How the COVID-19 Pandemic Caused ‘Genius: Aretha’ Choreographer Dondraico Johnson to Adjust His Process

Dondraico Johnson Genius Aretha
Courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Choreographer Dondraico Johnson brought his talent for putting together captivating live performances into National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha,” where he reimagined some of the Queen of Soul’s most memorable concerts, down to hundreds of extras all feeling the music through period appropriate moves. His efforts on the eight-episode limited series earned him his first attention from the Television Academy, picking up a nomination in the scripted programming choreography category.

What was your philosophy for how much to move-by-move recreate actual Aretha Franklin performances?

In my opinion, choreography is a thin line between doing research and making references to things and doing research and getting the vibe and making it your own. And it was important to me, and to [executive producer and director] Anthony Hemingway, that I could make it my own. If I couldn’t make it my own, it would be somebody else’s choreography.

How much of your research process was simply listening to the songs instead of watching concert footage?

I was so familiar with Aretha Franklin’s music. It was played in my house if not every weekend, every other weekend! I was so familiar with the songs, but as far as getting the movement down and the vibe and the feel, I did study it a lot: I went on YouTube and watched a lot of clips from her old “Soul Train” performances to her performing overseas. I looked up different moves from different genres. Because of the time period, it was important to me that the style was right and that the movement felt good, like the song made you feel.

How much room did you leave for how the songs would make the actors and dancers feel, though?

When I made up the combos, I wanted to make sure when my actors performed it themselves it would feel good. I would get the dancers I hired and I would put it on them to see what it feels like, if it feels good in the body. From there, I taught Cynthia and I taught the [actors who played her sisters] and if there was anything that didn’t feel good on their bodies, I was willing to change it. They had to feel connected to it.

We know production had to pause when the COVID-19 pandemic first started sweeping the globe. How did you have to adjust your process and your rehearsals once things came back up?

Shooting during COVID was extremely difficult, especially for choreographers and dancers and anybody who was moving around singing. We were shooting and the pandemic hit and when we returned was when we hit a lot of our big numbers. When we came back, we were also heavy into a lot of the church stuff, so it was a lot of choir movement, which is a different style of movement. There was no room for extra bodies to be inside the small space we had to rehearse in. The face shields and the face masks and the dancing and sweating, it was rather disgusting, if I must say. We definitely had to take more breaks because the dancing was quite intense. Another key to this whole pandemic was, because you don’t have that many rehearsals, I would record [the dances for everyone] so they always had something to study. When they came back they’d not only know the choreography better, but also see their mistakes and see what vibed and what style they’re in so they can adjust accordingly. It was a lot, but we got through it together.

Do you feel Zoom rehearsals are effective?

I can rehearse you through Zoom, but I still want to have another rehearsal in person because with Zoom, the music may be a little bit behind when I’m watching it.

Is it fair to say that the numbers shot during COVID were the most challenging ones?

When we returned from our shutdown, we had to go right into “Jump,” and “Jump” was the biggest number of the show as far as coming back. That was a little tricky for me in trying to figure it out for people with their face shields on and doing it when no one was around so they could hear their voices. There were a lot of challenges with that particular number. But before COVID, we did Aretha live in Amsterdam and the tricky part for that particular number was the whole place was dancing and there were a lot of extras — it felt like there may have been 300 extras in there. I had to make sure it fit the time period. This was always challenging because people don’t move the same, like they used to move back in the day. So when it came to that particular number, the director of that episode was Bille Woodruff and he wanted to make sure that the whole room felt alive. So besides me going through the number with Cynthia and going through the number with the background singers, I had to worry about all of the other extras.

How involved in casting extras that need to dance were you able to be?

I’m not really that involved in casting the extras. I’m just involved in casting the singers and the dancers. They gave me eight dancers and what I did was have them rehearse with the dancers to get the vibe and the feel of that number for the time period. And then I spread them out in the room so when the music came on, everybody could catch the vibe from the dancer so the whole room felt alive and the whole room was in the time period. We can’t be doing these millennial TikTok dances for Aretha Franklin Amsterdam!

Of course not, but what if the extras had no rhythm?

That also works. Even the people who didn’t have rhythm, I wanted them to be as big as they could because it was a live concert and we wanted to make sure it’s real. Everybody’s not going to be on the rhythm, so they play a very important part as well.