew did not know where they would get cleared to shoot, they had to draft four to five different plans just a few days leading up to the Father's Day special. McWilliams said they only had three days to produce, film and turn over the special before it aired on ABC.

"The goal was for everybody to just feel the joy," McWilliams said. "We all understood that it was challenging, it's unprecedented, but let's just move forward [with] love and with joy."

The work has paid off, as Legend and his team received VMA nominations for Best Music Video at Home ("Bigger Love") and Best Quarantine Performance for the "Together at Home" concert.

While McWilliams has been racking up the award nominations for his work completed in self-isolation, that has not been the highlight of his quarantine. The artistic director has found the most joy in giving back to the community, especially fellow dancers, who are struggling and out-of-work amid the pandemic.

The choreographer volunteered alongside Monáe and her record label Wondaland, passing out 10,000 free lunches in Inglewood, California. This was part of a series of giveaways called "WondaLunch" to help communities that are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Per McWilliams' suggestion, they distributed additional lunches to the dance community.

Janelle Monáe helped organize a plan to provide free meals to the Inglewood community amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"To just know that we distributed over a couple hundred lunches to dancers and they were just so appreciative -- man, that just warms my heart," McWilliams said.

As for what's next -- McWilliams is expecting to work on Legend's "Bigger Love" tour, slated for 2021, and some shows with Lizzo. But, similar to many industries amid the pandemic, the future of in-person events is unpredictable.

"I'm hoping that some of these things come back around, so we can really give people the joy and the love that we had already put into crafting these performances," McWilliams said.

Tune in to the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards airing Sunday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. ET | 7 p.m. CT | 5 p.m. PT on ABC.