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Pivot Pointe
August 29, 2023

Career Transition With Pascal Johnson

Producer & Movement Director

Pascal Johnson is an Amsterdam-based producer and movement director. He has danced for the last 10 years in international ballet companies such as Scottish Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Pascal has worked with renowned choreographers Crystal Pite, David Dawson and William Forsythe.

In 2020, Pascal started creating his own work, showcasing his talents as a producer and choreographer, working in collaboration with architecture, artists and galleries. Experienced in movement direction he has worked for global brands such as NIKE SB, League of Legends and Artist Gallant.

Drawing on his extensive dance background and artistic vision, Pascal is now producing full-time working across film and theatre. His most recent work includes producing and rebranding the ‘New Moves’ programme for Dutch National Ballet.

We asked Pascal to reflect upon his career transition.

Photo by Liza Kollau

Q: What inspired you to transition from dancing to producing and movement direction, specifically working with architecture, artists, and galleries?

Pascal Johnson: I began creating my own work as a choreographer during the pandemic in 2020, as a way to be creative while stuck at home. After making a film with friends, I was inspired by a sculpture at an art gallery, which led me to create a dance film on the sculpture. I continued making more films from there.

I produced an online and in-person choreographic program for Dutch National Ballet called ‘New Moves.’ It was a dancer-led, choreographic project. I enjoyed producing because it allowed me to set a clear, kind, and collaborative environment where I could get the most out of people. Rather than controlling them, I felt that I could build people up so they could do their best.

I thrive on collaborating and gathering a team to encourage them to produce something beautiful while focusing on the artistic processes. My main focus is currently producing and movement direction. I have worked as a movement director on projects with Calvin Klein and Nike and even a video game called League of Legends. I am also interested in choreographic and directing opportunities and throwing myself in different directions to see what sticks. Ultimately, I want to find something that I am good at and that I love.

Q: How has your experience as a dancer influenced your approach to your work as a producer and movement director?

Pascal: As a ballet dancer, I have not always been included in conversations about artistic questions. Now that I am older, I desire to contribute to the environment and express my artistic voice, but I have not always been given the opportunity. Producing and movement directing allow me to contribute more as an artist and to the environment on set. Drawing from my experience as a dancer, I strive to communicate clearly and collaborate with everyone equally. It is important to value everyone's contributions and recognize their impact.

Photo by Film by Caterina

Q: What is your creative process when working on projects such as the No Plans campaign for NIKE SB, which involves a lifestyle component and incorporates little to no dance movement?

Pascal: For the No Plans campaign, my brother was the director, and he brought me in as the movement director. When approaching non-dance-related projects, it's important to consider how movement can be incorporated in a natural and interesting way. When working with non-dancers, it's best not to be too prescriptive, as they may look awkward on camera. Instead, I focus on rooting people into a story and helping them come up with a natural movement that works on camera.

My work is not just about movement direction, but also about thinking creatively. When working with directors I try to think how adding subtle movements can add layers to the story/concept. For example, in a music video for Gallant and Brandy, we added interesting patterns for them to walk on the rooftop and incorporated natural hand movements with the piano, and added a whiskey glass.

Rather than dictating specific movements, it's more effective to put the models/actors in a world where they can add their own creative input. This allows for the development of movements that look good on camera and look natural. As a choreographer, I've found that giving specific ideas about a step is more effective than telling someone to move faster or slower. 

Q: Do you often work with non-dancers as a producer and movement director?

Pascal: Yes, most of my movement direction work has been with non-dancers. Although, so far most of my producing work has been with dancers, since they were my own projects. Recently, I produced a film with a friend we received funding for, which we shot on analog film (16 mm). This is the largest project I have produced to date.

We began writing the film in April 2021, secured funding, and finally shot it in April 2022. It should be released this summer. The process was so creatively fulfilling and enjoyable. My friend and I collaborated on the choreography and directing, while I mainly produced it.

