Choreographer James Alsop has worked with amazing talents in the industry, from doing choreo for Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez to working with Hollywood’s finest on screen. She turned her attention to television and choreographed Maya Rudolph on a show. It was there that she met the multi-hyphenate Tina Fey, who was impressed and asked to collaborate.
James was brought on to choreograph for Fey’s Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, where she infused her style into Tituss Burgess‘ dance numbers. Girls5eva marks her second collaboration with Tina Fey and music composer Jeff Richmond.
Alsop spoke with AwardsRadar about what it was like to choreograph for the ladies of Girls5eva, her work on FX’s Pose, and her 2021 Broadway debut.
Niki Cruz: What an amazing project to be a part of. I’m a huge fan of Girls5eva.
James Alsop: Yay! I’m actually a big fan of the show as well. I usually don’t read the entire script; I usually just read the scene that I’m doing, and then I can go back and watch it to see if I would be a fan but, I’ve watched the show four times at this point.
NC: Doing choreography for television sounds specific. How did you get involved in that landscape?
JA: I come from the commercial side of dance, that’s where I started, but TV is an incredibly different beast. I met Tina back in 2015, I was working on a show with Maya Rudolph, and she came on the set. Then from there, she asked me to come do Kimmy Schmidt, and then Girls5eva.
I know how grueling the pace is on TV because you just don’t have time, everything moves at warped speed, and it’s wild. When she asked me to do Girls5eva I said yes because I’m not going to say no to Tina Fey. It was moving at the speed of light, and in the middle of COVID, so it was the craziest and one of the most fun times in the world.
NC: The show has that similar comedic sensibility as Kimmy Schmidt, touching on these pop culture moments of today, while also crafting its own voice. Is that what you gravitated towards, too?
JA: it was literally gut punch after gut punch after gut punch of Meredith Scardino’s jokes. It was like, can you please give me a moment to come up for air? I couldn’t breathe with how brilliant everything was put together and how funny it was. There were so many jokes that I had to go back and catch the other jokes that I didn’t catch the first time around. I loved being a part of that because it made the work environment more fun. Even when we were in rehearsals, we were cackling up.
NC: I lived for the era of music this show is based around — that late 90s early millennia sound. How much fun was it to go back to that decade to capture those dance moves and movements?
JA: The last 90s to 2005 is undeniably the best time of pop music ever. It was so nostalgic and amazing to go back. When I was doing my homework and going back and watching the reality pop shows that had really taken off, it was such massive growth. The choreography had a huge role in helping pop stars gain success. From the dance in Nsync’s Bye Bye Bye to Britney’s Oops I Did It Again — it was everything. So, it was so great to back into that time. Of course, Destiny’s Child too!
NC: When I was watching the show, I was thinking of Spice Girls and Eden’s Crush. It’s wild how the show really captured those groups.
JA: Even the girl group Dream! There was a girl group era! It was so good.
NC: Who do you think out of all of those girl groups had the best dance moves? I guess it’s unfair to put Destiny’s Child in there because it’s always going to be Beyonce.
JA: Yaass! To be honest, I love Destiny’s Child, but I think it’s a tie — first it’s TLC, and then second would be Danity Kane. Those girls could dance! All five of those girls could really dance; when I saw Danity Kane, I was like “Oh my Gosh!”
NC: Given that you’re a choreographer, I would love to hear more about your collaboration with the music department. I would assume it would have to be a really tight relationship.
JA: It varies on each project, but with Girls5eva it was moving at a speed of lighting. The music wasn’t integrated until post production. We were working off of a demo. I only had the demo to base it off of, but it just speaks to the brilliance of Jeff Richmond. We were working with this demo, and then when the show came out, it was fully produced, and I loved it! The music was incredible [Laughs], But I did have to build it off of what Meredith’s idea were. She just opened her brain and let me jump in. I was like, “Well, I hope I can bring this to life for you!”
NC: I would love to hear more about how you workshopped the dances with the actors because they all come with their different strengths.
JA: We never had the opportunity to workshop choreography. The ladies were working so hard, and they didn’t have time. They’re in every scene in every episode, so I was like, “Okay, I need to figure out how each person receives information so they can pick it up as quickly as possible and feel okay about it.” And so then I figured out how Paula picks up choreography, how Busy picks up choreography, how Sara picks up choreography, and how Renée picks up choreography, and I really incorporated that into how I taught them. It was a really quick rehearsal so in between takes, we would be on set rehearsing.
NC: How was that rehearsal? Because of the timing, was everyone’s head down and in it, or was it a funny environment?
JA: We were getting a feel for each other. When we first met, we were all like, okay we’re really on this rollercoaster, got it. Then, as time went on, we would laugh. If they came from shooting a scene and needed to learn a two-minute dance in 46 minutes they would come in cackling. It was so so fun.
NC: Was there anyone who surprised you with the way they moved or their style and the way they picked things up?
JA: They were all good. All of them were so individually great. They surprised me because I’ve never seen Sara outside of what she does. I’ve never seen her in the “pop girl world,” and she can sing AND dance! Renée is amazing because she had a lot of scenes so she had just one rehearsal and she picked it all up. She’s a natural! Busy had the biggest surprise because she had this pole dancing scene, and she learned all of it. We had a stripper come in and give her the basics, and when I tell you she was dedicated. I was like, “Oh miss thing, if you weren’t an actress you should be completing for the world on a pole!” Paula was incredible, too.
NC: What was your favorite dance to put together even though you were working with the demo?
JA: The one dance that I reacted to most viscerally was The Splingee because it was so funny and so stupid in the best way possible. Dream Girlfriends was good too. I love that R&B moment like it was an homage to Envogue. As simple as it was, that choreography felt really girl group-y, early 90s late 80s, so I loved coming up with that choreography.
NC: Can we talk about Pose? What was that experience like?
JA: Pose is one of those moments. I was so giddy and so excited about it. Pose is just one of those jobs that means a lot to me being a Black woman of the trans experience and having a vessel like Pose; it was special to be a part of something so transformative and meaningful to TV. Not to mention the cast that I worked with — Hailie Sahar, Billy Porter, MJ Rodriguez, and Jason Rodriguez, they were incredible. Billy Porter was in the first rehearsal and learned the whole dance in 35 minutes.
NC: What’s next for you? Hopefully, more Girls5eva.
JA: I’m hoping and keeping my fingers crossed but, in the meantime, I’m actually making my debut into the Broadway world with my first musical, The Devil Wears Prada as the choreographer, so I’m really excited about that. My dream is that Girls5eva goes on tour when we’re 100% back to normal.
NC: Oh, that would be amazing. A legit mall tour!
JA: [Laughs] That would be the absolute best!
You can now stream Girls5eva on Peacock.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]