This Choreographer Gets Beyoncé in Formation
They say your life can change in a moment. For JaQuel Knight, it took precisely three minutes and 18 seconds. That's how long three leotard-and-high-heel-clad women spent on-screen, strutting in perfect unison and becoming an instant video sensation, one that would go on to garner more than 600 million views on YouTube.
The women, of course, were Ashley Everett and Ebony Williams—and Beyoncé. The video was "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," and the co-choreographer was 19-year-old Knight, along with Frank Gatson Jr. "I went into that hoping it could be the gig of a lifetime," Knight says. "I knew it was my one big chance—'Don't screw it up,' I kept telling myself. I guess I played my cards right." Now, nearly 10 years later, Knight is one of the most sought-after choreographers in L.A.
That wasn't the plan, though: Knight, who grew up in Atlanta, hoped to become a professional dancer. He learned to move by watching TLC and MC Hammer videos, and started taking classes at 14. By 18, Knight had begun auditioning in L.A., where Gatson, Beyoncé's longtime choreographer and creative director, spotted him. Although he didn't get the dance role, Gatson liked the way he moved and asked Knight to come up with some choreography. They worked together on a Michelle Williams gig, and a few months later Gatson called and said he had a job with Beyoncé that he wanted Knight for immediately. "If Bey likes you, you'll stay. If not, we'll figure something else out for you," said Gatson. Knight flew to New York City that night—and Bey liked him, so he stayed.
After "Single Ladies," Knight was a choreographer for Beyoncé's I Am…, The Mrs. Carter Show and Formation world tours, plus many of her music videos, including her 2016 Lemonade visual album. "She knows what she wants to do and how she wants to present herself," he says. "We do our very best to make sure that vision happens for her."
If Beyoncé and her dancers always look perfectly polished onstage, that's thanks in part to the star's desire to "always get it right," says Knight. "Our rehearsals are super-intense," he says. "We're very hard on the dancers because we have such a high bar to maintain. And when Beyoncé comes in the room, the dynamic doesn't change much. She doesn't come in like, 'Okay, The Queen is here!' She's just hoppin' in with the dancers."
So what's next for Knight? He's interested in developing movie screenplays and television shows. "I want to bring back those big musicals—Sweet Charity, Chicago, West Side Story," he says. "And my first script is on its way!" He also wants to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at Beyoncé's dancers—and what it's like working with the world's biggest superstar. But even when Beyoncé is on hiatus, Knight isn't. "Downtime is just time thinking of the master plan."
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Karen Azenberg, a past president of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, stumbled on something peculiar before the union's 2015 move to new offices: a 52-year-old sealed envelope with a handwritten note attached. It was from Agnes de Mille, the groundbreaking choreographer of Oklahoma! and Rodeo. De Mille, a founding member of SDC, had sealed the envelope with gold wax before mailing it to the union and asking, in a separate note, that it not be opened. The reason? "It is the outline for a play, and I have no means of copyrighting…The material is eminently stealable."