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MadonnaTribe has had the pleasure to meet choreographer RJ Durell who joined the Confessions Tour creative team and contributed his talent to the amazing Erotica, La Isla Bonita and Lucky Star numbers.
RJ talks about his personal story of a natual born dancer in Michigan and how he ended up working with some of the artists who are making history in pop culture and show business, setting very ambitious and specific goals for himself as a child and being completely focused on turning his desires into reality.
And now... MadonnaTribe meets RJ Durell.


MadonnaTribe: Hello RJ and welcome to Madonna Tribe. As many choreographers, you are also a talented dancer and worked in many different fields of the show business, from movies to tv shows, commercials and stage shows. Can you tell us about how all it started for you, your studies, and how you feel having achieved so many excting experiences in your career so far?

RJ Durell: I always danced and was always going to be a dancer. My mother was my dance teacher in Grand Rapids Michigan where I grew up. She owns a studio there called The Moving Company. I practically lived there until I started branching out and studying in New York City at the age of 15 at the School of American Ballet.
After spending a few summers at in New York I new that I wanted something different for myself. A few weeks after my 18th birthday I came out to LA to study on scholarship at the Edge. I trained in all disciplines of dance while on scholarship for one year after which I got an agent and started auditioning. It is weird, on one had my life has happened just as I have planned it, then on the other I can hardly believe all the places I have seen, people I have met, and dreams that I have achieved. I must say that I truly feel blessed and give thanks each day for the life that I live.

MT: When you decided you wanted to submit ideas and choreographies to Madonna for the Confessions Tour, the first thing you did was "studying disco".
By watching footage from Saturday Night Fever to Madonna's own tours what were the first ideas that came to mind to reinvent the disco style?

RJ: The first ideas I had for Madonna are on the submission. I only had two days to put the submission together and was choreographing a commercial at the time for Fruit of the Loom. I had to follow my instincts. Many of the ideas I submitted for Madonna actually made it to the stage in Erotica. I knew that I had to be true to disco while re-inventing it at the same time for Madonna. I wanted for the number to be sensual, picturesque, and breathtaking. The rest unfolded along the way.


MT: When you were approached for contributing to the tour choreographies your were asked to work on a song that did not make the final setlist. Your work eventually ended up as part of the Erotica choreography, but what do you remember about that day you were asked to set up something for Deeper and Deeper?

RJ: When I called my agent about making the submission for the Confessions Tour his instructions were to submit a disco partnering routine to Deeper and Deeper one minute in length. Once I booked the tour I was given about four days to prepare my number before I would present it to Madonna. At that time I was given the song Erotica. By the time that I was brought in it had already been decided to use Erotica for the tour.


MT: And what was your reaction when your agent called you and told you they wanted to have you on board?

RJ: I was beside myself. I had handed in my submission dvd the day before and was out running errands when my agent called.
I was so excited that I had to pull my car over to the side of the road and call my mom.
I wanted to share this exciting moment with her both as my mother and as my dance teacher.

: Do you remember for how long Madonna and her team had been working on the show when you joined them? Was the concert already shaped up well?

RJ: I am not sure how long Madonna had been in rehearsals when I joined the camp.
They were setting the show in order and my numbers were at the end of the concert.
Most of the work had already been set by the time I got there.

MT: Deeper and Deeper was a higlight on Madonna's Girlie Show tour.

Did that performance or the original video influence you somehow when you worked on the choreography?

: I did watch Deeper and Deeper as an inspiration, I watched most of Madonna's concert footage in preparation for the job.

However, I know that Madonna is the queen of re-inventing herself and that I must modernize and Madonnaize Disco to get the gig.

: Erotica was something very special also because the song was performed in a brand new version that included parts of a version known by the fans as You Thrill Me - that were never used before and were considered as the "demo" version of the song. Were you familiar with Madonna's Erotica before the show, and were you surprised to see the song reconstructed in the new version?

RJ: I was familiar with Erotica before my work on the Confessions Tour, I loved the song. When Jamie first told me that I would be choreographing to the song I was elated. A few days later I was officially on board and I was given the updated track to Erotica. Just when I thought that things couldn't get any better I was given the opportunity to work with this amazing track. I loved how the song had been given new life.

MT: Did you have to change a lot from your original choreography for Deeper and Deeper in order to make it work for Erotica?
I think the number ended up being just perfect, it is really hard to tell that some parts of it come from a choreography created for a different song...

I was able to use some of the movement and concepts from my submission to Deeper and Deeper. I only choreographed about one minuet of a routine for the submission so I had plenty of work to do in-order to realize Erotica. It was amazing to see how the pictures that were in my head for the Deeper and Deeper submission were easily translated to Erotica for the tour.


MT: You worked in a lot of different productions as a lead dancer so you can easily tell what brings to an artist a "lead quality". We love all the Madonna dancers but I have to say Jason Young was really breathtaking dancing with Madonna in Erotica.
How was working with him?

RJ: Jason Young is an amazing dancer. We had worked together before the Confessions Tour and I was happy to have him on board. He is diverse and magnetic and an absolute pleasure to work with. I would love to work with him again.


MT: Another number you choreographed in the show, La Isla Bonita, also ended up replacing a song previously in the set list, Everybody.

That was actually quite a surprise - Madonna performed Everybody already during the promo mini-concerts for Confessions On A Dance Floor at the Koko club and at the G-A-Y gig, and again at the Coachella festival that was somehow a "warm up" for the live show.
Many fans thought it was a secure bet for inclusion on the final setlist, but plans changed quite at a late stage.

Did you have a feeling about the reason for La Isla Bonita was eventually picked up as the number to follow Erotica?

