How do you plan a spontaneous-looking dance party? That was one task facing the choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall on the Brooklyn set of the music video for “In Common,” the nonchalantly danceable new single from Alicia Keys. Directed byPierre Debusschere in high-definition black and white, the video features about a dozen dancers for whom the term “backup” doesn’t apply. They are front and center.
As Ms. Keys sings from her perch on a free-standing fire escape, intimate duets, seductive solos and euphoric jam sessions unfold on an abstracted city street below. Two wiry men — Khalil Williams and Xavier D, who excel in the contortionist street-dance style called bone-breaking — twist their arms behind their backs, reaching for each other’s hands. The formidable Niv Acosta, best known in the New York downtown dance and theater scene, floats toward the camera, vogueing with a sultry stare.
“If you could love somebody like me, you must be messed up, too,” Ms. Keys sings, taking comfort in shared imperfections. For their own bodies and for one another, the dancers seem to feel unconditional love.
Ms. Rowlson-Hall, who also directs her own music videos and movement-based films, jokes about being a “glorified cheerleader” on the set. But rising to a director’s call for “beautiful lines” and the illusion of spontaneity takes choreographic chops. In a recent phone interview, she spoke about casting choices, improvisational hugging and choreographing to a song without the song. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What kind of direction did you get from the creative team?
They wanted the video to be diverse and super relatable. They wanted dance, but not, you know, 5-6-7-8 and everyone goes into a routine — more of an improvised feeling. One of the big things was casting. They were talking to various choreographers, and when I gave my two cents about people I wanted to pull into the mix, like Niv and X[avier], I think Pierre was very interested in that.
What were you looking for in the casting process?
We didn’t want just one style or look or gender. We were looking for great dancers with great looks that you don’t see every day. The people we chose have a lot going on [in their careers], and I think that’s why they stood out in the audition, because they’re not just waiting to be formed into the director’s idea. Their attitude is more: “Here’s what I do. What do you think of it?”
What was the concept for the choreography?
With Pierre’s images in general, there’s a lot of negative space, and it’s all about line. He wanted beautiful lines. For the duets, I worked with specific points of embrace and breaking out of those to find new points of embrace. So, finding your chin resting on your partner’s lower rib, and how to get into that position naturally — something more than a standard hug. With Stephanie [Crousillat] and Pierce [Cady], I gave them an opening moment, then directed their movement as they improvised. With Khalil and X, I had them do their bone crushing while staying connected the whole time. They had never done that before.
What about the group sections?
I gave each person a starting point and then asked different people to play with levels [like reaching up or crouching down]. So they were doing their own thing, but the space wasn’t blocked with everyone dancing at midlevel. Somebody was always moving to another point, and somebody was always high and low.
You’re also a director. Is it ever challenging to choreograph and not direct?
Not at all. Because I do both, I’m actually overly sensitive in never wanting to step over the boundaries. But I do give, through my choreography, things I know I’d want, like points for cutting in and out of movement, because I know how to cut dance. So I’m secretly infusing my choreography with what I’d do as a director.
Did you choreograph to the music? Did the lyrics influence you?
Even as a choreographer, I wasn’t given the song. I listened to it in a meeting, and that was it. She [Alicia Keys] performed it on the set, but because we were shooting at 48 frames per second, she had to sing twice as fast as the actual tempo. I only really listened to the lyrics a few days ago, and I was like, “Wait, this is what she was saying the whole time?”