This was a passion project, so we paid the crew and collaborated with friends and other artists who saw value in the project. We also added higher-budget elements, such as renting a proper cinema camera and commissioning a score from a composer in the UK.

Shooting on analog film was really fun, but also a bit scary. The film focuses on my friend's and my story about deciding to leave institutions and move towards creative freedom outside of an institution. The focus is on a dancer's story, and we hope to provoke others to think about their experiences within large dance/art institutions.

Q: In your opinion, what qualities make a successful 1) dancer, 2) movement director, and 3) producer?

Pascal: In my opinion, successful dancers are those who can maintain focus on their craft despite the many distractions and challenges that come with the job. Approaching their work with curiosity and focus, and remembering to stay grateful during the short career. At the same time, they should also be tenacious in pursuing their goals.

A successful movement director should have a keen eye for detail and be able to translate the director's vision to non-dancers in a way that is easy to understand and perform. They should aim for natural and fluid movement instead of fixing performers in positions.

A successful producer needs to be able to plan ahead and anticipate all eventualities while also making quick decisions on the day of the event. They should prioritize the budget and assets to produce the right product. A creative producer should be able to reframe the concept or narrative to make it work in different environments.

Ultimately, success in any of these fields requires a love for the craft an ability to treat people with kindness, and a willingness to put in the hard work required to achieve excellence. It's important to remember why we love what we do and to enjoy the moments when we are doing something truly cool.

Q: How do you stay motivated and inspired outside the dance studio?

Pascal: Personally, I stay motivated by exposing myself to new creative things, such as art exhibitions or trying out new and interesting restaurants. Being around other creatives also inspires me, especially when I'm in a place where there are lots of fresh perspectives. Although being a part of a dance company is inspiring, I often enjoy seeing a radically new approach to someone’s artistic practice.

Having William Forsythe in the studio was insanely inspiring. He is such a good communicator, and his process is so interesting to me. It's always fun to hear new things and have good conversations with people who challenge you. Sometimes, we think of inspiration as something we need to bring into our practices, but often the art of stretching or growing yourself can be inspiring in its own way.

Photo by Christina Riley

Q: How can you build a network to attract new clients? Is it necessary to be signed with an agency, or is it more about one's networking abilities?

Pascal: In my experience, a lot of my portfolio work has come from creative projects that have either come to me through friends or that I've done myself. Most of these projects have been unpaid. As I move into full-time production, I am also starting an internship with an advertising agency to expand my knowledge and network.

I believe that having conversations with people is the best way to learn and expose oneself to new ways of working. If there are people doing something that you want to do, it's worth having a conversation with them and reaching out. Networking and being open to all different possibilities is the best way to establish oneself. You never know where a job opportunity will come from, and it's important to be open to new work. In my case, for example, I reached out to a director with whom I had previously worked, and a couple of months later he came back to me with a paid job with Calvin Klein as a movement director.

It's important to market oneself, and reaching out to different companies is essential. I've also found that as a former ballet dancer, it helps to leverage that experience as a conversation starter and to show that you have a unique set of skills. Even if the job you want to pursue is unrelated to dance, the skills you learn as a dancer can be applied to other industries.

Ultimately, it's about being proactive and taking advantage of any opportunities that come your way, whether through internships, coffee meetings, or work experience.

Q: Any advice for dancers thinking about a career transition or about to embark on the journey?

Pascal: My advice would be not to narrow yourself down too quickly. As dancers, we tend to focus on one specific goal at a very young age, such as becoming a professional ballet dancer at a specific company. While some are able to achieve this, it is a highly competitive field, and not everyone can follow that trajectory.

It's important to remember that we are human and have many interests and skills. Even if you're making a career transition, don't limit yourself too much. For example, I'll be interning soon at an advertising agency and also doing movement direction. However, I'm still open to new directions and continue to make choreographic work on the side.

Trying different things and exploring different directions is key. If you do have a specific career in mind, make sure to do your research and gain some experience in the field before committing fully.

Photo Courtesy of Pascal Johnson

Top Image: Photo by Khay Fitz

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