RJ: In all honesty I have no idea why the change was made. Originally I was brought in to do Erotica only. I rehearsed and set the number as planned. The morning after I finished setting Erotica I got a phone that there had been some changes going on and could I come down to rehearsal early to work on another number. It was thrilling for me, like booking the job all over again.

When I arrived at rehearsal I was given the track to La Isla Bonita and asked to go prep the number. Later that day Jamie, Tone, Rich and I started to put the number together to La Isla Bonita.
I was never given any explanation, nor did I ask. I was merely happy to be working on a second number for the tour.

: La Isla Bonita is a number full of energy and fun. How was working on that number and which were your main sources of inspiration for its choreography?

RJ: I mainly worked on the ramp choreo-graphy when Madonna comes down with the dancers towards the end of the number.
I wanted to create something fun and light-hearted, as if we were transported to an island where fantasy and love rule. I used the feeling of the islands as my source of inspiration for my work on this number.


MT: All the songs you choreographed in the tour were major Madonna classics while the most of the show was heavily based on the latest Madonna album. What do you think about Confessions On A Dance Floor?

I LOVED the album. Madonna has a way of creating music that pushes beyond what other artists are making. I found the album electric and inspiring. As a matter a fact, when the album first came out I would choreograph to the song Jump and imagine as if I were brought on to choreograph for the tour. A few months later I saw my opportunity and pounced.


MT: And how would you describe your relationship with Madonna and her music before you worked with her? Did you have a chance to meet her before, did you attend her previous tours?

: I have always been a fan of Madonna and her music. Growing up in Michigan she was a huge inspiration for me in achieving my dreams. Somehow I felt that if she could do it I could do it. Being a dancer her music was always a favorite of mine. I had seen most of her tours on dvd.


The Confessions Tour was the first tour that I saw live. It was so exhilarating to see Madonna live coupled with seeing my choreography on that massive of a scale.

MT: One of the reasons that made Lucky Star - the third song you worked on - a very special number is that the audience was finally able to get in touch a little closer with Madonna's backing singers.

It's a long long story of love between the fans and Donna De Lory and was love at first sight with the cool Nicki Richards. How was working with them on Lucky Star?

RJ: Nicki and Donna were remarkable to work with. It was incredible to build a number for Madonna and her signers. Lucky Star gave me a chance to create something more intimate for her fans. Nicki and Donna were very focused and worked intensely in order to get the number down, and in the end I think they did a superb job with the movement. Plus I got to work with the cape!

MT: And how was working with all the great "Madonna family", with Jamie King, the band, the crew, the management, all the talented dancers and everybody?

In every way this job was a dream come true for me. I studied the amazingly talented people around so that I could be at my best. and found every single person there an inspiration. This job is a moment in my life that I will never forget.

MT: Did you happen to watch the final show among the fans in some of the venues? And did you follow Madonna on tour to assist her on the road?

I did watch a few of the shows on the road and it loved it. Each and every time I saw the show it would reconnect me to the exhilaration of working on a tour of such amazing caliber. Nothing beats hearing the fans cheer and scream as Madonna dances my choreography. I would leave each concert feeling elated, soaring among the stars.


MT: You had the chance to work as a dancer with many top choreographers and legends of the live show history, to feature in great films like Rent just to mention one, and you are now looking forward to a choreography career, and you're not even 30 by now. How does it feel to be moving ahead so fast, and how different is to work in each and every role you had so far?

RJ: I had set very ambitious and specific goals for myself as a child. In many ways I have been completely focused on turning my desires into reality. Each time that I take another step upward and achieve a new success in my career I feel thankful.
I love what I do. I love dance. I love entertainment. Sometimes I can loose sight and get overwhelmed with all things that I still want to accomplish rather than putting my attention to all that I have done. When that happens I remind myself that there is nothing but time and that if I continue to focus and work hard I can achieve anything.


Then I get excited thinking of all the wonderful things that I want to create. I hope to make a powerful mark on the world through my choreography. I feel honored and blessed to live this life full of excitement and dreams fulfilled.

MT: Madonna, Cher, Destiny's Child, Macy Gray, Toni Braxton, Britney Spears, Will Smith and Ricky Martin are only a few among the recording artists you have worked with in music videos and award shows.
Is there an artist or a performance you cherish the most?

RJ: The most exciting performance for me as a dancer was Britney Spears' Slave 4 U at the MTV VMAs. It was at the hight of Britney's career, the song was hot, the choreography was hot and I had an amazing time performing with my friends in New York. There was such hype at that time about the VMAs, it was just fun to party and soak in the atmosphere.

: And would you say there was something that make your Madonna experience special?

: For me, everything about the experience of working with Madonna was special. What made makes me unique on the Confessions tour is that I was brought in at the last minuet as a first time choreographer for Madonna.
Originally I was brought on to do Erotica only and I ended up Choreographing for three of the numbers.

MT: What are you currently working on, and what's next from RJ Durell in the near future?

: Most recently I have choreographed an episode of Cold Case for CBS called Shuffle Ball Change and a movie Ironman with Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr.

I am work-shopping a new show for Vegas and have conceived two movie musicals.
I am in the process of meeting with producers and attaining the funding to direct and choreograph these projects.
Movie musicals have always been a huge inspiration for me and I would love to bring my vision to the big screen.

MT: And here's our "classic" closing question we ask all our guests. What is the fondest memory of Madonna you have?

RJ: Working with her!!!!!!

: Thank you so much RJ for spending some quality time with our readers and for giving us so many exciting feeling on the Confessions Tour with your choreographies. All the best for what's coming up!

RJ: Thank you and all my best.


For more about RJ Durell - including his original choreography submission for Deeper and Deeper please check

RJ portraits courtesy of RJ Durell
. Photographs from the Confessions Tour by Madonna Tribe. All Rights Reserved.
This interview © 2007 MadonnaTribe


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