Fatima Robinson — famous for her choreography for the likes of Michael Jackson, Prince, Aaliyah, Rihanna, Britney Spears and the Oscars — was the mind behind the moves for Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI halftime show, starring Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.
Her second Super Bowl, after having also choreographed the Black Eyed Peas’ 2011 performance, proved to be particularly special, with its home base at Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium and the first hip hop artists to headline the iconic show. After months of prep but only two and half weeks of rehearsal, Robinson tells The Hollywood Reporter about honoring Compton, combining six different performances (with a special appearance by 50 Cent) into one and the biggest challenges along the way to creating an instant classic.
First off, what has it been like seeing the response to the show?
It’s been amazing. You go into it wanting to do the best job you can do and you go into it wanting to represent hip hop in such a major way because it’s the biggest stage I think it’s even been on. So there were definitely responsibilities and obligations to the culture and stuff that I felt like we were really trying to stay true to, but to get the response that we’ve gotten has just been so great.
With five individual artists and these elaborate set pieces, what was your overall vision?
Es Devlin was the production creative on this. She’s based out of London and she basically did a tour of Compton and she felt like there’s parts of Compton that are so iconic. She wanted to just like, “What if we pull a street from Compton or pull the different popular places there that people go to,” like Dre used to DJ at Eave’s After Dark and Tam’s Burgers is where everyone would hang out and the Martin Luther King building was another one that that she put there. It was like if you can look at the city from an overhead shot, what would that look like and feel like? And that’s why they did the tarp on the floor, so that you really felt like we bought a block of Compton inside of SoFi Stadium. She was like, “Fatima, I’m an English woman, you have to be my street guide and let me know what we should populate these rooms with to make it make sense.”
So I found, and I had worked with before, a drill team called the Black Diamonds Drill Team based out of South Central. And then Dre and I were exchanging Instagram links of different bands that we liked, and there was one group that he liked I sent called The Glitch Mob. We got them in one room so that Dre can just walk through the room and like hit a little piece with them, and Snoop can walk through a room and hang with the drill team a little bit. And it was Es’ idea to also create a Snoop’s house — the first music video that he had, it was shot in his house so that [inspired] when he comes down the stairs into the houses. It was just all familiar places for the guys to hang out in and perform on top of.
What were your conversations like with each performer?
Dre had called me at the very beginning and was like, “Fatima, I really want you to come on board and do this and I had an idea of doing the C-Walk, a choreographed C-Walk,” which was so amazing because we had never seen the C-Walk done like that. That right there I was hooked, I was like count me in. And then Mary J. Blige, I worked with her for years and I used to dance for her when I was 19. We’ve just known each other forever and it was just great working with her again. I included in the choreography moves that I know are her go-to staple moves and that she would be comfortable and feel free in. And then I’ve been working with Kendrick and I just love his energy. Lately he’s been doing like guys on stage being soldiers in a way, so we just took that vibe of them just in soldier poses and just brought it to life more. He shared with me the image of a bunch of guys bending down in boxes, so we just took that image and then just brought it all to life. We didn’t know how we’re going to get rid of the boxes or how the boxes were going to work with the choreography, we just decided to work with the boxes and then create how it would all flow around him. I’m just so happy the way his performance came out. It came out so naturally, but also he’s just such a powerful performer that it just really felt like everything aligned in his performance.
Eminem’s song is pretty rock and roll in a sense, which was really amazing that they added Anderson .Paak to play the drums to it. At the first place we were rehearsing we weren’t able to see the whole crowd rush in on him, so he was watching everybody else with choreography and was like, “I kind of have a little choreography envy.” And I’m like, “I got you, I promise you.” So when he saw everybody like nodding to his song and waving their hands and then rushing the stage, he was like, “OK, this is great.” And then 50 Cent being our surprise, in the original [“In da Club”] music video he did the upside down entrance so we decided to replay that and just have him in a jumping, fun club with sexy people. Each person had their own vibe and energy. Mary’s dancers were kind of stomping on 50 Cent’s club and then they were all looking up like, who’s that? And that was kind of how we tied those two worlds together. It was so cool because within this block we were able to feature everybody, it almost felt like a play and a concert at the same time with Dre and Snoop walking through the different rooms to get to places. I really enjoyed that concept.
What was your prep time like?
There’s a lot of prep time when it comes to just talking about the stage and going through edits of the music and just even the selection of songs — each one has such a catalogue it’s like, what songs do we do? There’s months of conversation of that, and getting on Zooms and just going over the different variations of the stage as it begins to take shape and we figure out what we can actually fit in the carts that can get out there in time and all those things. But then the actual physically going into the rehearsal space, we had around two and a half weeks of rehearsal for it.
Wow that’s really not much.
No, no, especially because when we get to the stadium we don’t have many times to run it through, you get maybe three in a day. You really have to be on point of what you want to change and fix and all of that.
Were you able to rehearse on those huge sets?
The first week of rehearsal was just in the dance studio and then we set up the stages at Barker Hangar [in Santa Monica]. We didn’t really have the floor, we only had just the big street pieces so we were able to go to the rooftops and figure out the stairs and the timing of that. Luckily we had five stand-ins to be our artists so that I can move the stand-ins around and time it so my music director on the spot can create more time if they needed to get up to the stairs or to the roof. We were able to just map it all out with stand-ins and then when Dre and the crew gets there, we show them with the stand-ins so they can understand it and see it. At one point, I put them all on a forklift and raised them all up so they can really get to understand the scope and scale of it, instead of on the floor looking up at it.
How did the set pieces and the Compton floor map play into what you wanted to do and allow you to work off of those visual elements?
It was actually really difficult to work with the the mapping of Compton because they had these lights in it they called nodes. It was a very complicated piece of tarp to lay out and if you broke one of the nodes, it’s like Christmas lights, you break one and like 100 go out. And so all the dancers, we had to really stage around them and make sure that they didn’t break them. That first day was really tough. They were able to actually reinforce some of the pathways where the dancers were doing most of their dancing with carpet so that it had a stronger, stiffer surface for them to dance on. It was a lot of adjusting moves that just didn’t work with the tarp because it pulled the tarp up and you would see some of the green grass underneath. A lot of discussions about the tarp but in the end, it was so worth it. At some points people were talking about should we lose it? And I was like, no, it’s just too amazing.
Dre has spoken about the significance of finally having hip hop represented at the halftime show, what did that mean to you?
I think it means a lot for everyone who grew up on hip hop. I’ve always stayed true to that — my roots are in hip hop, I’m a hip hop choreographer, I started off dancing in the clubs. And so for me, it was so great to see. The music is so amazing and fun and just great to see hip hop on such a big scale because it just shows that it is part of popular music and that’s okay. Before hip hop was such its own genre of music and it still has its underground flavor and vibe but seeing it here like this with these artists, I think a lot of people were pleasantly surprised and really just enjoyed hearing the music like that.
What was it like for you to watch from the crowd?
I went into one of the boxes with friends and I watched it as a fan. I wasn’t critiquing it, I had a little cocktail in my hand. I just wanted to enjoy it like everybody else gets to enjoy it. It was so amazing. I watch it on TV and it’s fun to see on TV, but live there was just incredible. The stadium just erupted and cheered when it came on and I think it was just so much anticipation for it because of L.A. getting into the Super Bowl and being at SoFi for the first time. Everyone was so excited for it. It was such a moment. I really, really had a wonderful time.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.