Dondraico Johnson interview: ‘Genius: Aretha’ choreographer
“I don’t even know the proper words to [explain] how excited I am to get nominated for this particular project,” reveals Dondraico Johnson while discussing his recent Emmy nomination for choreographing National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha.” The bioseries starring Cynthia Erivo has landed Johnson his first Emmy nod for Outstanding Choreography for Scripted Programming after more than two decades working with some of the industry’s top performers including Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Although Johnson has worked primarily with performers who dance in the past, working on the Aretha Franklin project came naturally. “She wasn’t necessarily a dancer, she was known for her voice,” he explains. “But you could tell that she had an eye and a respect for the movement and the dance. She may not have been doing a lot of Janet Jackson or Michael Jackson moves, but those background singers were always dancing and moving. Her band was always moving. So the voice was her, but every great showman knows the whole show is what matters. She was the heartbeat of the movement.”
“You could tell that she grew up in the church,” Johnson adds. “She allowed the music to move her body and she had a vibe and a pocket that’s just as soulful as her voice was. It was really cool to recreate and build on somebody like that.” The choreographer grew up listening to the music icon’s songs, with favorites including “Rocksteady,” “Giving Him Something He Can Feel”, “Jump” and “all the music from the ‘Blues Brothers’ soundtrack.” “The music was already embodied in my spirit so I knew what it would take to pull this off.”
One of the highlights for Johnson was recreating the Queen of Soul’s 1979 performance at the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas. “Doing choreography for a period piece is a fine line,” he explains. “You do the research and you look at how this person moved, but as a choreographer you have to take it and create your own. If not, then that’s not your choreography. In my head I was like, ‘If I was in Las Vegas in 1979 listening to Aretha Franklin, what would that look like?’ Then I went into the lab and started to create and make up steps and figure out what felt good on the body and what looked good on the stage. But I had to make sure it was authentic to the time period. I can’t do these new millennial TikTok dances in 1979.”
Being the sole choreographer on this series brought Johnson back to being a little boy from South Carolina who idolized MC Hammer. “I would be in my room dancing to music by myself and creating my own things,” he says. “I was a MC Hammer fanatic! I thought [“Genius: Aretha”] was going to be challenging, going into this alone with no assistant or nobody, and to be able to produce what came out made me super proud. And to be nominated for something I did all alone? It was like, ‘You did it Draico! You did it!’ It made me feel like a little boy all over again dancing in my room by myself.”